The Europeans, no 9: Nicolas Peiresc
Nicolas Peiresc, of whom a contemporary wrote: 'There is no realm nor any famous city where he does not have a correspondent'
Thanks to his work in botany, zoology and his map of the moon, Nicolas Peiresc was a ‘man without parallel in Europe’
Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc was born in 1580 in Belgentier, near Toulon in southern France, where his parents had fled from the plague that was ravaging Aix-en-Provence.
As a young man, Peiresc studied law in Italy and France, and, inheriting a position which had belonged to his uncle, practised as conseiller at the Aix parlement. His main passions, however, were not legal but scholarly and scientific.
As a young man he was brought to Paris as secretary to the president of the Aix parlement and also visited London, Leyden, Brussels and Louvain, in each of which he met the most distinguished scientists of the time.
Back in Aix he became involved in the affair of the “bloody rain”, a curious phenomenon that affected the city in 1608 and which some local clergy presented as an alarming Satanic manifestation. Peiresc demonstrated that the red droplets that had attached themselves to the walls of many buildings were in fact a waste product deposited by the Vanessa butterfly as it emerged from its chrysalis. Not everyone found such a strange explanation convincing.
In 1610, hearing of the discoveries of Galileo, Peiresc ordered telescope lenses to be made for him in Paris and installed an observatory on the top of his house. He made sketches of the moons of Jupiter; discovered, with Joseph Gaultier, the Orion Nebula; and, towards the end of his life, drew the first-known map of the moon.
But astronomy was not enough for Peiresc. He was also a numismatist, a botanist and zoologist. His garden was the third largest in France: he imported jasmine from Spain, orange trees from China and planted 60 varieties of apple. He worked with the scientist-priest Pierre Gassendi on his theory of vision; at Aix and at his country estate at Belgentier, they experimented with lenses and mirrors and dissected the eyes of animals, birds and fish. To round things off, Peiresc wrote a history of his native Provence and a grammar of the Provençal language.
Peiresc stood by his friends even when they were threatened by the powerful. He wrote to cardinal Barberini (later pope Urban VIII), warning him that the Catholic Church’s insistence that Galileo recant his heliocentric theory would damage the reputation of the papacy. He helped the Italian Dominican heretic Tommaso Campanella, author of the utopian classic The City of the Sun, after Campanella’s release after 27 years of imprisonment.
At a time when many universities were purveying stale orthodoxies, Peiresc was one of a quite numerous tribe of freethinking, independent savants who contributed to the furtherance of knowledge by their participation in learned societies and by the written exchange of information. He had 500 correspondents, not just in Europe but in Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt and Goa on the Indian subcontinent. He left behind more than 10,000 letters, including a rich correspondence with the artist and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens.
At a time when much intellectual activity was moving from theology and philology to mathematics and science, Peiresc was an eminent member of the “Republic of Letters” that operated across Europe and was glad to share its discoveries, ignoring boundaries of nationality or religion.
One visitor in 1630 described him thus: “A man without parallel in Europe for courtesy and kindness as also for wisdom, curiosity in relation to all fine things, and knowledge of all that is happening in the world: there is no realm nor any famous city where he does not have a correspondent, and where he does not know or possess whatever they have that is remarkable and rare.”
What to read
Robert Mandrou’s From Humanism to Science, 1480-1700 provides a beautifully written introduction to the intellectual world in which Peiresc operated