Ars magna lucis et umbrae in decem libros digesta: Quibus admirandae lucis et umbrae in mundo, atque adeò universa natura, vires effectus[que] uti nova, ita varia novorum reconditiorum[que] speciminum exhibitione, ad varios mortalium usus, panduntur.

Rome: Sumptibus Hermanni Scheus, ex typographia Ludovici Grignani, 1646.

First edition of Kircher’s principal contribution to optics, treating light, shadow, colour, refraction, projection, distortion and luminescence, and providing early descriptions of the camera obscura and magic lantern. The work also includes some of the earliest observations with a microscope, preceding those of Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek by two decades. “The first published account of the illumination and projection of images appeared in the first edition of Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae (1646)” (Bud & Warner, p. 365). “The use of mirrors to project secret messages into dark spaces was taken up in the seventeenth century by Athanasius Kircher, who, though he ridiculed the extravagant claims of Agrippa, described methods for projecting texts using both sunlight and candles, with the aid of both flat and concave mirrors, and a convex lens. Kircher described this art as “Catoptric Steganography”, and if we are to believe that the magic lantern anticipated the slide-show, Kircher’s Catoptric Steganography was the early modern version of the Powerpoint presentation” (Lefèvre, p. 44). “Kircher’s theory of colour was at root Aristotelian and Aguilonian in type … Kircher has amplified the Aguilonian scheme by introducing the mixtures of the ‘median colours’ with black and white, but the basic pattern is identical, relying upon the white and black poles between which come yellow, red and blue together with the three ‘composites’, orange, green and purple … Kircher had come tantalisingly close to the later system of primary and secondary colours. All that was required was the elimination of white and black as ‘colours’ – though this was not easy given their place in the Aristotelian order of things” (Kemp, pp. 280-1). “Understanding the nature of light was one of the central questions of natural philosophy in the mid-seventeenth century, as was the phenomenon of magnetism … Kircher’s virtue was to recognize the significance of these questions. He attempted to collect all the relevant information and began to analyse it. While his conclusions often seemed flawed to the most critical and knowledgeable readers at the time, they nonetheless mined his books for useful data and specific insights that they might incorporate into their own natural philosophies” (DSB). This is a complete copy of a work often found lacking plates, or without the separate title to the second volume.

The full title of the work may be translated, “The Great Art of Light and Shadow, divided into ten books, in which the admirable powers and effects of light and shade are propounded in new and varied experiments and in recondite ways, for the diverse uses of mankind.” It was composed shortly after Kircher’s principal work on magnetism, Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (1641), in which he argued that magnetism was the principal force organizing and controlling nature, including optical phenomena. “The title in Latin, Ars magna lucis et umbrae, was intended as a play on words: “We say ‘Magna’ on account of a kind of hidden allusion to the magnet,” Kircher wrote in his introductory pages, meaning that the title could also be read as “The Magnetic Art of Light and Shadow” (Glassie, p. 115).

“In his introduction to the book Kircher wrote that the idea of producing a study on optics came to him a few years before when the Emperor [Ferdinand III] put to him some questions about light and shadow. He had written out his answers and then, with the encouragement, as well as the essential financial backing of many friends, he had decided to expand those answers into a full treatise … [Kircher] follow[ed] the introduction with some laudatory poems and epigrams, with himself as the subject. The poems were by James Alan Gibbs, Kircher’s English medical friend, and the epigrams by A. F. Fayenus, Doctor of Laws and professor at the Academy of Avignon.

“In the tradition of the Schoolmen, Kircher began the main section of the book with a series of definitions. He explained the meaning of “Ars Sciagnomica” (of shadows), “Ars Chromocritica” (of colours), and so on before dealing with “Photosophia,” or the science of light. The sun, he wrote, as the first of all the lights, had to be considered before any other source of light. Rather surprisingly, instead of describing, as one might have expected, the glory and the power of the sun, he began by treating of its “defects”, the sunspots. He recalled the time when he first observed them, in 1625, but gives credit for priority of discovery to Galileo, Scheiner and other astronomers who had preceded his observations by many years. The sun, he wrote, is like a great ocean of fire, showing disturbances and ebullations on its surface, a mass of burning, bubbling matter, producing light and heat, and affecting life on earth in various ways. He illustrated this section with a half-page plate showing a band of sunspots along the equatorial region of the sun’s face …

“Even though the moon, Kircher continued, is merely a secondary light, acting as a reflecting surface for the rays of the sun with no light of its own, it nevertheless also has an effect on the earth in many ways. The moon modifies the light it reflects, and thus, for example, causes the tidal motion of the ocean. Kircher was here referring to his theory of the “flux and reflux” of the sea, in which the tides were said to be due to the “nitrous quality” given to the waters by the light reflected from the surface of the moon. The pure light of the sun is first contaminated by nitrous effluvia in its brief contact with the moon, and it then conveys these effluvia to earth.

“Kircher considered that the reason why the moon has such an influence on earth was the fact that the two planets are very similar. Aristotle was wrong in saying that the moon, like the other heavenly bodies, was made of the unchanging quintessence, the fifth element. On the contrary, Kircher continued, “the moon is a rough-surfaced body, very like the earth in appearance, as is proved by the many observations which have been made by members of the Academy of the Lincei in Rome” [such as Galileo] …. He described what he had seen through the telescope, mountains, areas that appear to be seas and lakes, and so he concluded “the moon, like our planet, is composed of the elements of earth and water.”

“Kircher had a great deal more to say about the light of the planets, the rings of Jupiter, and other such heavenly bodies. From them, he returned to earth and to a study of terrestrial fire. He defined this as “air ignited by the violent collision of two bodies, which by the heat thus generated causes inflammable substances to burst into flame.” He supported this view by referring to the igniting of tinder by sparks produced by striking a flint against a piece of iron, and also to the way in which certain tribes in South America make fire by spinning a stick in a groove cut in another piece of wood …

“It was in this section that Kircher treated of “Animal Light” in a passage that was to receive favourable comment from later writers. He discussed the light of fireflies, which he had studied while in Malta. He had collected a considerable number of these insects, which were abundant on the island, and had studied them with particular care. He noted that the light they emitted was coloured like that of burning sulphur, and that they seemed to have voluntary control of the flashes. The light he compared to the phosphorescence of decaying wood or of the scales of certain fishes which he had observed in the Mediterranean … Kircher had also at one time during his stay in the south of France examined certain zoophytes such as jellyfish. These also emit a phosphorescent glow in the dark. He explained this phenomenon from the teleological point of view, that the ability to produce light is given by nature to these creatures so that they can seek food in the dark far under the surface of the sea, and also use it as a means of frightening off their enemies.

“Some stones, he continued, have a somewhat similar property. The best known of these is the Bolognian stone, the phosphor which had been first discovered and described by Cascariolo early in the seventeenth century. Kircher had discovered a similar mineral during his explorations and had purified it by calcination in a furnace. His product, after exposure to sunlight, glowed like coal, but gradually this light faded. It could be restored by exposing it to sunlight once more. His explanation for this was that the stone absorbed from the sunlight “a most subtile vapour which is capable of producing light.” This study anticipated by forty years the well-known investigations by Robert Boyle of “aerial noctilucia” (fireflies) and “icy noctilucia” (phosphorous).

“From a consideration of fire, Kircher passed on to the study of the nature of colour. He rejected the view, which he attributed to Pythagoras, that colour is nothing more than the appearance of the surface of things. He preferred the theory that colour is the movement of the diaphanous medium which has been illuminated and thus light is actually distinct from the colour it produces.

“Kircher held that the rainbow is produced by the light of the sun passing from one medium to another, from air into a raindrop, where it is refracted, reflected and then passed out again to reach the eye. In this he followed the generally accepted explanation of the primary rainbow given by Marc Antonio de Dominis and by René Descartes. But he had his own explanation of why different colours are formed by these refractions and reflections. Pure light of the sun is “debilitated” by its passage through the raindrop, and thus the various colours are really due to contamination of white light. According to Kircher, pure light produces the colour white, and its absence is blackness. In between these two extremes are three colours, yellow, red and purple, produced by the contamination or debilitation of sunlight which results from its passage from air to another medium. All the other colours are mixtures of whiteness and blackness and of the three intermediate colours …

“Kircher applied his theory of the formation of colour to explain the strange properties of the Mexican wood known as “Lignum Nephriticum”. The wood had originally been used in the preparation of a decoction for the treatment of kidney disease or nephritis (hence its name) but it had also been found to have remarkable fluorescent properties. Its source was “Eysenhardtia polystadia”, the “palo dulce” tree of Mexico, and had been brought to Europe by missionaries some years before. To Kircher it was known by its Mexican names of “Coatl” and “Tlapazathi”, and he greatly treasured a piece which had been given to him by a missionary friend. When water was put into a bowl which had been carved from this wood it became tinged with a bluish colour which later turned to purple. Kircher found that if some of the wood were ground into a powder and was sprinkled into water, the water was also tinged with colour. However, on standing the powder lost its power to affect the water in this way. He had presented a cup made from the wood to the Emperor, who treasured it as a great rarity. Though Kircher did not attempt to go into the real nature of this phenomenon, and contented himself by referring the reader to his theory of the formation of colour for an explanation, this section on “Lignum Nephriticum” is of importance. As E. Newton Harvey has noted in his History of Luminescence, it is one of the earliest published accounts of natural fluorescence.

“In the following sections Kircher treated at length of colour in minerals, plants and animals. These chapters give evidence of his enormous industry and the breadth of his interests … Among the animals he discussed at some length was the chameleon. A Franciscan missionary had brought him one of these little creatures from Palestine in 1639 and Kircher examined it very carefully. He discovered that many of the claims that had been made about it were false, or at least greatly exaggerated. It was however true, he found, that the chameleon can change colour to suit its background, green on green and white on white and so on. According to Kircher these changes of colour were “voluntary”, for when the animal finally died, it no longer reacted to changes in background colour. Perhaps its ability, Kircher surmised, could be compared to the changes that take place in the fact of a man, who blushes when embarrassed, turns red when angry and pale when afraid.

“In Book Two Kircher treated of what he called “Actinobolismus” or radiation. He discussed the transmission of light in straight lines, giving general geometrical propositions on the projection of light from a point source. He quoted with approval Kepler’s description of the projection of an image, such as is seen in the famous “camera obscura”, which is also discussed by John Baptist della Porta. He described in detail his own development of the same device, with an apology that “though the experiment is well known, yet I will enlarge on it here since it explains what I wish to say.” A small hole, he wrote, is made in the shutter of a darkened room, and a little lens, such as that used as a magnifying glass, is fitted into the hole. A white card is placed at a suitable distance from the lens, and “whatever is outside the window is seen depicted on the card, with its true colours, only differing from reality in its size and disposition” …

“From the subject of the projection of light, it was an easy step for Kircher to that of the propagation of sound. He compared the echo with the transmission and reflection of light. He also described some acoustic instruments he had designed. One of these instruments was to be the subject of a controversy between him and Sir Samuel Morland, Fellow of the Royal Society of London, some years later. This was his reconstruction of “the horn of Alexander the Great, which the Emperor used to call his army together in battle” …

“Kircher finally returned from sound to vision, with a chapter on the structure of the eye. He had been introduced to this subject by a skilled anatomist who had taught him how to perform dissections and examinations. These showed him that the eye was like a lens, with a screen behind it on to which the image was projected, somewhat as happened in the “camera obscura.” He explained how to see this for oneself. “Take the eye of a bull or of any large animal, or even of a man if the occasion arises. Wash it well and remove the outer, thicker layers, and then set it in a screen in a darkened place … (it will be seen) that the image of objects placed in front of the eye pass through the crystalline humours right into the interior, with their true colours and shape which are there accurately and faithfully reproduced. As if they were drawn with a brush.”

“In an interesting passage Kircher described aftervision, the image that remains in the eye after we have stared at an object for some time and then looked in the dark. The object is still seen, but in changing colours, because Kircher explained, the formation of an image in the eye is like the effect of sunlight on a phosphor stone. Light is absorbed by the stone, and so it glows in the dark, but gradually the glow fades as the light leaves the stone. And so it is with the image retained in the eye, it is bright at first, but gradually it fades and its colour changes, because colour, as had been explained earlier, is due to the debilitation of light.

“The eye then, is like a crystal globe in which images of external objects can be received, as is the case with the great globe which Father Christopher Scheiner had once presented to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. When vision is correct, the crystalline lens focuses the image sharply on the retina, as does the globe on its inner surface. But if the lens does not function correctly, the image is blurred. This is the case with short-sighted people, in which the lens fails to focus sharply on the retina.

“This theory of vision provided a more satisfactory account of the function of the eye than did that of Alhazen which was believed by many at that time. As Kircher himself admitted, his theory owed much to Kepler and Scheiner and even to Porta’s “camera obscura.” However he had tested the theory for himself, even, it would appear, experimenting with the human eye. He had noted how the crystalline lens refracts light rays to form converging cones whose vertices lie on the retina. Even his view, that some physical change which can be compared to phosphorescence takes place in the retina and so may account for aftervision, is not entirely out of keeping with our modern view in which light energy is transmuted into chemical energy in the retina …

“The following four books of his treatise contain many chapters on methods of designing and constructing sundials. Kircher always was interested in the design of such devices, and a great deal of his time must have been spent in the workshop directing the construction of his “Horographia Babylonio-Italica”, his great “Pyramidal Sundial”, his “Botanical Clocks”, and many other strange dials and clocks which are mainly of antiquarian interest today. The construction of such instruments was a popular occupation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and many books describing various designs and techniques had been written by his contemporaries. These designs of Kircher and many of his fellow dial makers were intended to delight the eye and cause wonderment, rather than solve the real problem of time-keeping which Huygens and Hooke were to take so seriously. For until a reliable, universal timepiece had been invented, the great question of how to navigate correctly at sea and to compute longitude with accuracy could not be solved. In an age when voyages of exploration were so important this was indeed a serious problem.

“Kircher did, however, give some of his attention to this problem, and he described an instrument which, he claimed, was the answer to mariners’ prayers. Many have tried, he wrote, to devise such an instrument for the accurate measurement of longitude. They had based their attempts on theories of magnetic variation, on observations of the eclipse of the moons of Jupiter, on the position of sunspots and the mountains of the moon, but all with little success. But with the instrument he had invented, his “Horologium Catholicum” or universal clock, the problem could be solved. This clock had actually been designed originally for another purpose, as a sort of Jesuitical timepiece, “which could tell the time everywhere, but especially in the Colleges of the Society of Jesus, scattered throughout the world”, but it could be applied to other uses.

“Kircher’s idea was more or less based on a method suggested by Galileo. This was that if the moment of some astronomical event, such as the eclipse of the moons of Jupiter, could be predicted with the help of tables in some standard time related to a fixed degree of longitude, then a person in some other part of the world, observing the same event in terms of local time, could readily calculate the longitude of the place where he made his observations. Kircher wrote, “we intend to describe how a clock can be made which will tell the time in any part of the world, but especially in the various Jesuit Colleges. This cannot be done without a knowledge of longitudes, and to find these I have spent a great deal of time in study. I have used information supplied to me by Jesuit mathematicians who made observations of eclipses in Europe, Eastern India, China, Peru, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, and used these to determine longitudes. Knowing the difference between the time when an eclipse was observed, for example in Nanking in China, from that of the same eclipse observed at Goa in India, Mozambique in Africa, Pernambuco in Brazil and in several other stations, it was possible, though not without difficulty, to calculate the longitudes of each of these places, as well as of other places lying between them. Using this information, then, we were able to construct the timepiece for the whole Jesuit order.”

“We may pass very briefly through some of the following sections of the treatise, merely picking out some points of particular interest. One such section is that in which Kircher claimed to have calculated the thickness of the atmosphere by measuring the refraction of sunlight in air. The figure he arrived at was about 43,000 paces but, he adds, this was on a plain, for as you rise above sea level the thickness of the atmosphere decreases. Moreover, in cold regions air condenses and forms a thinner layer, while in the tropics it rarefies and the atmosphere rises. This passage would not have displeased Blaise Pascal who, in 1648 had his brother-in-law Périer perform the famous experiment with a barometer on the Puy-de-Dôme in Auvergne in which he demonstrated that atmospheric pressure was less on the summit than at the base of the mountain. Of course, Kircher and Pascal would have disagreed on the interpretation of this finding, for the Jesuit denied that the mercury in a barometer was supported by the weight of the atmosphere.

“The title Kircher gave to the last part, Book Ten, of his treatise was “Magia Lucis et Umbrae.” Here he let himself go, delighting to describe and illustrate the fascinating instruments and devices “in which the little known powers of light and shadow are put to diverse uses” … Kircher actually used them to introduce a very important section of his treatise which he entitled “Dioptrics, or concerning lenses of pantoscopes and telescopes and their various forms and applications” … He described how lenses must be placed in the tube to make, for example, a microscope. A single lens, if well made, will make a satisfactory instrument, but it is much better if two lenses are employed. “Thus can be made a microscope which will amplify a fly into an elephant and a flea into a camel.” An instrument of this kind was what he used in many of his investigations. Of the result of his observations he wrote, “Who would have believed, had he not used a microscope, that vinegar and milk abound with an innumerable multitude of worms … that leaves of plants are made up of tiny filaments, those of the Castor Oil Plant contain a collection of star-like bodies … you will observe that each plant produces its own peculiar animals by the putrefaction of its humours, as from a pullulating seed bed.” What a pity Kircher did not devote a whole book to the results of his microscopical investigations, which preceded those of Robert Hooke and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek by so many years.

“Kircher followed his treatment of lenses with a discussion of mirrors … Here he goes into details of “burning mirrors”, such as those said to have been made by Archimedes at Syracuse and used by him to destroy a fleet” (Reilly, pp. 72-86).

“The book’s ten-part structure, as Kircher explained it, connected to the ten-stringed harmony of the Greek instrument the decachord. This in turn represented the well-ordered harmony of nature, and the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, and the Pythagorean notion of the number ten as the number of the universe and perfection, as well as the Sefirot, the ten emanations of God, by which, according to Kabbalah, the universe was created. “For just as the wise men of the Hebrews claim a world built from ten rays of divinity,” Kircher wrote in his preface, “so we completed ten separate themes or books, as it were, ten books in ten parted rays, the world of light and shadow, that is, our art”” (Glassie, p. 116).

The remarkable engraved frontispiece summarizes elegantly Kircher’s efforts of linking hermetic elements to Christian concepts, and his views on the metaphysics of light. Angels form an arc under the central light, which is YHWH, the Hebrew letters for God. Daylight is the source of direct light, refracted light, and light reflected by night (on the right). Divine authority, a hand writing a book that absorbs light directly from the source of all light, oversees the daylight, and it is a little higher than Reason, the hand writing a book above the night, which receives a more modest eye's light. Below daylight is Profane Authority, which receives only a lantern's light; below Reason is Sense, which points to an image produced by a telescope. Emperor Ferdinand enters the picture as one of Kircher’s patrons.

Norman 1216 (recording 38 plates, incomplete?); Becker 219 (39 plates); Vagnetti EIIIb42; Merrill, Athanasius Kircher 7 (erroneous collation); Linda Hall Library, Jesuit Science, 10; Bud & Warner, Instruments of Science, 1998; Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions, 2012; Kemp, Science of Art, 1992; Lefèvre, Inside the Camera Obscura – Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image, 2007; Reilly, Studia Kircheriana, 1974.



Two volumes in one, folio (299 x 202 mm), pp. [xl] (engraved frontispiece, letterpress title, four-page dedication to Archduke Ferdinand (1633-1654), son of Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor (1608-1657), two-page preface by Ferdinand III, six-page preface by the author, 21 pages of table of contents, two pages of poems in praise of the author and one page of privileges), 370 [i.e., 470], including engraved frontispiece signed P. Miotte (vol. 1); [2, separate title-page], 471-568, 567-935, [15, index and errata] (vol. 2), with 40 engraved plates (35 numbered, 5 unnumbered, of which one is large and folding). Several hundred woodcut diagrams and illustrations in text, a few white on black. Contemporary vellum, manuscript lettering to spine, spine with some wormholes, occasional light spotting but in general a very clean and crisp copy.

Item #4288

Price: $18,500.00

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