In 1666, Ioannes Dr. Marci sent from Prague the manuscript VM to Kircher in Rome, together with the letter, which is also preserved. In the letter, Marci urged Kircher to try to solve the manuscript's mystery.
Unlike other letters by Marci, this one was not collected and archived in his Museo Kircheriano but it appeared many years later (some time before 1912) in Jesuit school located in Villa Mondragone. It was sold, together with the manuscript VM itself, to antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich.
Whether Kircher ever tried to solve the manuscript, we have no proof. Let's try to consider what could Kircher do with it and why the manuscript laid almost 250 years, nobody had any interest in it and the owners seemed pleased they could sell it to Voynich.
Kircher's Prodromus Coptus
Athanasius Kircher, whose name was recently resurrected after a long time neglect, was born in 1601 (or 1602) near Fulda in German Hessenia. He also studied (since 1614) in the Jesuit college as seminarist and after four years he left for Paderborn to study philosophy and theology. He could not finish his studies since the Thirty Years' War broke out and when the city was later defeated by Protestant armies, he escaped to Cologne with the group of other students (1622). During the flight, he almost drowned in the river Rhine when the ice broke underneath of him and the river was carrying him away from the others. However he managed to get to the shore and having reached Cologne, he finished his studies there and began his teaching career.
He taught in Koblenz and later in Heiligenstat where he again met met with misfortune on his way / he was captured by enemy soldiers and almost miraculously escaped the gallows. In his new destination, he taught
mathematics, Hebrew and Syrian languages and for some time, he was in the service of the archbishop of Mainz. He completed his four years study of theology there and in 1628 was ordained as a priest.
Kircher spent the mandatory year after ordination in Speyer where he discovered in the Jesuit college library the books with pictures of Egyptian obelisks and there also began his interest in Egyptology and Oriental studies. He became the professor of mathematics and Hebrew in Würzburg.
In 1631 however, Würzburg was conquered by the army of Gustav Adolf and so he run again, this time to French town Avignon where he got the professorship at the Pontifical University and was introduced to rich French aristocrat, well-known astronomer, lawyer and expert on antiquities, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (* 1580, +1637). Pereisc was not only a great astronomer (one crater on the moon is named after him) but he also carried a rich correspondence with other scientists in Europe, the so-called Respublica litterarum (The Republic of letters). It was a kind of correspondence between the scientists, the forerunner of similar communications carried later in the time of Enlightenment. The network of scientific correspondents wrote mainly in Latin and their letters served the international exchange of information. It was intended especially for scientists in far-away places to know about the latest research, to gain some insight and also get the possibility to discuss their works.
The system worked rather well, even in time of the Thirty Years' War when Europe was divided into two hostile camps. While he was the Catholic, Pereisc corresponded also with Protestants which did not make him very popular among Jesuit hierarchy. Soon he became Kircher's friend and even though their relationship later deteriorated, he continued to support Kircher and trust him.
The following facts may also help us to clarify Kircher's relationship to the VM. Many details here are from the book of Daniel Stolzenberg, "Egyptian Oedipus: Antiquarianism Oriental Studies & occult" (Stanford University, 2004) while others are from various books about Kircher. Based on those facts, I carry on with my own assumptions, related to both Kircher and the VM. The events described here are mainly those concerning Kircher's book, Prodromus Coptus ( published in Rome, 1636), the very same book Baresch spoke about in his second letter to Kircher (1639 and possibly even in his first letter from 1637, which is apparently lost). There are surely serious implications in regard to Kircher's attitude towards the VM.
Prodromus made a big impression on Baresch and it seems he was introduced to the book through Marci. We do not know however, how far was Baresch sincere in his letter: he certainly mentioned it to get Kircher interested - the book could have been considered as a good reason (or excuse) to write to him. There is no doubt he wanted to use Kircher, to get his help with deciphering the VM, but he apparently had his own personal plans. We can guess it from the fact that with both letters since he sent Kircher only copied samples, no originals.
It is interesting to guess why Kircher devoted so much time to Oriental studies and Egyptology. We know that on top of his all other interests, i.e. the mathematics, physics and linguistics (he knew several languages and even tried to create a sort of universal language), the Oriental studies remained at the forefront of his concerns and occupied probably most of his time. Unfortunately, while in other disciplines he made valuable discoveries, his explanation of hieroglyphs was absolutely incorrect. We can probably explain it by his passion that might have sometimes blinded his reasoning.
Perhaps it stemmed from his interest in ancient secrets, maybe certain influence had even his Christian name. Saint Athanasius (* 293, +373 AD) was the bishop of Alexandria as well as the spiritual leader of Egypt from the fourth century after Christ. He was also a defender of Holy Trinity dogma which is considering Christ as an integral part of the divine Trinity. He was recognized by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Church as a Saint and even Protestants regard him as a great religious personality. His sanctuary is in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. It is certain that all that was also known by Athanasius Kircher and probably boosted his interest in the Coptic language and Copts in general.
Kircher's Coptic alphabet
Who were the Copts? Coptic Orthodox Church was founded by one of the twelve apostles, the evangelist Marcus and "Coptic" originally meant only "Egyptian" (from the Greek "aigyptos"). Today, it is understood only as special Coptic religion (represented by ten percent of Egypt population). After the fall of Alexander the Great's Empire, Egyptians were exposed to new political and religious currents, namely the Christian, and after the Arab invasion of 693 AD, also to Islam. Old time religion of the Pharaohs was then already a history.
Copts today, even if they speak only Arabic language, are proud on their traditional Christianism. Coptic language was more or less the final stage of Egyptian language but was still used in Egypt in some places even at the end of seventeenth century even if the Arabic language is prevailing there since the twelfth century. It was already with the arrival of Christianity (in the first century A.D.) that the Egyptian texts was replaced by Greek alphabet which was more practical than the last Egyptian script (called demotic, used till about 400 A.D. but the new Coptic alphabet still contained some of its letters).
While Coptic alphabet is practically Greek, Coptic language has only few Greek words. Also the grammar of Coptic language remained very similar to late Egyptian. With the arrival of Arabic language, Coptic texts disappeared and they are now found only in the Coptic religious books. Since the Coptic language was there still used in Kircher's time, it was just necessary to compile a vocabulary, i.e. phonetically assign Coptic alphabet to Latin alphabet and they could then translate the first Christian texts and other manuscripts. The older secrets were of course hidden in hieroglyphs whose meaning remained - in part thanks to Kircher's faulty theory - virtually unknown until Champollion's discovery.
Kircher, in the meantime, found refuge in France, not knowing that he would never return to Germany any more. His Jesuit superiors found him quickly the professorial position in Avignon. He had the advantage due to his knowledge of Hebrew (which was then popular, providing better understanding of the biblical texts) and the classical Syrian language (which he also taught) as well as Arabic language which just started to be taught in the seventeenth century. Oriental literature was seen as a source of information that would be otherwise lost and its knowledge had to be restored. And it was Peiresc himself who encouraged Cardinal Barberini to support the study of Ethiopian language because he heard from one Capuchin that one library was discovered in North Africa, with about eight thousand books, among them also the prophecies of Enoch which were all written in Ethiopian. Similar findings were made by a well-known traveler Ecchelense who received the support of Cardinal Richelieu and the Pope Urban VIII. Then Kircher told Pereisc about the large library in Cairo, with one thousand manuscripts, covered with unknown hieroglyphs.
We can therefore imagine the amazement of Pereisc when Kircher also claimed he owned Arabic manuscript written by Jewish rabbi Barachias (or Berechiah) Nephi from Babylon whom he also called Abenephius. Who the rabbi was - in fact if he ever was - we do not know; one Nephi and his family lived around 66 BC in Jerusalem before God ordered him to go into the wilderness ( as per Book of Mormon). The only reference to rabbi Barachias I found is in the book by Madame Blawatsky and she only quoted Kircher :-) It is interesting how Kircher happened to have the manuscript: he claimed he saved it from the library of the Archbishop of Mainz while he was fleeing from enemy. Moreover, he said the manuscript explained the meaning of hieroglyphs. That way he gained not only Pereisc's interest but he also his introduction to his "Republic of letters" and its members.
As you can see, Kircher thus acquired the scientific and political connections he needed and he used them well. When he arrived in Avignon, he was only thirty (Pereisc was 52) and he spent there only two years (1632 through 1633). For such a short time he made an excellent start of his scientific and public career. Before he came he was quite unknown scholar - he wrote only one dissertation on magnetism in Würzburg which - at that time - did not created any deep interest. When he was leaving France, he had a series of letters of recommendation and a lot of influential friends thanks to Pereisc. He just had to use that all to his benefit.
Kircher thought that the rich culture of Egypt - even before the flood - was saved only thanks to Hermes Tristegistos who (according to Greek legend) fled to Egypt and brought with him the alphabet and Hermetic philosophy. He was apparently the one who was called Thoth by Egyptians and he is assumed to be the author of thousands of Hermetic writings. Hermetic writings were very highly appreciated in the Middle Ages - especially those dealing with alchemy and astrology - but we do not know how many of them were really so ancient :-). Some texts are most probably really from the time of pharaohs. In the Arab tradition called Her mesas Idris, otherwise also known as Enoch (whose "alphabet" discovered or rather invented themselves Dee and Kelly :-).
Kircher also promised Pereisc that he would send him the Latin translation of the manuscript which he planned to write. But after some time, when Kircher did not want to show Pereisc the manuscript alone, Pereisc began asking for a copy of the manuscript some Arabs in Tunis. All in vain: the manuscript was apparently unique issue. And Kircher sent him his various treatises instead, perhaps to quiet his curiosity, perhaps to advertise his own work. Today, we believe that Kircher was not interested in translation of the manuscript at all but rather in the promotion of his own works, his own glory. It reminds us the situation when Baresch sent Kircher just copies of the VM instead of the original. It is no wonder that Kircher saw right through Baresch - if the VM contained any secrets, Bare surely did not want to share them with anybody. That game could Kircher , as we see, master very well himself :-).
Yet Pereisc naively believed that he would show him Barachias's manuscript, eventually. In the meantime, he understood that Kircher owned the manuscript and therefore had the right to exploit it fully without someone sharing his glory. He would be of course fully satisfied if Kircher published the Latin translation of the manuscript for others to study. Instead, Kircher sent again something like a "commentary to the manuscript", his own writing. Therefore Pereisc started to doubt Kircher's explanations and wondered how much of the text citations agreed with the manuscript and how much of it was Kircher's ideas only. We know today that Kircher had a habit to use fictional quotes. The translation did not progress and Kircher only supplied new excuses. Pereisc got him some Arabic dictionaries and even the job in the Jesuit college in Aix, the city where he lived, to have him close and possibly even push him little bit toward his goal.
However, another problem surfaced: the Emperor in Vienna needed a professor of mathematics as a replacement for the deceased Johannes Kepler and Jesuit superiors chose Kircher to go to Vienna. Unhappy Pereisc wrote to Cardinal Barberini asking him to convince the Jesuit General Vitelleschi to change the selection. He explained that this would not only be a big loss thanks to Kircher's involvement in teaching of the local aristocracy and that Kircher also needed more time for his study of hieroglyphs.
While they waited the answer, Kircher visited Pereisc in June 1633 but again he brought only his research and more excuses: he said he was unable to write because of the visits and school examinations, preparing his new book for printing and the like.
The next visit was again postponed by Kircher, although Pereisc already invited several interested scientists - which is strange, considering it would enhance his reputation. In September, Kircher was ready to leave for Vienna but before his departure, he finally presented Pereisc his rare manuscript . . .
Well, not exactly: per Pereisc description, he let him copy only some hieroglyphs from the obelisk drawn on one folio and gave him their translation "according to the rabbi Berechiah". Kircher himself claimed hat he showed Pereisc the manuscript and when he "felt the smell from Egyptian lamps, he praised Kircher with the words of praise that Kircher in all his modesty could not repeat". The truth is that after the whole year of waiting, Kircher showed him only the last page of the manuscript, actually only an index of hieroglyphs. And he allowed him to copy only few hieroglyphs - possibly only the same from a well-known book by Horapollos which also begins with the same hieroglyph of the eye. We can see that such strange behavior must have got suspicious even to otherwise trusting Pereisc. He also see the copy of the inscription on the obelisk St. John of Lateran in Rome which was rather crude and more like an amateurish imitation and e fantasy.
Here we have to ask a serious question: is it possible that Kircher, the experienced Egyptologist, was fooling himself? Well, yes, if we consider the story by Mueller who sent him an "unknown" text he fabricated and Kircher "solved" it. Maybe it was just because he often uncritically welcomed anything that supported his theory . . .
In the case of the VM, Baresch wrote to Kircher about "hieroglyphs" in the VM and Kircher knew they were none there. On the other hand, Marci approached Kircher with the cipher of general Banner and was not refused. Therefore if Kircher did refuse to study the VM (and we have no proof of such refusal) it was not because he was not scientifically interested. There must have been some other reasons.
Was he afraid of his failure to solve the VM? We know only one fact: a lot of things Kircher studied over so many years and wrote about, contained clear, easily noticed errors. Was it somehow overblown self-confidence or did he just refused to see his errors? Stolzenberg writes that Kircher often sacrificed the principles of scientific work, such as accuracy, healthy skepticism and reservation at the expense of his speculative hypotheses. (Note: It's inexcusable but understandable - the history of VM research gives us many examples of such confusions, jh).
Let's take the case when he was saddened when Pereisc drew attention to one mistake while Kircher objected because "for those images I found so beautiful explanations". . . Pereisc correctly argued that, in his view, the script on the obelisk celebrates the famous deeds of Pharaoh to which Kircher replied "no, these are secrets of Hermes Tristegistos and not some unknown history of the Kings". The meeting ended in debacle but Pereisc continued to support Kircher in the eyes of contemporaries until his death in 1637 (Note: Interestingly, it was the same year 1637 Bare wrote his first letter to Kircher and in 1639 the other. Kircher's book was already over the Europe and Kircher could not afford any damage to his reputation.).
In Marseilles, where he began his journey to Vienna, Kircher wrote Pereisc the letter in which he promised he would send him the translation of the rabbi's manuscript. In response, Pereisc gave him - before he boarded the ship - a letter of recommendation to Cardinal Barberini in Rome where Kircher planned to stop on his way to Vienna. In that letter he however ommitted his previous praise of Kircher's interpretation of hieroglyphs; he probably already had his doubts about Kircher's ability.
Here we should stop and ask one important question: did Kircher really want to go to Vienna? On one hand, he was born as a German, therefore it should be the area close to his native language and there was nothing higher estimated than the life at Imperial Court. On the other hand, it could have meant the end of his plans, which depended on the financial aid that would later support his independent scientific work. At court, he could not work on his discoveries and without aid, he could not carry on his research. As a professor of mathematics he would probably remained unknown to the world and we know how much he was attracted to Egyptology. . .
In order to avoid the Germany threatened by war he already had bad experience with, Kircher chose a longer route through Genoa via boat with the stop in Rome. Their ship was however driven by the storm to one island near Marseille and her Captain disappeared and left passengers to their fate. Fortunately, some other ship took them aboard but it was also driven away from the course and almost sunk before it finally put them ashore in Italy. It does not seem that Kircher was in any hurry to reach Rome. And it happened: when he finally got to Rome, Kircher learned that someone else was already sent to Vienna. The coincidence of two storms may however have been partly invented by Kircher since he apparently knew from Pereisc that things looked promising and Vienna just needed sometime to decide. Of course, he did not plan to go back to suspicious Pereisc but he wanted to remain in Rome. Why would he needed Pereisc's letters to Barberini in Rome if he planned to start his job in Vienna?
It worked: Barberini actually kept Kircher in Rome and gave him the task to translate the manuscript of Barachias and he could also use the rich resources of Vatican and other libraries in Rome. In addition he received the position of a professor at Collegio Romano where he taught mathematics, physics and oriental languages. Later he actually went independent to do only his own research which provided for him a comfortable living, thanks to his books with dedications to rich patrons as well as smart public advertising.
While Pereisc assessed Kircher's explanation of hieroglyphs as misguided, he still believed in his mysterious manuscript, the translation of which, as he hoped, Kircher will eventually complete and publish. But it has not happened that way, not before Pereisc's death nor never after. Here again we can strongly doubt not only the existence of the manuscript but even that of rabbi Barachias ever lived. The manuscript was not found, neither in Kircher's estate nor it was ever catalogued in Museo Kircheriano. If Kircher ever had such manuscript, we will never know how many of his quotations were true to original If he quoted it correctly then the manuscript was full of errors and false speculations - and it would have very dubious scientific value. We can rather assume that Kircher actually used very little of that manuscript, although he later in his books still had a lot of "quotes". The biggest - and practically the only one - importance of the Barachias's manuscript lays in the fact it started Kircher's fabulous career.
We will not address here Kircher's errors, it's enough to say that Egyptian hieroglyphs are of the phonographic type, i.e., they represent one, two or three consonants, whereas the vowels are not shown. Thus, it is only a sort of acronyms or abbreviated script - as some Egyptologists suspected long time ago - and not some magical symbols with meanings Kircher painfully invented. His seems to be the case of "putting the cart before the horse", that is he invented the meaning and then delivered the explanation. Many people did not notice but experienced researchers as Pereisc were not deceived. Even so, he still took Kircher's resistance to show him the entire manuscript as "the considerations of conscience" - i.e. because the book probably contained some magical nonsenses. He might also believed that Kircher just wanted to keep all the secrets for himself. But why? At that time, there existed some old books by Ammianus or Hermapion (both freely available for reading). As for possible immorality hidden in the text - L. Strong also suspected some immoral content in the VM. Nothing of that was ever confirmed.
Pereisc then discovered in his notes he made when seeing Barachias's manuscript, the words of the Koran, much younger than was allegedly Barachias's manuscript. Here we have to point out that Barachias's manuscript was surely not our VM since Kircher had most already rabbi's manuscript in 1628, and carried it later all the time with him.
In 1634, Kircher notified Pereisc he would publish the book of his comments with the complete translation but later again hesitated, claiming the manuscript contained some magical procedures. Pereisc suggested to Kircher to translate only the innocent parts, selected per Kircher's discretion.
In 1635, Kircher finally began to write his book Prodromus Coptus (Introduction to Coptic language) and in the autumn of 1636 the book was printed. There was no translation of Barachias in the book but he promised unhappy Pereisc that they would be included in his next book, Oedipus Aegyptiacus. Once Pereisc died - apparently the only one who still insisted on the translation - the promise was easily forgotten. We can imagine that Kircher was greatly relieved: the manuscript that helped him to start his career and led him to Rome, would remain secret forever :-).
Again, we have to ask: why didn't he deliver the translation? Since it was in Coptic, the language known to Kircher, the linguistics was not a serious problem. Was there really something so shocking in the content of the manuscript it had to be hidden from public? Say something against Church dogmas? Hardly, it was only a guidebook how to read hieroglyphs. Neither we can assume Kircher did not understand Barachias explanations of the symbols. So only one explanation remains: there was never any Barachias manuscript or it it was, Kircher simply did not have it. . .
It is clear that the Barachias's manuscript could not be our VM for some other reasons as well - it was not written in Arabic and there are no Egyptian hieroglyphs there. We can only guess how much was Kircher driven to solve the hieroglyphs - probably as much as we want to solve the VM script :-)
Marci also sent Kircher - directly with the VM manuscript - some Baresch attempts to solve the manuscript texts. None of that was ever found. It is of course possible that they were put aside by Kircher (as he probably did with first and second samples) and after his death, they were not considered important documents and were thrown away. Especially critical was the period when the Jesuit property was confiscated during Italian Risorgimento and experts believe that the VM and Marci's letter were saved only because they were quickly transferred to Villa Mondragone.
Kircher's dedication to Ferdinand III
The greatest chance for survival however had those scraps of Baresch's records sent by Marci with the VM, since we know the manuscript survived, as well as Marci's letter. We do not know whether they still existed in Voynich time but then again, being separated from the VM, they might have been discarded or sold to somebody else. Voynich did not talk about them but then again, the entire purchase was covered with secrecy and some part of the mystery Voynich surely took to his grave. Situation in Mondragone at that time is also unclear - only De Ricci 1937 catalog refers to the M8, which, as experts now believe, is our VM. Strangely enough, in 1937 the VM was 25 years gone from Mondragone, so how it suddenly happen to be in that catalogue :-). Is there still some hope to find those notes in Museo Kircheriano, in Mondragone or even in Voynich estate? What if Baresch, the last person in the know, wrote there the history of the VM?
It is interesting that during his inventory, Ricci was helped by Ms. Nill, the person who made Voynich secret sale's documents public (but only after the death of Mrs. Voynich when she became the full owner of the VM). The only explanation is that Ricci was advised to put it in the catalogue anyway. But if the VM was really bought from Mondragone padres, there is the possibility Baresch's notes are somewhere there still.
It is interesting to note that nobody ever looked for those anywhere. We believe that the inventory of Kircher's museum might be still incomplete - also in the sense some exhibits are mislocated (as was the VM and the letter, before Voynich found them).
And what about the first package of notes or samples and why we should be interested in them as well? The VM is missing some folios - what if they were in that package? The fate of the VM future in that time depended how much Kircher really got in the first package of Baresch. That would heavily influence what he did and how far he was willing to go ahead with incomplete information. After the publication of the book "Prodromus Coptus" it is clear to us that Kircher's ability to crack the manuscript would be skewed by his rich imagination. True, he got his glory but his "translation" of hieroglyphs was completely wrong. All this is know to us only now when we can really read the hieroglyphics but even during his life he had many critics and the distrust to his theories grew with time.
But we do not want here criticize Kircher's methods or to condemn its errors. We were just following the beginnings of his career, only with the intent to clarify his relationship to hieroglyphs and thus to VM as such.
True, the VM has no Egyptian hieroglyphs but Baresch in his letter flattered Kircher as an expert on hieroglyphs and no doubt at that time many were convinced about his expertise. But even if Baresch could have doubts, there was probably no other person in his mind who could possibly solve the VM.
Indeed, it appears that Baresch learned about the book from Marci who was interested in ancient languages and was even receiving from Kircher some directions and advices in that filed. It is also true that almost any unknown script was often referred to as "hieroglyphs" suggesting simply the unreadable text. For example, the son of John Dee wrote that his father had a book full of "hieroglyphics", though probably it was something of that sort because Dee never studied Egyptian hieroglyphs. Besides, the original sense of the word "hieroglyphs" does not mean Egyptian script at all, just the carved writing. . .
One of the really amazing Kircher's qualities was his knowledge of foreign languages - they said he knew about twenty of them. However, if he knew only the spoken language, do might have not understand the script, the typical example being the Chinese picture alphabet. In the case of VM we do not know neither the language nor the script. And so it was just this impossible combination Baresch wanted Kircher to solve. Of course, Baresch wanted to learn from Kircher the script and the language but not the text itself. He saved the discovery of the VM's hidden secret to for himself alone. This was of course unsolvable task and even Baresch should have known that the random samples just won't be enough. Perhaps he suspected the VM was written in a language he was familiar language and he expected Kircher to crack the alphabet only, believing he could then read the book himself.
That was apparently the first thought of Kircher as well - today, we believe the VM is either encrypted or written in unknown (or even artificial) language. The idea of well-known language used in the VM would be especially attractive for Kircher since he already once guessed - correctly - that Copt language is an Old-Egyptian, just slightly modified. Today, it is obvious that even knowledge of twenty languages would not help if the manuscript was not decoded first. For that Kircher would have to be also the cipher expert (actually even better expert than those we have today :-). While we know that Marci and Kircher tried to solve the cipher of Swedish general Banner but we do not know how far they got. Again, we can see, even Marci had too high opinion about Kircher's abilities to crack the ciphers. On the other hand, it is true that they were both skilled mathematicians (which might have helped) but judging by Kircher's failure to crack the hieroglyphs, his knowledge of languages would be probably more of a disadvantage than otherwise.
The only person who could accurately evaluate those Kircher's abilities should have been apparently only Kircher himself. The question is this: was he enough critical to himself? I doubt it; he had rather overblown self-confidence. So there were some other reasons not to go public with his solutions - if he had any at all. Firstly, it was a risky business and besides: why do all that just for Baresch and not for his own glory? Too bad we do not have any record if he ever asked for the whole manuscript. But then again, he finally got the whole original and probably still did not make any attempts to solve the VM - we have no records of that. Of course, he might have waited until he finds the solution. One way to be more certain would be to find his scribbles in the VM . . .
To learn what Kircher did with the samples Baresch sent to him, we have to guess his first reaction. Surely, he first wondered if it was a trick played on him. Later, in his letters, Marci described for him Baresch as reliable, serious scientist, and what's more, as his friend. It seems to be that Kircher himself asked him for those references. But not even after that he did not start any cracking.
We know about three cases where the was tricked. Kircher was never too critical to the ideas of others not even to his own. In the first case, his competitor Andreas Mueller (sometimes written as Müller) sent him a fake manuscript with the intent to fool him or even to ridicule him. Unfortunately, I could not find when it happened but I guess that it was considerably later after Prodromus came out since before that Kircher was not so well known. That could possibly date it only after Baresch's letters, so it is important it happened only later.
Once Kircher "solved" the mysterious text, Mueller went with the story public and made Kircher ridiculous. This story somewhat does not sound right to me - to do such a thing as a private little joke, yes, but one does not do the ridicule the colleague in the eyes of the public - not even the competitor and especially not with such dirty trick. As a private joke, it is not such a big thing. It is therefore possible that historians found that joke somewhere in private correspondence and blew it out of proportion. We do not know Kircher's reaction and his side of the story but our researchers repeated that nonsense over and over. Trusting Kircher simply might have believed Mueller's story and tried to please his colleague, even if he was not completely sure with his solution.
Another, similar sample, on another occasion, actually failed to fool Kircher: allegedly again written in Chinese characters on silk paper. He discovered in the mirror that the letters were nothing but the set of Roman numerals written backwards (that sounds silly but the information is rather vague).
Apparently even this was originated by Mueller, who was an expert on Chinese symbols and probably wanted to show how little Kircher knew about it. Again, it seems to be just a practical joke, intended not so much to fool Kircher but to entertain Mueller himself. Indeed, it also appears that this is just the Kircher's side of the above story.
Of course, the whole story could have been also invented by Kircher's assistant Gaspar Schott who collected such stories and or interpreted them for the visitors of Museo Kircheriano. Kircher himself of course never was in China - he wanted to be sent there as missionary but he did not get approval by his superiors. Therefore, he could be an easy target for anybody who was there. It is also possible that the text was in so called katakana script form the eighth century AD, which is nothing like Chinese picture script.
The third story is even more suspicious - some young rascals buried the stones that they carved in various shapes, in the place where a new house was built. Kircher acknowledged the authenticity of stones and "explained" what the different pictures should mean, which was of course a sheer nonsense. All that looks like some joke of his students, I know we did those to our poor professors often and when we told the stories later, they accumulated a lot of fiction as well. If, on the other hand, Kircher had a good sense of humor, he could have provided those false explanations to those rascals as real thing and enjoy himself how much he fooled them :-) .
But even if we take these stories with caution, Kircher apparently erred a lot. It was also noticed by such scientists as Leibnitz, Descartes and Mencke.
Abbe Jean Jacques Berthelemy (archaeologist of the 18th century) even said that Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptus is the silliest encyclopedia that was ever published.
The archaeologist Jablonski said it more gently: "In Kircher's work, there is more ostentation than erudition". Huygens even suspected that Kircher was afraid to say some of astronomical views publicly - we should not forget that Galileo was sentenced only three years before the issuing of Prodromus. Pereisc already discovered how easily Kircher accepted the ideas that would not hold its own under thorough criticism.
On the other hand, Huygens honestly recognized the valuable Kircher's conclusions in his theory of sound.
Unfortunately, we do not know when the first of above three stories really happened since after the trick made by Mueller Kircher surely had to be afraid of hoaxes.
This is especially important in the case of Baresch's letters - the first one was written in 1637. The first letter probably has not raised Kircher's interest nor the suspicion - there is even a possibility that if Moretus gave Kircher rather dubious description of Baresch he immediately lost his interest in the VM. We witnessed such loss of interest in the uniformed public after Gordon Rugg claimed - but never proved - that the VM is a hoax. I guess that Kircher got more interested after the second letter by Baresch (see my article "Theodorus Moretus or the messenger to Rome"), since he archived that letter. Also, Marci wrote him later in one of his letters that the manuscript is the real, original thing Baresch was trying to crack. After receiving of the original VM, there was no doubt it was real. There is of course possibility of another fear, not just that the VM could be a fake . . .
As I mentioned, Kircher could have thought Baresch was playing with him the same game Kircher once played with Pereisc. Even more, he might have suspected Baresch knew how the things really were with Barachias manuscript. It was not the possibility the Barachias manuscript was some kind of fraud itself - it may have very well existed - but the fact Kircher boosted his career on erroneous explanation as he might have later discovered himself. It is not important who erred whether Kircher or Barachias. It is just possible Kircher himself found the errors of his ways but the book was already all over the Europe, he had to pretend everything was as he wrote it. Should he accepted Baresch's challenge and fail, he could have been exposed and he did not even know if the VM is a fraud or not . . .
Contrary to Barachias's manuscript which he could read, the VM posed to Kircher different, cryptographical challenge, he might have tried to decrypt it but he surely failed. There was nothing to brag about or even communicate the failure to Baresch or anybody else. Therefore he decided not to answer at all. Judging by how often Kircher quoted Barachias manuscript (which is amazing, considering nobody ever saw the book or the reprint) he certainly depended on its content and alleged e explanations in it. He might have invented some of the quotations but his reasoning was grossly dependent on the book itself. Thanks to the fact he trusted the book that much, Kircher never discovered how wrong he really was. He could not possibly decipher the VM without outside help. It is a sad fact he always had more ideas than the correct results. The question remains whether he really wanted to attack the new challenge and solve the VM at all . Waht if that would bring in the light the old story of Barachias manuscript and people woudl like to see it? Let the bygones be bygones, let skeletons stay in the closet.
We can well imagine that for the man with so many interests the VM was a great temptation and he apparently could not resist such temptation. On top of it, Baresch really complimented Kircher's vanity. For that reason it seems unlikely that Kircher scrapped the samples right away - not he, the man who always saved and catalogued everything he could put his hands on. But it is not surprising he did not write to Baresch at all: he could see his through his game and suspected that Baresch surely did not tell him all there was. Certainly Baresch never sent him the whole manuscript and if he knew the author, he never disclosed him. That might even offended Kircher. Should he confirmed the receipt of the samples, he would be obliged to admit he tried to solve the VM. That could put his name in jeopardy while continuing in his books about hieroglyphs guaranteed him certain glory.
In addition, he had his own problems: the popularity he gained through Prodromus, was only a few years old and it still needed to be taken care of. He was planning more books which he also wrote and published. He had at that time, however, other interests as well: in the same year he got the first letter of Baresch (1637) he accompanied Duke Frederick of Hessen on a trip to southern Italy, Sicily and Malta. On his way, he witnessed the explosion of Etna and even got lowered down to the volcano of Vesuvius, to be able to examine it.
The life of Kircher was full of adventures: when he was thirty, he was already marooned on the island on his way to Vienna. Once, he was almost trampled to death by runaway horses and some other time he fell in between the wheels of the mill and miraculously escaped the death. When escaping from Germany he was taken prisoner since he refused to take off the priest's cassock even when risking the hanging. Somehow the soldier were touched by his courage and let him go.
During the plague in Rome (1656), Kircher took care of the sick people and by sheer miracle did not get infected. During that time he invented his theory that the plague was caused by small micro-organisms which he saw under the microscope (Scrutinium pestis physico-Medicum, Rome 1658). He observed them even before
Robert Hooke (1665) or Lewenhoekdid (1676) and certainly almost two hundred years before Ferdinand Cohn (1828-1898) identified them as the source of diseases.
It is therefore possible that Kircher tried to solve the mystery of the VM secretly. He did not succeed, otherwise he would have boasted about it or even write the whole book about it and dedicate it to some of his sponsors.
Kircher was all his life a great showman, especially when he stopped teaching and made his living by writing books which he then dedicated to various royalties and nobles. He expected the hefty donation and was not disappointed.
One of his books was dedicated to Emperor Ferdinand III and there was also on the intercession of Marci that Kircher got Emperor's support.
At that time, all his documents were in the Museo Kircheriano and possibly even the samples sent by Baresch. We can suspect however he archived theme separately ( probably together with scraps of Baresch's solutions that Marci sent to him with the VM) .
We can even assume that all that he neatly arranged together, as neatly as his handwriting is :-), next to his almost two thousand manuscripts he owned, many letters of his friends and forty-four books he wrote.
For two hundred years, nothing happened but then came Victor Emmanuel II (1870) with his army and conquered the Papal State. Many books from the libraries had been "confiscated" (read "stolen" :-) .
Many Vatican books, however escaped that sad fate since they had been previously marked as private property. And so was the manuscript VM labeled as exlibris of Petrus Beckx who was then the head of the Jesuit order and the Rector of the University.
The VM was then moved for security to Villa Mondragone. We can understand that the "labelers" overlooked or underestimated some notes from unknown Baresch, but obviously they did not overlook the VM. Perhaps in their rush they took the books first or the notes were already separated before from the manuscript.
It is also interesting to note that although Kircher exhibited in his museum most of the documents in his possession, the VM was nowhere reported.
What is even more interesting is the fact that Baresch's attempts to solve the VM mentioned by Marci as being sent with the VM are not mentioned anywhere else and apparently were never found. Voynich did not mention them either. Still, they would surely had far greater value for Kircher (as well as for us) than Marci's letter itself, especially since they would independently confirm the VM is really the Prague manuscript, the one sent to Kircher. Marci's letter has no details that could be used for identification and Voynich separated the letter from the manuscript, apparently without any witnesses.
On the other hand, the second letter of Baresch was found, with some indicators, say "...paintings of flowers unknown in Europe". Interestingly enough, Kircher apparently did not answer that letter either, but he saved it. Curiously enough, that letter was not found in Mondragone but in Rome . . .
Later, Kircher abstained from public life and concentrated more on his rich collection in Museo Kircheriano, adding the new building. Museo Kircheriano (1651), which still exists, is his permanent - and also his greatest - gift to mankind. He invited there his guests, mainly from the royal families, impressed them with the exhibits and thus made the money for the museum.
One of the visitors was also former Swedish Queen Christina who turned to Catholicism and moved to Rome. She certainly knew how to appreciated his exhibits: she "collected" a lot of her own from Rudolph's treasure in Prague. I believe it was called a "war booty" then :-).
Kircher surprised her with plants that grew in the beaker right in front of her eyes. Most likely, those were only some crystals and Kircher knew it :-). He even tried to solve the mysterious inscription on the sword of her father, king Gustav the Great, but in vain.
We can also imagine how much was Kircher's establishment esteemed from the recorded visit by the members of the Royal Society of Sciences.
Kircher used the museum not only for general education but also as an entertainment, and most importantly, he did it "Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam" - and his own as well :-).
Coming back to question: what did Kircher do with Baresch's notes and eventually with the VM? The previous story might give us a hint: he probably did the same as he did with Barachias's manuscript: he kept it well hidden and didn't show it to anybody. Besides, he could not read the VM at all, while he still could use some of the Barachias. Was he feeling bad about it? I guess he did: he could not exploit its content and what's more: the VM was probably the only mystery he did not "solve".
Kircher was probably just another victim of the paradoxes of the pre-enlightenment time: his insatiable desire for knowledge and research ultimately resulted in his claims that wanted to implement the old dogmas on new discoveries. That's why he could not abandon Aristotle's system, the history according to Bible and other secular axioms. He chose for his cosmic system not the one by Galileo but the half-way cut system of Tycho de Brahe. He recognized the esoteric view of the world but modified it for censor's approval. He however never believed in alchemy.
Of course the judgement on Galileo did not stop the Earth on its circulation but it did removed from the Church the stamp of infallibility. That was the beginning the believers started to lose the faith.
Kircher's work, especially his gift of inspiration, the art of collecting and his interesting books strengthened the prestige of the Catholic Church, at least temporarily.
Where else could the reader find beautiful engravings of obelisks, ancient works of art and natural mysteries?
Later again the admiration passed when his errors where discovered.
But we should not be too judgmental - the majority of scientists then could not manage even a small fraction of what he did, especially in the field of archiving and teaching.
Of course in number of erroneous explanations Kircher probably still has a world record. On the other hand, he was often the very first one who published the books about many new discoveries and he ventured in the areas nobody before him ever did. His books do not contain only errors: Kircher was mainly the facts collector and there is plenty of them in his books - he just explained some of them incorrectly but that was a frequent phenomena in that time of discoveries. His greatest achievement was that he inspired the others who eventually came with the right answers.
It is interesting that although his greatest achievements were in mechanics and physics (for example, he discovered the Laterna Magica), he was the most appreciated, especially at the University of Rome, for his language skills.
Peiresc himself advised (after publication of Prodromus) the Egyptologist Saumaisse (whom Kircher overtaken by publishing his book sooner), not to criticize Kircher too much because he is just mistaken and to err is human.
This remark, however, can be seen also in other light: Kircher was leaving for Levant and Egypt, and having there his contacts, he could have brought some new manuscripts in Coptic language and both, Pereisc and Saumaisse, were very interested to see them.
Pereisc of course well remembered that after his first criticism of Kircher, he left for the ship to Rome, without saying goodbye. It was certain that Kircher would, after further sharp criticism, never lend Pereisc anything and his protector still hoped for Kircher's translation of Barachias's manuscript . . .
The recently published book "Athanasius Kircher, The Last Man Who Knew Everything" (The last man who knew everything, the Routledge, 2003) , edited by Paula Findlen, apparently did not intend an irony in its subtitle - it just underscores the overall effect of his lifelong work which is - for one person - truly monumental.
He was not only interested in almost everything but he even tried to explain everything.
We can say that he made the study of science at least a lot more interesting. But it took others to harness the science by sticking to the facts, evaluate them and develop the methods how to identify the faulty hypotheses. After three hundred years, we are still in that learning process and the research of the VM is no exception.