The amateur, astronomical, antiquarian aristocrat from Aix

In a recent blog post about the Minim friar, Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), I mentioned that when Mersenne arrived in Paris in 1619 he was introduced to the intellectual elite of the city by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637). In another recent post on the Republic of Letters I also mentioned that Peiresc was probably, the periods most prolific correspondent, with more than ten thousand surviving letters. So, who was this champion letter writer and what role did he play in the European scientific community in the first third of the seventeenth century?

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc by Louis Finson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolas-Claude Fabri was born, into a family of lawyers and politicians, in the town Belgentier near Toulon on 1 December in 1580, where his parents had fled to from their hometown of Aix-en-Provence to escape the plagues. He was educated at Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and the Jesuit College at Tournon. Having completed his schooling, he set off to Padua in Italy, nominally to study law, but he devoted the three years, 1600–1602, to a wide-ranging, encyclopaedic study of the history of the world and everything in it. 

In this he was aided in that he became a protégé of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1601) a humanist scholar and book collector, his library numbered about 8,500 printed works, with all-embracing intellectual interests, whose main areas were botany, optics, and mathematical instruments.

Gian Vincènzo Pinelli Source: Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

Pinelli introduced Fabri to many leading scholars including Marcus Welser (1558–1614), Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) and indirectly Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609). Pinelli also introduced him to another of his protégés, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). One should always remember that although he was thirty-eight years old in 1602, Galileo was a virtually unknown professor of mathematics in Padua. When Pinelli died, Fabri was living in his house and became involved in sorting his papers.

In 1602, Fabri returned to Aix-en-Provence and completed his law degree, graduating in 1604. In the same year he assumed the name Peiresc, it came from a domain in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, which he had inherited from his father. He never actually visited Peiresc, now spelt Peyresq.

Village of Peyresq Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following graduation Peiresc travelled to the Netherlands and England via Paris, where he made the acquaintance of other notable scholars, including actually meeting Scaliger and also meeting the English antiquarian and historian William Camden (1551–1623).

Returning to Provence, in 1607, he took over his uncle’s position as conseiller to the Parliament of Provence under his patron Guillaume du Vair (1556–1621), cleric, lawyer, humanist scholar and president of the parliament.

Guillaume-du-Vair Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1615 he returned to Paris with du Vair as his secretary, as du Vair was appointed keeper of the seals during the regency of Marie de’ Medici (1575–1642). Peiresc continued to make new contacts with leading figures from the world of scholarship, and the arts, including Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).

Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait 1623

Peiresc acted as a go between in the negotiations between Reubens and the French court in the commissioning of his Marie de’ Medici Cycle. Just one of Peiresc’s many acts of patronage in the fine arts.

Marie de’ Medici Cycle in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1621 de Vair died and in 1623 Peiresc returned to Provence, where he continued to serve in the parliament until his death in 1637.

Peiresc was an active scholar and patron over a wide range of intellectual activities, corresponding with a vast spectrum of Europe’s intellectual elite, but we are interested here in his activities as an astronomer. Having developed an interest for astronomical instruments during his time as Pinelli’s protégé, Peiresc’s astronomical activities were sparked by news of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, which reached him before he got a chance to read the Sidereus Nuncius. He rectified this lack of direct knowledge by ordering a copy from Venice and borrowing one from a friend until his own copy arrived.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He immediately began trying to construct a telescope to confirm or refute Galileo’s claims, in particular the discovery of the first four moons of Jupiter. At this point in his life Peiresc was still a geocentrist, later he became a convinced heliocentrist. We know very little about where and how he acquired his lenses, but we do know that he had various failures before he finally succeeded in observing the moons of Jupiter for himself, in November 1610. In this he was beaten to the punch by his fellow Provencal astronomer Joseph Gaultier de la Valette (1564–1647), vicar general of Aix. At this point it is not clear whether the two were competing or cooperating, as they would then later do with Gaultier de la Valette becoming a member of Peiresc’s Provencal astronomical observation group. Shortly thereafter, Peiresc became the first astronomer to make telescopic observations of the Orion Nebular and Gaultier de la Valette the second. This is rather strange as the Orion Nebular is visible to the naked eye. However, apparently none of the telescopic astronomy pioneers had turned their telescopes to it before Peiresc.

In one of the most detailed astronomical images ever produced, NASA/ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured an unprecedented look at the Orion Nebula. … This extensive study took 105 Hubble orbits to complete. All imaging instruments aboard the telescope were used simultaneously to study Orion. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Peiresc, like Galileo, realised that the moons of Jupiter could be used as a clock to determine longitude and began an observation programme of the moons, viewing them every single day that the weather conditions permitted, well into 1612. Having compiled tables of his observations he sent one of his own protégés Jean Lombard, about whom little is known, equipped with suitable instruments on a tour of the Mediterranean. Lombard observed the satellites at Marseille in November 1611 and then proceeded to Malta, Cyprus and to Tripoli observing as he went, until May 1612. Meanwhile, Peiresc made parallel observation in Aix and Paris, he hoped by comparing the time differences in the two sets of observations to be able to accurately determine the longitude differences. Unfortunately, the observations proved to be not accurate enough for the purpose and the world would have to wait for Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712) to become the first to successfully utilise this method of determining longitude. Peiresc’s own observation were, however, the longest continuous series of observations of the Jupiter moons made in the seventeenth century and displayed a high level of accuracy even when compared with this of Galileo.

I mentioned, above, Peiresc’s Provencal astronomical observing group. Peiresc employed/sponsored young astronomers to help him with his observation programmes, supplying them with instruments and instructions on how to use them. This group included such notable, future astronomers, as Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1556),

Jean-Baptiste Morin Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694),

Ismaël Boulliau Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). Peiresc’s patronage extended well beyond this. Gassendi had held the chair of philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Provence since 1617 but in 1623 the university was taken over by the Jesuits and Gassendi was replaced by a Jesuit and became unemployed.

Portrait of Pierre Gassendi by Louis-Édouard Rioult Source: Wikimedia Commons

From then until he again found regular employment in 1634, Peiresc provided him with a home base in his own house and financed his travels and research. Similarly, Peiresc, having introduced Mersenne to Parisian intellectual circles in 1619, continued to support him financially, Mersenne as a Minim friar had no income, supplying him with instruments and financing his publications. 

Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

Patronage played a central role in Peiresc’s next venture into astronomy and another attempt to solve the longitude problem. There has been much talk in recent decades about so-called citizen science, in which members of the public are invited to participate in widespread scientific activities. Annual counts of the birds in one’s garden is a simple example of this. Citizen science is mostly presented as a modern phenomenon, but there are examples from the nineteenth century. Peiresc had already launched a variation on citizen science in the seventeenth century.

In order to determine longitude Peiresc further developed a method that had been in use since antiquity. Two astronomers situated in different location would observe a lunar or solar eclipse and then by comparing their observations they could determine the local time difference between their observations and thus the longitude difference between the locations. By the seventeenth century predicting eclipses had become a fairly accurate science and Peiresc thought that if he could organise and coordinated a world spanning network of observers to accurately observe and record an eclipse, he could then calculate a world spanning network of longitude measurements. The idea was good in theory but failed in practice.

Most of Peiresc’s team of observers were amateurs–missionaries, diplomats, traders, travellers–whom he supplied with astronomical instruments and written instructions on how to use them, even paying travelling expenses, where necessary. Peiresc organised mass observations for lunar eclipses in 1628, 1634, and 1635 and a solar eclipse in 1633. Unfortunately, many of his observers proved to be incompetent and the results of their observations were too inaccurate to be usable. One positive result was that Peiresc was able to correct the value for the length of the Mediterranean. Before one is too hard on Peiresc’s amateur observers, one should remember that in the middle of the eighteenth century the world’s professional astronomical community basically failed in their attempt to use the transits of Venus to determine the astronomical unit, despite being equipped with much better instruments and telescopes.

Although, Peiresc’s various astronomical activities and their results were known throughout Europe by word of mouth through his various colleagues and his correspondence, he never published any of his work. Quite why, is not really known although there are speculations.

Peiresc was a high ranking and highly influential Catholic and he applied that influence in attempts to change the Church’s treatment of astronomers he saw as being persecuted. He interceded on behalf Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), actively supporting him when he fled to France in 1634.

Tommaso Campanella portrait by Francesco Cozza Source: Wikimedia Commons

More famously he personally interceded with the Church on behalf of Galileo, without any great success.

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc’s career is, like that of his friend Mersenne, a good illustration that the evolution of science is a product of widespread cooperation of a community of practitioners and not the result of the genial discoveries of a handful of big names, as it is unfortunately too often presented. Morin, Boulliau, Gassendi and Mersenne, who all made serious contributions to the evolution of science in the seventeenth century, did so with the encouragement, guidance, and very active support of Peiresc.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Navigation, History of science, Renaissance Science

3 responses to “The amateur, astronomical, antiquarian aristocrat from Aix

  1. John Kane

    Okay, which took longer to compose, the main text or the title?

    A fascinating post. One tends to forget the communication links and coaching/financial support that researchers, for lack of a better word, had that backed up the main effort.

  2. Believe it or not, the title came spontaneously, when I decided to write about Peiresc

  3. Your comment about Orion was unexpected. By time the seventeenth-century telescopes were turned to it, the figure’s ‘loincloth’ nebula had been well known (and represented in drawing) elsewhere for several thousand years. As you may already know well.

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