Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (December 1, 1580 – June 24, 1637) was a French astronomer, antiquary, and a successful organizer of scientific inquiry. Peiresc’s activities represented the development of scientific humanism in Europe. He was a patron of the sciences, and assisted or collaborated with a number of important researchers of his day, including Pierre Gassendi. In 1620 he began a tireless correspondence with a series of the greatest minds of his age. After his death in 1637, his niece found over ten thousand letters which had been sent to her uncle by approximately five hundred Dutch, Belgian, English, Italian, and German intellectuals and artists. This correspondence, particularly his exchanges with the artist Rubens and with Pierre and Jacques Dupuy, provide an invaluable record of the intellectual life of seventeenth-century Europe.
Peiresc’s interests covered every aspect of scholarship and science, from antiquities, classical studies, ancient languages, and philology to the collection of coins, medals, books, and manuscripts. Considered an amateur rather than a serious scientist, he correlated information from many different sources, and conducted experiments on a wide scale. Belgentier, his country home, was home to a collection of exotic animals and the third largest garden in France, containing many rare and imported plants. With Gaultier, Peiresc discovered the Orion Nebula in 1610; he used multiple observations of an eclipse on August 28, 1635, to correct the over-estimated length of the eastern Mediterranean. He collaborated with Pierre Gassendi, who lived at his home from 1634 until 1637, on astronomical observations and experiments with vision. When the Roman Catholic Church was conducting its trial of Galileo, Peiresc wrote a long letter to Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), condemning the attitude of the Roman authorities and declaring that their actions would damage the reputation of the papacy for centuries to come. He also offered support to Campanella after he had suffered 26 years in prison for defending Galileo.
Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc was born on December 1, 1580, in the Castle of Belgentier, Var, France, where his father, a wealthy and noble higher magistrate in Provence, and mother had retired to avoid an outbreak of the plague. He was educated in Aix-en-Provence, until plague and civil war compelled him to migrate from one college to another: Brignoles Saint-Maximin, Avignon and the Jesuit college at Tournon, where he studied philosophy. At Toulon, he first became interested in astronomy. In his teens, he became interested in antiquities after studying an ancient Roman gold coin that had been found on the grounds at Belgentier, and began a collection of ancient coins.
In his youth and early adulthood, Peiresc took advantage of every opportunity to travel around Europe. In 1599 he sailed from Cannes to Genoa, then visited Pisa and Padua, where he made the acquaintance of eminent scholars and was invited to examine their collections and libraries. After a year he went to Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Perugia and Viterbo, visiting every ancient site and museum. In Padua he became interested in the study of law. Upon his return to France through Switzerland, he completed his study of law at Montpelier in 1604. In 1604 he became Lord of Peiresc, when his father gave him a small parcel of land of that name in Haute-Provence (the present-day Peyresq, a village rebuilt by Belgian students).
In 1605, Guillaume du Vair, the first President of the Parliament of Provence, took Peiresc to Paris as his secretary and introduced him to an environment of brilliant writers and scholars. The following year he accompanied Le Fevre de la Boderie when he was sent as ambassador to the court of England, where he met L'Obel, William Camden, Henry Savile, and other amateurs of the arts and sciences. He spent the summer in London, went on to Holland, and stayed for a while in Leyden at the home of Joseph Scaliger, the French Calvinist philosopher. He returned to France by way of Antwerp, Brussels, and Louvain. At home in Aix-en-Provence, after qualifying for the position in June 1607, he inherited the post of Councillor at the Parliament of Provence, which was passed down to him by his uncle. He served at Aix until 1615.
In 1610, when he learned of the discoveries of Galileo, who was "observing" the heavens, he instructed his brother, then in Paris, to arrange to have telescope lenses made for him, and he installed a fully equipped observatory in the top of his house. His patron, du Vair, purchased a telescope, which Peiresc and Joseph Gaultier used for observing the skies, including Jupiter's moons. Peiresc discovered the Orion Nebula in 1610; Gaultier became the second person to see it in the telescope.
In 1616, Peiresc went with du Vair when he was called to Paris by the king to become Guardian of the Great Seal (Garde des Sceaux). Du Vair initiated him in the business of the state and entrusted him with sensitive missions. He remained in Paris for the next seven years until, in 1623, his father's poor health, and the demands of his position as Councillor at the Parliament, caused him to return to Aix. There he remained for the rest of his life, carrying on an extensive correspondence with learned men all over Europe. He became a patron of science and art, studied fossils, and hosted the astronomer Gassendi at his home from 1634 until 1637.
Peiresc died on June 24, 1637 in Aix-en-Provence.
The lunar crater Peirescius (46.5S, 67.6E, 61 km diameter) was named after him in 1935.
Peiresc’s interests covered every aspect of scholarship and science, from antiquities, classical studies, ancient languages, and philology to the collection of coins, medals, books, and manuscripts. His encyclopedic mind explored both the humanities and the natural sciences. Considered an amateur rather than a serious scientist, he had the creativity and broad-mindedness to correlate information from many different sources, find resources, and set up experiments on a wide scale. Peiresc’s activities represented the development of scientific humanism in Europe.
Peiresc was the most widely known scientific patron of his day. His influence extended well beyond France, Italy, England, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands to Egypt and the Levant. During his seven years in Paris, he sponsored or assisted in the publication of important books and carried on correspondence and observations, making use of capable and devoted assistants to undertake voyages and conduct experiments.
Beginning in 1620, while carrying on his other writing, Peiresc entered into tireless correspondence with a series of the greatest minds of his age. After his death in 1637, his niece and heiress found over ten thousand letters which had been sent to her uncle by approximately five hundred Dutch, Belgian, English, Italian, and German intellectuals and artists. By the late eighteenth century, dozens of these letters had appeared in various installments in the Magazin Encyclopedique and elsewhere. Over the last two hundred years Peiresc letters have appeared in dozens of different journals and in the collected correspondence of other intellectuals. At the end of the nineteenth century, Philippe Tamizey de Larroque began a project to publish ten (or eleven) volumes of Peiresc letters, but only seven appeared before Tamizey's death (Lettres de Peiresc, 7 vols. Paris 1888–1898). Two collections of Peiresc's letters which had been published in various local journals appeared later (Les correspondants de Peiresc, Lettres inédites, reprinted, Slatkine Reprints, Geneva 1972, 2 volumes). During the second half of the twentieth century, several individual volumes were published by separate editors, including Peiresc's exchanges with Aleandro, Naudé, del Pozzo, Saumaise, and others. Large numbers of unpublished letters are still in the Bibliothèque Nationale in France. Eighty-six volumes of various handwritten items are kept in the library at Carpentras.
The correspondence of Peiresc with Pierre and Jacques Dupuy, who led the Académie Putéane, a noted meeting-place for scholars, for almost twenty years, and the exchange of letters that occurred from 1621 onwards with the Belgian painter, Rubens, provide an invaluable and very complete record of the intellectual life of seventeenth-century Europe.
Peiresc wrote a Grammaire de Langue d'Oc (Grammar of the Langue d'Oc) an Histoire Abrégée de Provence (Short History of Provence), and a Chronique de la Vie Provençale (Chronicle of Provençal Life) which helped to preserve the identity of the Provençal.
He had the Codex Luxemburgensis, the surviving Carolingian copy of the Chronography of 354, in his possession for many years; after his death it disappeared.
Peiresc was fascinated by plant and animal life, and wrote a "Traité des oeuvres bizarres de la Nature" (Treatise on the Strange Works of Nature), now no longer extant. The elaborate gardens at Belgentier, his country home, were the third largest in France. He imported trees and flowers from many places: Jasmine from Spain, padauk from America, hyacinths from the Indies, orange trees from China, papyrus from Egypt, vines of several varieties, medlars, and the first European claim to a variety of rhododendron. His orchard was planted with sixty varieties of apple, and almost as many kinds of pear. At Belgentier, he also kept exotic animals: An alzaron, a kind of wild ox from Tunisia; chameleons; and numerous cats, including a pair of the Angora breed which he introduced into France. Once, he kept an elephant for three days, after it landed in Toulon en route to Marseilles, and examined it thoroughly.
Peiresc collected and studied fossils, and during his travels developed a large collection of ancient coins and medallions. During his travels in Italy he sent about ten boxes of medallions and coins to his father, and in Flanders, during his return journey from London, he acquired gold medallions from "the first dynasty of French kings." He recognized that the dates and inscriptions on ancient coins were valuable sources for establishing the sequence of historical events.
Following on from the work of Gaspard Aselli, in 1634 Peiresc sponsored the dissection of cadavers in his house by local surgeons, who identified the chyliferous vessels in the human body. Peiresc collaborated with Gassendi while he was developing his theory of vision. From at least the early 1630s they worked together at Aix and at Peiresc's home at Belgentier conducting experiments with lenses and mirrors and dissecting eyes from birds, bulls, cats, fish, and even a whale. It was also Peiresc who provided the first description of the mite that causes scabies.
A year before his death, Peiresc wrote, "I try to neglect nothing until experience opens our way to unalloyed truth."
In 1610, after reading Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius, he installed a fully equipped observatory at the top of his house and invited his friends to join him in his research. Among them was Gassendi, one of the most frequent visitors to Belgentier, who was later to write the "Vie de Nicolas-Claude Peiresc, Conseiller au Parlement de Provence." Peiresc served as Gassendi's patron and sometimes as his collaborator from 1624 until his death in 1637.
Peiresc spent most of his time from 1610 to 1612 recording the times of planetary events. He studied the movements of Jupiter's satellites, determined their speeds, and drew up tables of this data. Peiresc discovered the Orion Nebula with Gaultier in 1610, and coined the term “nebula.” His assistant, Jean Lombard, traveled widely recording the positions of the satellites of Jupiter, and Peiresc used these observations to calculate terrestrial longitudes.
On August 28, 1635, an eclipse was predicted. Peiresc arranged with Lombard and Gaultier to supply instruments and instructions to priests, merchants, and secretaries at various embassies, so that the eclipse could be observed from Digne, Rome, Cairo, and Aleppo in Syria. He used these observations to correct the over-estimated length of the eastern Mediterranean, which proved to be shorter by 1,000 km than had been previously thought. Peiresc was also able to conclude that the intervals in longitude on contemporary maps and globes were incorrect. In 1636, Peiresc, when studying longitudes, drew the first known map of the moon.
In 1620, a young Antwerp humanist, Gaspard Gevaerts, mentioned to Rubens that he had met Peiresc in Paris. Rubens asked him to approach Peiresc for assistance in obtaining a royal license from Louis XIII, to protect Rubens from forgeries of his engravings in France. Peiresc complied, and soon began corresponding directly with Rubens. The first known letter is dated October 27, 1621.
They corresponded until the death of Peiresc in 1637, discussing many topics, including friendship, their common interest in coins and medallions, ancient monuments, Richelieu, political events, and canals.
The generosity of Peiresc was documented in his correspondence. He gave rare Coptic and Arabic manuscripts to Saumaise, and a unique copy of thirteenth-century Hebrew astronomical tables to Sickard. The jurist, Grotius, said, "I owe it to Peiresc that I was able to write my Traité du Droit de la Guerre et de la Paix (Treatise on the Law of War and Peace)."
When the Roman Catholic Church was conducting its trial of Galileo, Peiresc wrote a long letter to Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), condemning the attitude of the Roman authorities and declaring that their actions would damage the reputation of the papacy for centuries to come. After Campanella had spent 26 years in prison for supporting Galileo, he was liberated and arrived in Aix with no means of support. Peiresc received him in his home and entertained him for several days, before giving him money and sending him on to Paris in his carriage.
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