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Peiresc, Nicolas-Claude Fabri De (1580–1635)


PEIRESC, NICOLAS-CLAUDE FABRI DE (15801635), French antiquarian. Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc was one of the most famous European scholars of the first half of the seventeenth century. Although he was largely forgotten after his death, his fame was kept alive in the circle of great antiquarians like John Evelyn and the Comte de Caylus, and his name remained a byword among historians of scholarship. In his 1962 Sather Lectures, Arnaldo Momigliano called him "that archetype of all antiquarians."

Born in the town of Belgentier near Toulon, the young Nicolas-Claude Fabri was educated by the Jesuits at Avignon and then set out for Italy. The ostensible purpose of the trip, according to his father and uncle, both lawyers, was study at the famous law school at Padua. Peiresc used this freedom to pursue not law but the entire orbs doctrinae, or encyclopedia. These years from 1600 to 1602 laid the foundation for much later work on antiquities, Oriental studies, natural history, and astronomy. He also made friendships with fellow students Girolamo Aleandro the Younger (15741629), Lorenzo Pignoria (15711631), and Paolo Gualdo (15531621) that lasted all their lives. In Padua, he frequented the circle of Gian-Vicenzo Pinelli (15351601), who served as a mentor and introduced him to Marcus Welser, Paolo Sarpi, Galileo Galilei, and, indirectly, Joseph Scaliger.

Back in France, Peiresc studied at Montpellier with the noted jurist Giulio Pace and took his law degree at Aix in 1604. This was followed by travel to the Spanish Netherlands, United Provinces, and England, where he visited with many scholars, including Abraham Gorlaeus, Scaliger, and William Camden. In Paris on the way home, Peiresc met the historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou and the circle around him.

In 1607 Peiresc took up his uncle's position as councillor in the parlement of Provence. He soon became the secretary of its president, the philosopher and orator Guillaume du Vair (15561621), and through him met the poet François de Malherbe (15551628). Peiresc followed du Vair to Paris when he was summoned to serve as keeper of the seals under the regency of Marie de Médicis. He was witness at close quarters to the rise and fall of Charles d'Albert, duc de Luynes, and Concino Concini, marquis d'Ancre, and the beginnings of Richelieu's ascent. Peiresc was a fixture in the learned Cabinet Dupuy where he met and befriended such visitors to the French capital as Peter Paul Rubens (15771640) and Hugo Grotius (15831645).

Peiresc returned to Aix in 1623 (du Vair had died in 1621) and from then until his death in June 1637 never left Provence. His duties in the parlement absorbed most of his time, but his energies belonged to learning. His houses in Aix and Belgentier became centers for advanced study. Visitors plying the route from Rome to Paris, whether clergy, merchants, or diplomats, were frequent guests. Proximity to both Marseille and Toulon enabled Peiresc to insinuate himself into the far-flung network of Provençal merchants. Through them he was able to establish an extensive correspondence with the Ottoman world that made him among those Europeans best informed about the Levant.

During these last fourteen years of his life, Peiresc became one of Europe's leading scholars. His correspondence with Athansius Kircher, Claude de Saumaise, John Selden, and Cassiano dal Pozzo, among others, reflects the breadth of his encyclopedic pursuits. The Roman household of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (15971679), whom dal Pozzo served as secretary, was one of Peiresc's key centersthrough it he reached also Giovanni Battista Doni, Lucas Holstenius, Jean-Jacques Bouchard, and Jean-Marie Suares, the latter two being placed there by Peiresc.

Peiresc published nothing, although there are many finished essays and countless drafts among his vast collection of papers. His contributions to astronomy, for example, were substantialdiscovery of the Orion nebula and exact reproduction of Galileo's 1610 telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter, eclipse observation, and mapping of the moon (with the engraver Claude Mellan [15981688])but have remained for the most part buried in manuscript. This is true for some of his other interests as well, such as botany, glyptics, metrology, the history of Provence, and historical linguistics.

His correspondence has drawn much more attention. While some portion seems to be missing, about 10,000 letters do survive. In this case, we are not far off in declaring that the letters are the man, and yet here too, only about half have been published and no satisfactory catalogue of the correspondence exists. The full extent and detail of his intellectual life is, therefore, still hard to discern. But even the little we know is enough to justify Marc Fumaroli's description of Peiresc as the "Prince of the Republic of Letters."

See also Galileo, Galilei ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Republic of Letters .


Aufrère, Sydney. La momie et la tempête: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc et la curiosité egyptienne en Provence au début du XVIIe siècle. Avignon, 1990.

Bresson, Agnès, ed. Peiresc. Lettres à Claude Saumaise et à son entourage 16201637. Florence, 1992.

Ferrier, Jacques, ed. Les Fioretti du quadricentenaire de Fabri de Peiresc. Avignon, 1981.

, ed. L'été Peiresc: Fioretti II: nouveaux mélanges. Avignon, 1988.

Gassendi, Pierre. Viri Illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc Senatoris Aquisextiensis Vita. Paris, 1641. Translated as The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility. London, 1657.

Jaffé, David. "PeirescWissenschaftlicher Betrieb in einem Raritäten-Kabinett." In Macrocosmos in MicrocosmoDie Welt in der Stube: Zur Geschichte des Sammelns, 1450 bis 1800, edited by Andreas Grote, pp. 301322. Opladen, 1994.

Leclerq, H. "Peiresc." In Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 14, Fernand Cabrol and H. Leclerq, pp. 139. Paris, 1939.

Lettres de Peiresc aux frères Dupuy [et autres]. Edited by Philippe Tamizey de Larroque. 7 vols. Paris, 18881898.

Lhote, Jean-François, and Danielle Joyal. Correspondance de Peiresc & Aleandro. 2 vols. Clermont-Ferrand, 1995.

. Peiresc. Lettres à Cassiano dal Pozzo 16261637. Clermont-Ferrand, 1992.

Miller, Peter N. Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven and London, 2000.

Peter N. Miller

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