Peiresc, Nicolas Claude Fabri De

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(b. Belgentier, Var, France, 1 December 1580; d. Aix-en-Provence, France, 24 June 1637)

astronomy, scientific patronage.

Peiresc was the son of Raynaud de Fabri, sieur de Callas and conseiller in the Parlement of Provence, and Marguerite de Bompar de Magnan. Originally from Pisa, the Fabri family had lived in Provence for many years, acquiring property and social standing. The name that Nicolas Claude assumed formally in 1624 was derived from an estate in his mother’s dowry, the hamlet of Peiresc high in the Alpes de Provence. Peiresc’s education began at Aix and Avignon and continued at the Jesuit collège at Tournon, where he made his first contact with astronomy.

In 1599 Peiresc went to Padua, where he met the erudite and generous jurist, numismatist, and antiquarian Giovanni Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1602). Here also he met Galileo, then a professor at the university. From some time in 1600 he traveled in Italy, Switzerland, and France, visiting galleries and libraries and meeting learned men; he finally settled down to serious legal studies at Montpellier under the rigorous and inspiring teaching of Julius Pacius (1550–1635), a learned Protestant who had taught in Hungary, at Heidelberg, and Sedan before going to Aix, Padua, and Valence. The influences of Pinelli and Pacius stimulated in Peiresc a curiosity about antiquity, the arts and sciences, and the diversity of the natural world; and he viewed these two men as living examples of the Renaissance virtuoso: the man of taste and intelligence who communicates his knowledge as he offers his books and instruments for the use and satisfaction of his contemporaries.

Having received his degree in law, Peiresc returned to Aix and was admitted conseiller (1604) in the Parlement of Provence, taking over the seat of an uncle. In 1605 he went to Paris as secretary to Guillaume du Vair, president of the Parlement of Provence, and in 1606 accompanied ambassador Le Fevre de La Boderie to England, where he met L’Obel, the botanist of James I, and numerous learned amateurs of the arts and sciences, among them William Camden and Henry Savile. He returned to France by way of the Netherlands, meeting other antiquarians and scientists, including L’Ecluse, to whom he later sent seeds of thirty-six plants native to Provence and names of others provided by friends in Aix and its environs.

Peiresc’s attitude toward natural phenomena was exhibited in early July 1608, when mysterious splashes of red appeared suddenly on walls and trees in and around the city. Popularly attributed to a “rain of blood,” the phenomenon was regarded with superstitious awe. Peiresc considered the circumstances and concluded that red substance had been excreted by the chrysalides of the butterfly Vanessa, which was numerous in the summer of that year.

In 1610 Peiresc read Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius and learned of the latter’s discoveries made with the newly developed telescope. Peiresc’s patron, du Vair, had already acquired one of the new instruments and with it the astronomer Joseph Gaultier1 and Peiresc were the first in France (24 and 25 November) to see the four satellites of Jupiter. Galileo named these satellites Sidera Medicea. In 1611 Peiresc observed Venus and Mercury in the morning sky after sunrise, distinguished the crescent phases of Venus, and was the first to see the nebula in the sword of Orion, announced and described by Huygens in 1658.

During these years Peiresc’s main interest was the recording of the times of planetary events. The journal he kept from 24 November 1610 to 21 June 1612 preserves a record largely of observations of the relative positions of the satellites of Jupiter, gradually establishing their period of revolution. In this work he had several assistants, the most helpful being Jean Lombard, who made an expedition to Marseilles, Malta, Cyprus, and Tripoli (Lebanon), in each place recording the positions of the satellites in local time. These observations, later collated with time recorded in Aix, permitted Peiresc to calculate terrestrial longitudinal differences. This interest was maintained by Peiresc and in 1635 led finally to a more systematic and successful operation: determining the length of the Mediterranean with a good deal of accuracy.

In 1616 Peiresc again went to Paris in the service of du Vair and remained there for about seven years. Now a mature scholar, he met intellectual circles in Paris on even terms and was soon introduced to the “Cabinet” of the Dupuy brothers, learned librarians and students of law and history, in whose quarters meetings were held weekly for erudite discussions and exchange of news. Through the Dupuys, Peiresc met many men with whom he maintained contact for the rest of his life. Most important for the scientific movement was Mersenne, the Minorite father in whose cell a more specialized group met at frequent intervals. Mersenne and Peiresc regularly exchanged letters, discussing news of books, experiments, observations, and the theories and opinions that were opening fresh perspectives on knowledge of the natural world.2

While in Paris, Peiresc made a simple telescopic observation of the comet of 1618; but without mathematical instruments he could take no angular measurements, and he left no record of what motion he had perceived. In the same year Louis XIII granted him the abbacy of a monastic house at Guitres, north of Bordeaux, the income from which permitted the employment of a priest for ecclesiastical duties and also funds which he could use for the purchase of books. His position as abbé was regularized when he took the tonsure in 1624. After du Vair died in 1621, Peiresc remained in paris until the summer of 1623, when he returned to Paris when he returned to Provence and remained there for the rest of his life. During his stay in Paris he sponsored or assisted in the publication of important books, representative of his own erudite and scientific interests. These works included the Epistolae mathematicae de divinatione (1623) of George of Ragusa (1579–1622), the Histoire des grands chemins de l’empire romain (1622) by Nicolas Bergier (1567–1623), as well as the much read satiric novel Argenis by John Barclay (1582–1621) One notes that these books were all by men recently deceased or in failing health.

Peiresc’s long and fruitful association with Gassendi began about 1624. Gassendi had been teaching in Aix since 1616. When Peiresc returned from Paris he joined Gaultier in urging Gassendi to continue his philosophic writings against Aristotelianism and, later, to develop his discussion of the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus. Peiresc could lay no claim to profound philosophic insight, but he was as discontented as Gassendi with the stagnation of traditional physics. He was fully aware of the changes in intellectual perspective demanded by the accumulation of new facts in every field of human interest. His outlook was that of a collector, rather than of a systematist, who was content to accumulate artifacts and data, books and manuscripts of many kinds, plants and animals, and by correspondence to make his collections and knowledge available to innumberable friends, including many whom he would never meet.

With his associates Peiresc again timed celestial happenings on the occasion of the lunar eclipse of 20 June 1628, observed in Aix with Gassendi and Gaultier, and in Paris by Mersenne and the mathematician Mydorge. These observations permitted the calculation of the Paris–Aix longitudinal differential with much greater accuracy than had been possible before. Parhelia were observed in 1629 and a solar eclipse in 1631; but the transit of Mercury anticipated by Kepler for 7 November 1631 was missed by Gaultier and Peiresc, who had to admit sheepishly that they had taken too long over Mass and that when they had climbed to the observatory toward noon the sky was clear, the sun spotless, and the transit was over.3 Thus Gassendi, in Paris, made the only serious observation of the first predicted transit of a planet across the disk of the sun.

From this time on, celestial phenomena were studied with vigor. In 1633 sunspots attracted attention; Gassendi’s suggestion that they were actually spots on the solar surface and not small satellites close to the sun was verified. In 1634 an observatory was constructed on the roof of the Hotel Callas and observations of Jupiter, Mercury, and Saturn were made, mostly by Gassendi. Expeditions to Tycho Brahe’s observatory at Uraniborg and to Alexandria had established the meridians of those places, and now a network was already for larger operations. The lunar eclipse of 28 August 1635 was more widely observed than any other to date, largely as a result of the many priests, merchants, and secretaries of embassies (trained under Gaultier, Peiresc, and Gassendi) who were able to use instruments supplied by Peiresc and to establish more or less effective stations in Rome, Naples, Aleppo, Cairo, and Tunis. Reports from these scattered points, taken with observations made at Aix, Digne, and Paris, permitted reasonably accurate longitudinal distances covering most of the Mediterratnean, from Marseilles to the Levant, particularly Aleppo. Results concerning the dimensions of the sea were checked by consultation with experienced pilots in the port of Marseilles.

The work done by Gaultier, Gassendi, and Peiresc in determining the true length of the Mediterranean depended on the development of the telescope, more accurate timekeeping, and the presence of observers capable of using modern instruments at appropriate points on or near the coasts of the sea. The mapping of reference points on the lunar surface and the use of positions of the satellites of Jupiter permitted closer approximations to the true lenght of about 41 30’ of longitude as opposed to 60° given in the Ptolemaic maps and to the generally exaggerated dimensions of the portolans.

Innumerable personal interests also filled the life of Pieresc. His duties as a member of the sovereign court of Provence, as a sénateur, and as a priest of the church, were considerably less exacting than the needs of his gardens and collections, his correspondence, and the call of science as he understood it. He could be deemed a dilettante were it not that the activities he shared or sponsored achieved a degree of success. Besides his work in astronomy, for which Gaultier and Gassendi must be given much credit, Peiresc collected and studied fossils and crystals, as well as ancient coins and medals. He was well aware of the importance of the latter for establishing historical sequences. After Gassendi had sent him Aselli’s De lactibus (1627), Peiresc sponsore3d in his house the dissection by local surgeons of a cadaver, finding the chyliferous vessels in the human body as Aselli had found them in other mammals. Similarly, as the fame of Harvey’s De motu cordis et sanguinis spread abroad, Peiresc planned to trace in the heart the channels in the septum—which Harvey had not found but which a local surgeon, one Payen, claimed to have exhibited to Peiresc and Gassendi.

Peiresc was told of Harvey’s De motu coris in early August 1629, a full year after its publication at Frankfurt. In a letter to the Dupuys, 11 August 1629,4 he told of his interest in the book and on 15 September he thanked them for obtaining a copy for him, asking that it be sent by the post. In the meantime Gassendi had written that he had seen the book before leaving for Germany. He expressed his views in a letter to Mersenne,5 saying that the circulation through the arteries and veins seems “fort vraysemblable et establye”; but that he finds that Harvey imagines that the blood cannot pass from the right ventricle to the left by way of the spetum “là où il me souvient que le Sieur Payen nous a fait voir autrefois qu’il y non seulement des pores mais des canaux tres ouverts.”6

On 17 January 16307 Peiresc wrote to the Dupuys that the book had come; but that he had not been able to read it—“mais à ce peu j’en ay veu, je le trouve bien agreable.” He regretted the death of Payen, the local surgeon whom Gassendi claimed had made a curious observation that Harvey could have used.

Gassendi returned to this subject in the Vita,8 saying that he had informed Peiresc of this excellent new book by outlining its argument and adding that Peiresc had wished to obtain a copy in order to investigate the valves in the veins and to observe other things, including the wanderings (maeandros) of the channels of the heart, which Harvey deined but of which “I assured him” (quos Harvaeus est inficiatus, et de quibus ipse feceram securum).

There is no reference in either context to anatomical research resulting from the reading of Harvey’s book and nothing corresponding to the work on the lymphatics later done under Peiresc’s guidance. There is merely a referance, somewhat vague, to a dead local surgeon, who claimed to have discovered certain passages in the septum that Harvey did not find.

In these investigations Peiresc was a sponsor and in some cases the originator of such trials; but the actual work, even on occasion the astronomical observations he recorded, was performed by his staff and associates. There is little reason to believe he himself was sufficiently skilled to perform operations of any delicacy. He was a patron and amateur of science, the arts, and erudition, better equipped to write letters to his friends than to record concisely and effectively the investigations carried out in the Hotel Callas.

Peiresc’s interest in lenses and concave mirrors led him in 1634 to speculate about vision and to study the structure and function of different parts of the eye. With a local surgeon, Cayre, and with his own assistant, Lombard, and occasionally with Gaultier and Gassendi, Peiresc dissected the eyes of a small shark, dolphin, tuna, ox, sheep, owl, and an eagle and eaglet. The results of these investigations are recorded in MS 1877 at the Bibliotheque Ingiumbertine, Carpentras. He also recorded personal observations of the behavior of his own eyes, for example, the persistence of afterimages. None of these records were published, although there are references to them in the correspondence; nor did this work lead to theoretical or practical results.9

From about 1634 Gassendi lived more or less continuously as a guest of Peiresc whole working on the philosophy of Epicurus. Peiresc’s health, never robust, declined in early 1637; and it is related that he died on 24 June in the arms of Gassendi, the pattern of whose life was now seriously disturbed. The philosopher sought other refuges and finally turned to the congenial task of writing his widely read and influential book Viri illustris Nicolai Ciaudii Fabricii de Peiresc . . . vita, published in Paris by Cramoisy in 1641 after critical reading by Francois Luillier, Jean Chapelain, and perhaps others. Through this book Peiresc and his work came to be known to many who had neither visited his collections and library at Belgentier and Aix nor exchanged letters with him. Translated under the title The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility (1657) by William Rand and dedicated to the English virtuoso John Evelyn, this record of a patron of the sciences takes its place in the literature associated with the rise of organized natural philosophy in England.

An understanding of Peiresc’s intellectual position must be derived from his activity taken as a whole rather than from any personal statement. A practical man, he found little reason to think one kind of knowledge superior to another. He believed that an intelligent person can link experience in one discipline with what is learned in another and that cooperation and free communication are the basis on which sound knowledge—that is, science—and therefore human wisdom can advance. It is a mistake to look at merely one aspect of Peiresc’s career or to consider it from a special point of view, for in his life of service to learning in all its forms, he exemplified much of what Francis Bacon proposed in his utopian Salomon’s House. Peiresc’s protest to Cardinal Francesco Barberini (31 January 1635) on behalf of Galileo is typical of his foresight: he saw that in the long run an adverse judgment would profit no man, neither the cause of religion nor the cause of truth, and that Galileo would be a martyr, as Socrates had been, to forces of darkness and ignorance if he were right and to a gospel professing mercy if he were wrong. Like many men of science, Peiresc may be described as a skeptic, which indicates merely that he reserved judgment, awaiting truth as time reveals it. He was a product of the Renaissance in his comprehensiveness, his delight in beauty, and his spontaneous vitality. He took pleasure in old books and coins and in collecting plants and animals.

Peiresc’s gardens at Belgentier were in their day the third largest in France, surpassed only by those of the king at Paris and at Montpellier. Peiresc is known to have had jasmine from India, guaiac from South America, Persian lilacs, Egyptian papyrus, varieties of myrtle, ginger, lentiscus, and polianthes tuberosa, as well as foreign grapes. He was fond of cats, introducing the Angora cat to Europe, and briefly possessed an elephant and a type of antelope described as an “alzaron.”

Gabriel Naudé, Mazarin’s bibliophile librarian, who described Peiresc’s house at Aix as a “marché très frequente,” where one could see “des marchandises tres precieuses des deux Indes, Ethiopie, Grece, Allemagne, Italie, Espagne, Angleterre . . . aucum navire n entrait dans les ports de France sans apporter pour Peiresc des statues, des manuscrits samaritains, coptes, arabes, hebreux, chinois, grecs, les restes de l’antiquité la plus reculée.10

Although Peiresc’s ideas were often vague and their theoretical basis imprecise, the spontaneity of his reactions to events and observations led to questions that Gassendi, in particular, deemed worthy of consideration; and he often developed these ideas in directions that Peiresc could neither foresee nor exploit. Bloch has suggested that this combination of two very different intellects was fruitful not only in Gassendi’s thought but also in the evolution of science in France. It is probable that the organization of the amateurs of science in the house of Habert de Montmor, where Gassendi spent his last years, was a by-product of the extended periods during which Gassendi participated in or witnessed the intense and sometimes ill-coordinated investigations carried out at the Hotel Callas and at Belgentier.

Perhaps not skillful himself, Peiresc did not with-draw, as some do into bookish speculation, but rather drew on the talents of the skilled. His work for science was a natural extension of his taste for the arts and erudition. Two very different men summed up his work: soon after Peiresc’s death, J.-L.Guez de Balozac wrote: “Dans une fortune mediocre, il avait les pensées d’un grand seigneuir”. and at the end of the century, Pierre Bayle stated: “Jamais homme ne rendit plus de services a la Republique des Lettres que celui-ci.”11


1. P. Humbert, “Joseph Gaultier de la Villette, astronome provencal,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications1 (1948),314–342

2.Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, Mme Paul Tannery et al., eds., I-VII (Paris, 1932– ) contains much well-documented information on Peiresc and his interests.

3. P. Humbert, “A propos du passage de Mercure, 1631,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications,3 (1950), 27 ff., discuss part of the text of a letter of Peiresc of Gassendi, 22 Dec. 1631, that Tamizey de Larroque left unpublished, doubtless as “trop scientifique.”

4.Correspondance du Mersenne III, 156

5.Correspondance du Mersenne, II, 132ff.

6.Ibid., IV, 208.

7.Correspondance du Mersenne, III, 216–217

8. Also in Gassendi, Opera V, 300–301

9. Cf. P. Humbert, “Les etudes de Peiresc sur la vision,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 4 (1951), 654–659.

10. Quoted without source by Isaac Uri, Francois Guyet (Paris, 1886), 41.

11. Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique III (Paris, 1720), 2217. Jean-Louis Gues de Balzac to F. Luillier, 15 Aug. 1640, in Oeuvres, L. Moreau, ed., I (Paris, 1854), 474–478.


No published works by Peiresc are known to exist. His correspondence has been collected in Lettres de Peiresc, P. Tamizey de Larroque, ed., Documents Inedits sur l’Histoire de France, 7 vols. (Paris, 1888–1898); 10 vols. were originally planned. This ed. is difficult to use because the editor omitted many passages and sometimes whole letters as “trop scientifique”; also, the classification by correspondents does not facilitate the establishment of historical or biographical sequence. Letters received by Peiresc, the originals of which are scattered, appeared it twenty-one separately annotated publications; they have been reprinted in Les correspondants de Peiresc, Tamizey de Larroque, ed., 2 vols. (Geneva, 1972). See also Correspondants de Peiresc dans les anciens Pays-bas, R. Lebegue, ed. (Brussels, 1943).

Francis W. Gravit, The Peiresc Papers, Univeristy of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology no. 14 (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950), lists 193 separate items, ten MSS now lost, and sixty-two secondary MSS, mostly copies. It lists neither the 200 or more ancient and medieval MSS nor the 5,000 books in Peiresc’s library. Of the MSS that Gravit lists, nos. 18, 47, 65, 76, 113, 129, 132, 133, 145, and 146 seem to be the most valuable for the historians of various sciences. Gravit also wrote a substantial unpublished diss., “Peiresc, Patron of Scholars” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1939).

The basis of any biographical study must be Gassendi’s Viri illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc ... vita (Paris, 1641; The Hague, 1651, 1655), trans. by W. Rand as The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility (London, 1657); this work also appeared in Gassendi’s Opera omnia, V (Lyons, 1658) and was abridged unfaithfully by J. B. Requier, Vie de N. Peiresc, conseiller au Parlement de Provence (Paris, 1770). Pierre Borel, a physican from Castres, added factual material to Gassendi’s Vita in Auctorium ad vitam Peirescii (The Hague, 1655).

Pierre Humbert, Un amateur: Peiresc (Paris, 1933), and G. Cahen-Salvador, Un grand humaniste: Peiresc (Paris, 1951), are the most extensive studies in recent times. Each has a bibliography with reference to original documents and to studies of detail.

Olivier Rene Bloch, in La philosophie de Gassendi: nominalisme, materialisme et metaphysique, International Archives of the History of Ideas no. 38 (The Hague, 1971), remarks on both the importance of Peiresc’s cosmopolitan outlook and his emphasis on observation and experiment in the development of Gassendi’s thinking. Seymour L. Chapin, “Astronomical Activities of Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc,” in Isis, 48 (1957), 13–29, is a good survey of its field, based on the printed material but apparently without fresh contact with the MSS.

Other articles are listed by Alexandre Cioranescu in his Bibliographie de la litterature francaise du 17e siècle III (Paris, 1965–1966), nos. 53.790–53.925.

Harcourt Brown

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Peiresc, Nicolas Claude Fabri De

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