n i c o l a s - c l
a u d e f a b r i d e p e i r
e s c
b i o g r a p h i c a l s k e t c h
(1580-1637) was arguably the most prolific
correspondent associated with the New Science. There is little question
he was the most widely known scientific patron of his day, his influence
extending well-beyond France, Italy, England, Belgium, Germany, and the
Netherlands to Egypt and the further reaches of the Levant.
But it would be a mistake to argue that Peiresc was a scientist. He was, perhaps above all, a collector and a correspondent. To be sure, his interests in nature covered the alphabet from Astronomy to Zoology, just as he moved gracefully from antiquities, classical studies, ancient languages, and philology to collecting coins, medals, books, and manuscripts. Antiquarians will recall that by legend he introduced the Angora cat into Europe, not to mention numerous herbs and ornamental plants, among them the first European claim to a variety of rhododendron. For all that, Peiresc was more than a fancier and friend of the New Science. His interest was authentic, his activities important. In 1610, after reading Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius, Peiresc organized and conducted a number of astronomical observations, often at multiple sites. These observations were of particular value in deriving more acceptable measures of terrestrial longitude.
Part of Peiresc's fame and influence must be measured by his relationship with Gassendi. Fast friends, Peiresc served as Gassendi's patron and sometime collaborator from 1624 until his death in 1637. In addition to their cooperative work in astronomy, Peiresc offered encouragement and important information to Gassendi's emerging theory of vision. From at least the early 1630s they worked together at Aix and at Peiresc's home at Belgentier conducting experiments with all manner of lenses and mirrors and undertaking numerous dissections of eyes-- from birds, bulls, cats, fish, and even a whale. Peiresc's correspondence network tells us much about these and other activities and, not least, much about the social and cultural underpinnings of the New Science-- patronage, politics, and publication.
Peiresc's correspondence network is discussed elsewhere on this website. Suffice it to say in summary that it was the largest communication network of its kind during the first half of the 17th century. Peiresc could boast of some 500 correspondents from all the major countries of Europe and numerous others throughout the Mediterranean.
As legend has it, at Peiresc's death he left a reported 10,000 - 14,000 letters; perhaps half that number is still extant. Publication of Peiresc's letters began early and by the late 18th century dozens had appeared in various installments in the Magazin Encyclopedique and elsewhere. Over the last two hundred years Peiresc letters have continued to appear willy-nilly in dozens of different journals and in the collected correspondence of other learned figures.
The first major effort to publish a substantial portion of the Peiresc letters came at the end of the 19th century. Under the direction of Philippe Tamizey de Larroque, publication of ten (or eleven) volumes of Peiresc letters were proposed but only seven appeared before Tamizey's death (Lettres de Peiresc, 7 vols. Paris 1888-1898). Unfortunately, the concept of this project was seriously flawed, and the overall quality of editing has since been seriously criticized by specialists. Two additional volumes of Peiresc letters subsequently appeared, thus drawing together a spate of scattered letters published in a variety of local journals, (Les correspondants de Peiresc, Lettres inédites, reprinted, Slatkine Reprints, Geneva 1972, 2 volumes). During the second half of this century a number of individual volumes, published by separate editors, have continued to appear, among them Peiresc's exchanges with Aleandro, Naudé, del Pozzo, Saumaise, and others.
For a convenient working bibliography of Peiresc's published letters, see the Appendix to my chapter 'Peiresc As Correspondent: The Republic of Letters & the "Geography of Ideas"' in Science unbound, Chapter 2, ed. B. Dolan, Umeå, 1998. This chapter also discusses the history of Peiresc's manuscript letters, the 'Peiresc Legend,' and various difficulties encountered in making sense of Peiresc's epistolary legacy. If you have questions or comments please E-Me: firstname.lastname@example.org