Illustrating China through its Writing: Athanasius Kircher’s Spectacle of Words, Images, and Word-images

Dinu Luca


Even a cursory glance at the frontispieces reproduced in figures 1 and 2 above will show immediately that the two, while separated by only fifty years, diverge in a significant number of ways, the most striking of which is no doubt the highly different role played by words in their respective take-up: prominently centring the frontispiece on the right, they are much less evident in the one on the left – of direct interest here – where they seem to be both somewhat lost among the many visual elements to be presently reviewed below and yet never really absent from the central axis of the image. Unlike the earlier frontispiece, where discipline – discoursive, representational or otherwise – would seem to dominate, in the Baroque spectacle of lights and shadows of the later illustration (just like, as we shall see, in the larger spectacle of knowledge following behind it), words and images engage in a complicated performance of correspondences and echoes, verbalisation and silence, or sameness and difference, by means of which China is staged for the curious minds of seventeenth century Europe. Starting from the frontispiece proper and moving to the book behind it, I will attempt below first to throw some light on the master in charge of this visual-textual show and outline the general manner in which he structures it, then discuss several concrete ways in which he articulates it through words and images, and ultimately focus on the dazzling hybrid of ‘word-images’ in the last chapter of the book – boxed ‘primitive’ and contemporary Chinese characters and the discourses they supposedly articulate.

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