The soul of a ‘soulless speech’: a letter from Filippo Libertozzi to Athanasius Kircher, 1670


One can never be fully prepared to face the unknown and, in facing one’s subject of research, that can be something positive as a certain degree of measured incomprehension is what moves the investigation forward. The privilege of working directly which such a rich and diverse corpus of documents that is the Athanasius Kircher Correspondence, carefully kept by the Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University (APUG), provides me plenty of opportunities to be surprised, amazed, puzzled, and even entertained. The time constraints, meticulous planning, and somewhat intense, methodical rhythm of work required to carry out a research in an institution located not only in another country but in another continent – as in my situation in regards to APUG –, do not prevent me from enjoying some pleasurable moments in the company of these new acquaintances whom I get to briefly meet through the correspondence, especially through personal letters.

The letter that the Jesuit missionary Phelippe (Filippo) Libertozzi wrote to Kircher from Goa, on January 23rd, 1670 (APUG, Ms. 560, f. 82r-85v), has particularly resonated with me. I was struck by its frankness, naivety and profusion of minutiae, and thrilled by the author’s choice to use the Portuguese language, as the other preserved documents from Libertozzi in the corpus are two letters in Italian and another one in Castellano. At one point I might have laughed out loud in delight – I apologise to my colleagues at APUG who may have been disturbed by my momentary lack of decorum!

Most of the letter is dedicated to a thorough recounting of the voyage from Lisbon to Goa, beginning from the second paragraph:

Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast
Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast

Aos 22 de Abril em dia de Domingo polla manhãa levantamos anchora, e salimos da barra de Lixboa, dando nossa salva âs fortalezas, e paço d’El Rey com vintoyto tiros, e recebendoa juntamente da artelharia dos fortes. levava a Nao gente assim de mar, como de guerra, officiays, e Capitãos muyto bons. assim como se começou a sintir o cheyro do mar e a nao a dar seus balancinhos enjoarão todos de modo, e com tal fastio de stomago, que quase se botava fora as tripas, e tudo estava feyto hum hospital. (f. 82r)

[On the 22nd of April on a Sunday in the morning we raised anchor and departed from the coast of Lisbon, firing our salvo to the fortress, and the palace of El Rey with twenty-eight shots, and receiving it simultaneously from the fort artillery. The ship carried people of the sea, as of war, officers, and very good Captains. As soon as one began to smell the scent of the ocean and the ship to gently rock everyone nauseated in a way, and with such upsetting of the stomach, that one almost threw up the guts up, and everything was like a hospital.]

Amidst his report on the many difficulties faced, such as the dreadful calms, storms, deviations, lack of food, and disease, Libertozzi still had the spirit to include information on interesting and curious things observed. On f. 83r, for example, he explains how to catch the fish known as ‘Cachorra’, found in abundance after a long period of famine:

Costumão esses andar em bandos grandes em tempo que venta, e correm atrás de outros peyxinhos que chamão voadores de grandeza pouco mays d’hũa Sardinha, com duas azas, e voão fora da agoa por espaços de 40, ou 50 passos, e tornãose a mergulhar, e d’esses hay immensidade por todo o mar das Ihas Canarias pera cà. Esses peyxinhos sam de bom gusto, porem muyto perseguidos das Cachorras, e quando não podem escaper d’outro modo, poemse a voar; e acontece que ellas dão tays saltos sobre a agoa, que muytas vezes os alcanção. Poys por isso mesmo  poemse ao redor do enzol hũ panno branco, com duas pennas, que lhe encubrem a ponta, ou com doys pedaços do mesmo panno; e com as linhas vão bolindo sobre o mar, por onde passão as Cachorras, e he ordinariamente na proa, aonde quebrão as ondas e ellas cuydando, que aquella tal cousa he o peyxe voador, arremeçãose com força, pegão no enzol e ficão presas com summa facilidade. (f. 83r)

[These use to move in large groups in the windy weather, and chase other small fish which are called flyer of size a little larger than a Sardine, with two wings and they fly out of the water for distances of 40, or 50 paces, and dive again, and of these there is an immensity all over the sea from the Canary Islands to here. These little fish taste good, but are much chased by the Cachorras, and when they can not escape any other way, they begin to fly; and it happens that they [cachorra fish] leap in such a way out of the water, that many times they reach them [flying fish]. And for that reason they put a white cloth around the fish hook, with two feathers, to cover its tip, or with two pieces of the same cloth; and with the line they tease the sea, where the Cachorras travel, which is ordinarily the bow, where the waves clash and them, thinking that thing is the flying fish, thrust themselves with strength, catch the hook and get caught easily.]

Not much space, or time, is left on the last folio to address either the events that took place in the one year since their arrival in Goa or all the requests from Kircher, which Libertozzi promises to answer the following year since the ship that would take the correspondence was about to set sail – “Jà a Nao està a pique pera fazer vela” (f. 84r). A passage from the last page (f. 84v), revealing an unusual tone of melancholic longing, reminds us of a sense of distance – both social and geographical – that have been somewhat abridged by our present-day instant communication technologies:

Poys meu Carissimo Padre Athanasio receby grandissima consolação da carta de Vossa Reverencia, alembrandome sempre as cortesias que tenho recebido; e tomara, se por impossivel se pudesse, duas horas fallar com Vossa Reverencia, sendo as cartas um fallar morto, e sem alma. (f. 84v)

[As my dearest Father Athanasius I received the greatest comfort from the letter from Your Reverence; always reminding me of the courtesies I have received; and I hope, if as impossible it could be, for two hours to speak to Your Reverence, as letters are a dead, and soulless speech.]

The complete document with its transcription is available here on GATE within the Monumenta Kircheri, the project dedicated to the publication of Kircher’s works and correspondence.

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Carolina Vaz de Carvalho, PhD student in Social History, PPGHS – University of São Paulo, Brazil. Research project supported by grant#2019/21595-9, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

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