Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1 December 1580 – 24 June 1637), often known simply as Peiresc, or by the Latin form of his name Peirescius, was a French astronomer, antiquary and savant, who maintained a wide correspondence with scientists, and was a successful organizer of scientific inquiry.
His research included a determination of the difference in longitude of various locations in Europe, around the Mediterranean, and in North Africa.
Peiresc’s father was a higher magistrate and city surgeon in Provence from a wealthy noble family, who with his wife fled their home town of Aix-en-Provence to avoid the plague raging there, settling in Belgentier in Var.
Peiresc was born in Belgentier and educated in Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and at the Jesuit college at Tournon.
At Toulon, he first became interested in astronomy. Studying law and becoming interested in archaeology, he travelled to Italy, Switzerland and France in 1599, and finally finished his legal studies in 1604 at the University of Montpellier.
It was also in 1604 that he assumed the name Peiresc after a domain in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (now spelled Peyresq) which he had inherited from his father, although he himself never visited it.
After receiving his degree, he travelled to Paris (in 1605-1606, with his patron Guillaume du Vair, president of the Parlement of Provence), London and Flanders before returning to Aix in 1607 to take over his uncle’s position as conseiller in the Parlement of Provence under du Vair. He held this post until 1615.
From 1615 until 1622, Peiresc again visited Paris with du Vair. He then returned to Provence to serve as senator of the sovereign court. He became a patron of science and art, studied fossils, and supported the astronomer Pierre Gassendi from 1634 to 1637.
Peiresc’s position as a great intellectual at the time of the scientific revolution has led to his being called a “Prince of the Republic of Letters”.
He was also a noted politician in his home region, and a tireless letter-writer (10,000 of his letters survive, and he was in constant correspondence with Malherbe, Hugo Grotius, the brothers Dupuy, Alphonse-Louis du Plessis de Richelieu, and with his great friend Rubens. His correspondence to François de Malherbe throws light on the personality of Malherbe’s troubled son Marc-Antoine Malherbe.
Peiresc’s house in Aix-en-Provence was a veritable museum, and held a mix of antique sculptures, modern paintings, medals, books and gardens with exotic plants. He acquired the Byzantine Barberini ivory (it is not known how or from whom) and offered it to Francesco Barberini: the work is now in the Louvre.
He had the Codex Luxemburgensis, the surviving Carolingian copy of the Chronography of 354 in his possession for many years; after his death it disappeared.
He owned over 18,000 coins and medals, and was also an archaeologist, amateur artist, historian (he demonstrated that Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain set out not from Calais but from St Omer), Egyptologist, botanist, zoologist (studying chameleons, crocodiles, the elephant and the alzaron, a sort of Nubian gazelle with a bull-like head, now disappeared), physiologist, geographer (put on the project of linking Aix to Marseilles), and ecologist.
Peiresc was also an astronomer. In 1610 du Vair purchased a telescope, which Peiresc and Joseph Gaultier used for observing the skies, including Jupiter’s moons; his courtly suggestion that individual names from the Medici family be applied to these “Medicean stars” was not taken up.
Peiresc discovered the Orion Nebula in 1610; Gaultier became the second person to see it in the telescope. To determine longitude with greater precision, he coordinated the observation of the lunar eclipses of 28 August 1635 right across the Mediterranean; this allowed him to work out that the Mediterranean sea was in fact 1,000 km shorter than had previously been thought.
Peiresc also wrote letters to Galileo, Pierre Gassendi and Tommaso Campanella, two of whom he defended when they were arrested by the Inquisition.
Peiresc wrote an “abridged history of Provence”, but died before editing it: it was only published (edited by Jacques Ferrier and Michel Feuillas) in 1982. With Gassendi’s support, notably financially, he and the engraver Claude Mellan began to produce a map of the Moon’s surface, but again Peiresc died before completing it.
Peiresc died on 24 June 1637 in Aix-en-Provence.