The story of the Jesuits—how the Society of Jesus charted the world

M. Antoni J. Ucerler:

To pursue their objectives, the Jesuits did something that they had originally determined that they should not do: establish schools. The order’s principal founder, Ignatius of Loyola, had fretted that taking on responsibility for institutions would hinder their mobility and availability for the mission, but he was soon persuaded that education could be a potent instrument of cultural influence and religious transformation. Their first college was established in Messina in Sicily in 1548. Dozens of colleges were built throughout Italy under the patronage of the local nobility and of rulers and within decades there were several hundred Jesuit institutions of learning across Europe, Latin America and Asia. But none was more important than the Collegio Romano or Roman College, established in 1551 and dedicated to religioni et bonis artibus, ‘religion and solid learning [the arts]’ – a simple motto summarising what it sought to achieve. These new schools became powerhouses of learning and repositories of knowledge, regulated by carefully crafted guidelines, known as the Ratio studiorum, which outlined in great detail a curriculum that included the subjects of the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), as well as philosophy, theology, and other subjects, including elaborate theatrical performances. They thus prescribed a rigorous training both in the classical studia humanitatis and in the sciences, with a special emphasis on mathematics, physics and astronomy.

It was at the Roman College that the Jesuits engaged in debate with Galileo. Most prominent among them was Christopher Clavius (1538– 1612), who taught mathematics and astronomy to generations of students. Clavius’s 1574 Latin edition of Euclid’s Elementsbecame a popular text book, was reprinted dozens of times over an 80-year period and earned him the title of the ‘Euclid of the 16th century’. The college was also where that most remarkable of 17th-century polymaths and eccentric par excellence, Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), set up his famous hall of wonders and cabinet of curiosities, which became the Roman College Museum. The sources for the objects and information that he so copiously reproduced in his works were in great part his fellow Jesuits, engaged in the principal and original pursuit of the Society – working in its missions across the globe. For better or for worse, it was an exciting and transformative age of maritime exploration and discovery and the Jesuits took full advantage of the new horizons beyond Europe, which they no longer considered their final frontier.