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Looking Back on the Chronovisor

Donate A Benedictine monk is said to have built a device allowing him to see and hear historical events.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #919
January 16, 2024
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Looking Back on the Chronovisor

In 1972, an incredible news story broke in the Italian press. A Benedictine monk by the name of Father Pellegrino Ernetti agreed to meet with a reporter to share news of a discovery to which he had been alluding at conferences for a number of years: the construction of a device which allowed the user to see and hear events from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. It was called the Chronovisor, and Ernetti showed the reporter a photograph of Jesus Christ dying on the cross which he had taken using the device. For years, Ernetti explained, he had worked with a team of twelve physicists to construct the Chronovisor, and it had been completed in the 1950s. Since then, Ernetti had used it to view historical events such as the trial and crucifixion of Jesus; speeches by Napoleon, Mussolini, and others; a performance of a long-lost play by the Roman poet Ennius; and more.

How should we react when we first hear a story like this? Well, one valid reaction would be to say "Cool!" and look around to see if such a device is actually real and might be something we could get ahold of and use. On the other hand, time machines are something that are not known to exist, and most of us associate them with fiction. Given this fact, I think skepticism is the appropriate starting point. The null hypothesis here — meaning our default assumption in the absence of evidence to the contrary — should be that the Chronovisor is pure fiction.

Ernetti was a real monk; he was born in 1925 and died in 1994. His training and most of his professional posts had to do with music, particularly Gregorian chant and pre-polyphonic music, in which he was an expert. It was this interest, initially spurred by studying music on an oscilloscope, that led him to develop his theories that the Chronovisor was based upon. His explanations were a bit fanciful and vague, but the basic idea was that sound waves, as well as light waves, don't ever completely fade away; but can be captured and reconstituted no matter how old they are. So you wouldn't actually travel through time, but you would be able to see and hear historical events.

There were at least two notable books about the Chronovisor written in the years after Ernetti's death: a 1997 book in German by Peter Krassa, Father Ernetti's Chronovisor: The Creation and Disappearance of the World's First Time Machine; and a 2002 book in French, The Vatican's New Mystery by Father François Brune, a French priest who was a friend of Ernetti's. Between themselves, these two volumes collected about all of Ernetti's writings and interviews, which still don't tell us much.

An interesting tell is the publisher of the Krassa book, or at least of its English translation: New Paradigm Books in Boca Raton, Florida. New Paradigm, as its name suggests, was a publisher that focused on books about metaphysics, New Age spiritualism, consciousness, self-help, mysticism, divination, healing, and all manner of woo. Thus, it's reasonable to expect any given book coming from them would be about a topic outside of accepted science.

Many of the details we have of the Chronovisor — or at least, of Ernetti's claims of a Chronovisor — come from Brune's book. Ernetti said the machine had numerous antennae designed to pick up virtually any frequency; it had some sort of direction finder that you could tune to home in on the exact person, event, or time you wanted; and then a recording device of which he would say little, which is what he used to get the alleged photograph of Jesus.

Of the twelve scientists who worked with him on this for many years, he only ever gave two of their names: Enrico Fermi, the great Italian-American physicist, and Wernher von Braun, the German-American rocket scientist and engineer, both of whom lived half a world away in the United States. Fermi's contribution to such a project might be imagined, but Von Braun would seem to be a poor fit; his areas of expertise were far from anything to do with the Chronovisor. For either Fermi or Von Braun to have relocated to Italy for weeks or months at a time to work with Ernetti would have been a major news event, and yet nothing seems to have ever been reported. I did a keyword search through e-books of both Fermi and Von Braun's biographies, and to no great surprise, found that neither biography made any mention of a Chronovisor or an Ernetti. Neither did either have a section where their man went mysteriously missing for any period of time. It would seem to be difficult to reconcile Ernetti's claims of having worked closely with them for years.

As to the question of where the Chronovisor was, and could we please see it and try it out, Ernetti told Brune that it no longer existed. Fearful of such a powerful technology falling into the wrong hands, Ernetti conferred with Fermi, Von Braun, and the others, and all agreed that it would be best to disassemble it and hide the pieces away. Considering their positions within the United States government, it seems marvelous that neither Fermi nor Von Braun drew a pistol, shot Ernetti, and spirited the Chronovisor back to the States. Or, who knows, maybe they did and it's in some government warehouse right now, in line to eventually be examined by "top men" once they finish with Indiana Jones' Ark of the Covenant. Regardless, not a single living witness ever saw the Chronovisor.

There are, in fact, but two pieces of evidence which Ernetti produced as proof of his device. The first was a photograph of the face of Jesus as he died on the cross; the second was a large piece of the text of the play Thyestes by the Roman poet Quintus Ennius. 24 short snippets of the play — only a line or two each — have survived, having been recorded by various ancients who saw the performance or read the text; the rest was gone. Ernetti's transcript of what he witnessed during the play's performance via the Chronovisor would be a revelation.

Unfortunately, as you might expect, neither of these pieces of evidence held up. The alleged photo of Jesus, which was published in the 1972 magazine article, was quickly recognized by a reader, who had a letter published in another magazine along with a photo of a postcard he had purchased in a gift store. The postcard was a closeup of the face of Jesus on a known wooden sculpture. Flip that photo horizontally, and presto, it was identical to Ernetti's. Confronted, Ernetti explained that the sculptor had worked according to instructions from a nun who had a miraculous vision of Jesus on the cross, and so of course they both had seen exactly the same thing.

The text of the play took a bit more doing. In his book, Krassa analyzed it and found that what Ernetti had recorded was about 10% of the average length of an Ennius play. So, of those 24 surviving fragments of the actual text, we'd expect about 2.4 of them to appear in Ernetti's text, assuming an even distribution. However, 16 of them did. Either this was an amazing lottery-like coincidence, or Thyestes was an incredibly short play (which is not supported by any contemporary writings about it), or somebody wrote Ernetti's snippet after having collected most of the existing actual fragments he could find to use as a starting point. It might even be possible that person had been Ernetti himself.

But to really put a nail in the coffin, Massimo Polidoro wrote for Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 2003 that Ernetti's text was examined by Katherine Eldred, an attorney with a PhD in Classics. Eldred found a number of Latin words in Ernetti's text that had not yet existed at the time Ennius wrote the play — meaning that whatever the source of this text, it was written at least 250 years after Ennius. Perhaps by Ernetti himself, one might speculate.

Finally we have a pretty weak piece of evidence that Ernetti made up the whole thing, also reported by Krassa. It is an anonymous letter — never a good start — sent to him while researching his book. The writer claimed to be a "distant relative" of Ernetti's who visited him on his deathbed, where he (of course) recanted his tale. Not the entire tale of the Chronovisor, but just the part about the Roman play. However, in addition to its dubious provenance, the confession had another weakness. In the same recantation, Ernetti stated that he'd also lived another life in which he'd been an acquaintance of — wait for it — Nostradamus, who had a Chronovisor of his own, and gave Ernetti the idea of building one himself.

If we can securely conclude that the Chronovisor never actually existed — and I think we can — then the interesting question becomes why Ernetti created the legend. In what context did it arise? The evident purpose of the legend of the Chronovisor was to intersect science with religion. But why? Was Ernetti on some rogue quest to persuade the world that science could be used to prove the literal truth of religious mythology? It seems a solid possibility, but there don't seem to be any surviving records of Ernetti expressing any such plan.

Ernetti's educational background and personal interests included ancient languages and liturgical music. Ancient writings often consisted of religious content, and Gregorian chant was specifically intended to enhance the spiritual atmosphere of church services. Expanding beyond Ernetti's personal interests, within what other context did he create the legend?

One answer lies in one of the personalities Ernetti co-opted to appear in his mythology: Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, the principal creator of the Saturn V rocket, which — at the time Ernetti broke the story of his Chronovisor — had been making world headlines taking humans to the Moon. That initial publication of Ernetti's first interview in La Domenica del Corriere came just a few days after Apollo 16 had returned to Earth and splashed down carrying astronauts John Young, Charles Duke, and Ken Mattingly. Science and human achievement were winning worldwide prominence, while clergy like Ernetti and the Church in general seemed less and less relevant.

Perhaps Ernetti felt that something like the Chronovisor — the ultimate entanglement of science with religion — could bring back the world's attention to where he felt it legitimately belonged.

Of course, this is just speculation, as there seems to be insufficient data for us to factually determine Ernetti's motivations. But it also highlights the value of skeptical analysis: the initial question, was the Chronovisor a real thing, yielded a quick answer and turned out not to be very interesting; but the next question, about the reasons for the Chronovisor legend, what role it may have played for its creator and how it was received by society, turns out to be a far richer topic, much more interesting to consider, and actually a true story.

And so, whenever you hear a story like the Chronovisor that doesn't fit into our understanding of how the world actually works, you should always be skeptical — but not just to cast doubt on the reality of the object, but to gain the much more important lesson of why people do what they do, and how we can learn from that.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Looking Back on the Chronovisor." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 16 Jan 2024. Web. 13 Jun 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Brune, F. Le Nouveau Mystère du Vatican. Paris: Albin Michel, 2002.

Krassa, P. Father Ernetti's Chronovisor: The creation and disappearance of the world's first time machine. Boca Raton: New Paradigm Books, 2000.

Maddaloni, V. "Inventata la macchina che fotografa il passato." La Domenica del Corriere. 2 May 1972, Volume 74, Number 18: 26-29.

Nahin, P. Holy Sci-Fi!: Where science fiction and religion intersect. New York: Springer, 2014. 153.

Polidoro, M. "I Remember Doing the Time Warp: The Incredible Story of Father Ernetti's Chronovisor." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 2003, Volume 27, Number 3: 22-24.


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