Not long ago, I was leafing through an old notebook, of the kind kept by artists on the prowl for imagery. I found some 16th century recipes I’d copied out, lines rich with imagery that never made it into a painting. “If you yearn to turn a woman green,” one recipe urged, “decoct a chameleon into her bath.”
Whose thinking was this? I had his name, Giambattista Della Porta of Naples, and the work referenced was his 20-volume Magia naturalis ( The Book of Natural Magic), a compendium of popular science of the 1550’s that gave its author, then a very young man, renown almost beyond telling. Prof. Louise George Clubb, a scholar of Italian studies, writes of his reputation as a “wonder-worker who had penetrated the secrets of nature, and was expected at any moment to discover the philosopher’s stone.” The Duke of Mantua came to Naples for his sake, the Duke of Florence and the Emperor Rudolph sent emissaries. He was a seer, a cryptographer, a dramatist, a mathematician, a horticulturist, a physician – and so much more. A polymath, it used to be called.
And he could spare a thought for how to turn a woman green.
The painting under the title, Caspar van Wittel's View of the Largo di Palazzo, was painted after Della Porta's death, but shows a Naples that would have been familiar to him. That's the Royal Palace on the right, the old seat of the Viceroy, built in 1533. In the 1830's, it made room for the Teatro San Carlo. The church buildings on the left were demolished in the Neoclassical period for something grander — the ecclesiastical complex of San Francesco di Paola, with its vast colonnades. And it's no longer the Largo di Palazzo, but the Piazza del Plebiscito, renamed for the plebiscite in 1860 that brought Naples into the unified kingdom of Italy. So this is neither a view nor even a viewpoint — you can't stand just there — that can any more be had. Della Porta of Naples might recognize it today only as the largest public space in the city, with the red-walled Royal Palace, currently the National Library, a persistent gracious feature.
Knowledge itself is, always, the largest public space in the city; the eye of Della Porta, who died old in 1615, might search that space frantically for moorings now, though he was once thought — by himself, among others — to know all that there was to know. Prof. Clubb observes that, with regard to his intellectual prowess, he was “more content than any man is entitled to be.” And if his most ardent pursuit was the confirmation of his own thinking, he was not alone in that. Nor would he be today, among the serious.
Della Porta rose to his position without a university education — this in a land where the oldest continuously operating university in the West, the University of Bologna, dates to the last years of the 11th century. Little is known about his early education except that it was private. He was born, in 1535 (probably — he lied about his age) to leisure, if not to wealth, and he and his two brothers were able to acquire books and tuition in the timeless way of well-funded students. Learned men gathered in the family house, an early endowment of intellectual capital. The three brothers studied music in a particularly concerted fashion, and all were declared free of that talent. But there is an aristocratic tradition of high involvement in an art for which one is little-suited that amounts almost to a principle, here attested to. No record shows his ever having been paid for a day's work in the ordinary sense, though patronage and princely gifts were a lifelong benison, seeing him through the ebb and flow of family fortunes, allowing him to travel more than most illustrious men and to dazzle every kind of visitor to his fine house in the old quarter of Naples.
A Science of Secrets
Della Porta did love to show off. As Italy's foremost magus, he would not have understood that as a bad but as a fitting thing. It is well to remember the terrible sincerity he brought to his work. Noting that the kings of Persia studied magic, he was exasperatingly genuine in his belief that natural magic could be an aid to government. It was no prank, but a teasing out of the hidden in nature, mistress of so many secrets. And, arising from close study of nature rather than metaphysics, natural magic had no truck with demons.
In Science and the Secrets of Nature, William Eamon observes that for Della Porta, “…nature cloaks herself in masks, which it is the task of the naturalist to remove, thereby exposing nature's secrets. The illusions and sleights of hand that Della Porta included in his books were imitations of nature hiding herself […], part of the unmasking of nature that natural magic aimed to accomplish […] But if nature 'plays' for those who understand her secrets, she also deceives those ignorant of causes, as a juggler, magician or craftsman seems to create marvels in the eyes of amazed onlookers. Illustrating the mechanism underlying cunning, whether human or natural, was an essential part of Della Porta's 'science of secrets.' “
How much of this thinking has come down to us as a legacy? Like the kings of Persia, government leaders currently resort to magic for guidance, both in countries deemed backwards and in countries we hope are more progressive than their leaders. As in Della Porta's day, telling magic from science is not easy for everyone, and when there is a conflict, many of us still like magic to win.
Less disturbingly, much of this thinking remains present in traditions of natural medicine that trace their roots back to the Middle Ages and earlier. The notion that a plant suggests by its appearance its medicinal use — the doctrine of signatures — is seen as a fundamental truth in traditional medicine. Beets cannot but be good for all complaints to do with the blood, for example. Last year, there was much mainstream science news about beet juice as an effective treatment for hypertension. Not exactly a matter of the composition of the blood, but it's quaint to ponder whether there's a vindication of natural magic here, and to remember that what “naturalists” did in the 16th century was the special kind of foolishness that led to experimental science.
Certainly the elevated place then accorded the scientist-showman himself is secure in our own time — we track with furious industry the careers of our science superstars.
Magic with Demons
Anyone with an eye for old prints might well recognize Della Porta from the illustrations in his works, especially the paired images of beastly and human countenances. Physiognomy was not his invention, but he kick-started it — a role he would play in optics and magnetics as well, for he was a polymath who was by no means all nonsense. Physiognomy expressed the secret meaning of deep similarities where one might not ordinarily look for them, but which are also hidden in plain sight. Similarities between the faces of men and beasts, for example. The nobility of a horse can be seen in the bearing of a man who walks with his head held high, whereas men who resemble donkeys are timorous and stupid. Malice is evident in the ram-faced, be they man or beast. First published in 1586, De humana physiognomia was translated into Italian in 1598, and saw 19 editions by 1701.
There is celestial physiognomy too, and it is a striking repudiation of astrology. Della Porta gives an account of the current state of astrology, the better to correct those who let their movements be guided by it. He concludes, “[B]ut things work differently, they do not derive from planets: we declare that they are caused by humours…” While that lacks for accuracy, it discards the preposterous in favor of the less preposterous, so it may count as progress, and was in any case written at a time that astrology was not only a means of predicting the course of a life but a branch of applied mathematics.
To read the Magia naturalis, as well as Della Porta's subsequent works — and he wrote, and wrote and wrote — is hardly to take a ringside seat as the last Neoplatonist struggles to join the Scientific Revolution in one clean upward arc. Through his final years, he was entirely capable of straining away from the Zeitgeist. One of his last works, a Taumatologia, is lost. That would be magic that was assisted by demons. Pushing 80, he may have felt brave enough to engage openly with the subject. And so much of the public side of his earlier career had been driven by one gigantic idea — keeping clear of the papal Inquisition. They had him once. And it could never, ever happen again.
The Academy of Secrets
Around 1560, Della Porta got himself in an interesting position by founding the Academy of Secrets, a scientific society. Whoever wanted entrance into the academy had to discover a secret of nature unknown to anyone else. Prof. Clubb writes, “To judge by some of the harebrained fictions Della Porta published as scientific revelations, the emphasis was on meraviglie [marvels] rather than on empirical proof. Nevertheless, the founder's pride is his academy was justified, for the joint experiments of its members produced many of the valid observations of phenomena in physics, optics, and botany which appear in the greatly augmented second edition of Magia.”
Della Porta produced dramatic literature alongside works on horticulture, cryptography and magic, though by the 1570's none of his plays had been performed. He was nonetheless praised for them by the scholar Giovanni Matteo Toscano. And it was as well to have an unobjectionable literary sideline, for by 1578, there was a distinct whiff of sulfur about the doings of the Academy of Secrets. Their founder was called to Rome to answer for it.
No one knows quite how it happened, for much documentary evidence, mainly in the form of letters, has been suppressed — presumably by Della Porta, his family and associates. Having a brush with the Inquisition was very much a thing to hush up. Endearing though it may be to ourselves, it can have caused Della Porta and his family nothing but fear and revulsion.
While “a brush with the Inquisition” cannot approach the horror of what Giordano Bruno later endured, it is worth noting that failure to back down from a position the Inquisition found untenable could have resulted in ostracism, revocation of license to publish, house arrest, prison and/or execution — for anyone. Bruno, a monk, was not strictly speaking burned to death as a martyr for science but for heterodoxy in his firm faith. Tommaso Campanella, a Calabrian monk-philosopher, spent 27 years in prison, convicted as a heretic. A brave man, though hardly a free-thinker, he intervened on Galileo's behalf at the time of his first trial — a gesture that can have done Galileo no good. The danger posed by the Inquisition to Galileo in the 1630's — almost half a century after Della Porta's troubles — was so great one can only wonder that highly placed admirers could act to mitigate it. And that, in the presence of certain risk to themselves, they did.
The problem Rome had with Della Porta may have begun as early as 1558, with a denunciation. Over the next 20 years, two titles were bestowed on him by the populace of Naples — Indovino and Mago, seer and magician. His prophesies had a way of coming true, never a matter for churchly indifference. By a papal order that has not come to light, the Academy of Secrets was disbanded. And Della Porta was let off with a warning, its clangorous echo ringing down the four decades left to him. He never forgot. And he promptly joined a Jesuit lay order, going in for good works one whole day a week thenceforth.
On those occasions the Inquisition had no sterner thing to hand you, it would make unrefusable recommendations as to your next steps. Della Porta was commanded to write a comedy. It was not unheard of to be ordered to make reparations this way. Perfectly understandably, he ramped up his career as a dramatist.
The scholars who have inquired most deeply into Della Porta's life and times do not find that his kind of mind — mercurial, curious, oriented to practical results even in his penchant for the unperformable experiment — would truly have shifted into low gear from fright. He was not so fond of speculative thought as of finding out secrets — how to make a guest mad-drunk by introducing camel froth into his wine, or how to perfect the camera obscura with a convex lens — and it was speculative thought that the Inquisition wished most to destroy.
The Academy of the Lynx-Eyed
Always clubby and delighted to be flattered by nobles, Della Porta enjoyed in his last years a remarkable association with a handful of very young men who saw themselves as the advance guard of science. The Academy of the Lynx-Eyed (Accademia dei Lincei) was founded in 1603 by 18-year old Federico Cesi, left, the duke of Acquasparta. Its stated purpose, in Cesi's own words, was “reading this great, true, and universal book of the world.” It would become the first modern scientific society in Europe, but it made its beginnings on shaky ground. The atmosphere of suspicion that was a feature of Counter-Reformation Rome was hardly favorable to the formation of such a society, and Cesi's own father found it not a good idea.
The Lynxes took their name from the forest animal celebrated by Pliny as “the most clear-sighted of all quadrupeds.” Writing about the Lynxes in a May, 1998 article for Natural History magazine, Stephen Jay Gould maintains that they “flourished largely because Cesi managed to keep the suspicions of popes and cardinals at bay while science prepared to fracture old views of the cosmos and develop radically new theories about the nature of matter and causation.”
To read about the early years of the Lynxes is to appreciate Cesi for a master diplomat at a time that science desperately needed a diplomatic corps. Adroitly acting to link the gravitas of the rear guard with his own more forward looking aims, he traveled in 1610 from Rome to Naples to recruit the 75-year old Della Porta, with whom he had been corresponding for two years, as the fifth Lynx. For all he belonged to a fading era then, Della Porta was a name to conjure with. There could be no better in all Italy, until one year later, when Galileo became the sixth Lynx.
The Eternally Contentious Issue of Priority
Della Porta's gifts to science may still not be entirely weighed up, but fair treatment was meted out to him by Prof. Luisa Muraro, the Italian philosopher and feminist, in her 1978 monograph, Giambattista Della Porta mago e scienziato. Both Kepler and Descartes studied his writings on optics, with Kepler praising him as the inventor of the telescope. Before William Gilbert wrote De magnete, in 1600, he read the beefed up second edition of the Magia naturalis. So, while it is possible to make the case that Gilbert could have written De magnete without Della Porta, Prof. Muraro shows that he did not.
Stephen Jay Gould writes about the “eternally contentious issue of priority” in assigning credit for the invention of the telescope. “Galileo never claimed that he had invented the telescope from scratch. He stated that he had heard reports about a crude version during a trip to Venice in 1609. He recognized the optical principles behind the device and then built a more powerful machine that could survey the heavens. But Della Porta, who had used lenses and mirrors for many demonstrations and illusions in his Magia naturalis and who understood the theory of optics quite well, then claimed that he had formulated all the principles for building a telescope (although he had not constructed the device) and therefore deserved primary credit for the invention. Although tensions remained high, the festering issue never became an overt battle royal because Galileo and Della Porta held each other in mutual respect, and Della Porta died in 1615 before any growing bitterness could get out of hand.”
Alongside work on the lost Taumatologia, it was a campaign to reclaim credit for the telescope that occupied much of Della Porta's final years. One mind divided between the magic of demons and the starry message speaks to the impossibility, in any era, of being fully aligned with even the most compelling future direction. But we should expect contradictions from an aged seer who spent his youth unmasking nature, who, when still a boy, fathomed how to turn a woman green.
Below, written by Della Porta when he was close to death, is a letter now in the archives of the Museo di Storia della Scienza, in Florence. He has sketched for his correspondent, Federico Cesi, the simple tube equipped with mirror and lenses as he had imagined but never built it, 30 years earlier. Or, as he imagined that he had imagined it.
Web Resources for this Article
A compendious amateur site of Della Porteana, with well chosen excerpts from pertinent material
A site with timelines about technologies, including the camera obscura, leading to the cinema
Historical Anatomies on the Web, with Della Porta's Physiognomies
Official site of the Accademia dei Lincei, some English translation available
Wikipedia page for Giambattista Della Porta
Wikipedia page for Federico Cesi
Article on the Lynxes by Stephen Jay Gould, from Natural History magazine, May, 1998
Giambattista Della Porta mago e scienziato, by Luisa Muraro, Feltrinelli, 1978
Thinking with Demons, by Stuart Clark, Oxford University Press, 1997
Science and the Secrets of Nature, by William Eamon, Princeton University Press, 1996
The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History, by David Freedberg, University of Chicago Press, 2002
Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist, by Louise George Clubb, Princeton University Press, 1965