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A Table Containing the General Heads of Natural Magick
"Preface To The
(Extracted portions only about Della Porta's Life)
Della Porta's Life
Giambattista Della Porta
Louise George Clubb
Princeton University Press
Princeton, New Jersey, 1965
The two greatest tourist attractions of Naples about the year 1600 were, according to contemporary report, the baths at Pozzuoli and Giambattista Della Porta. Certainly Della Porta was one of the most famous men in Italy. The Emperor Rudolph and the Duke of Florence sent embassies,and the Duke of Mantua came in person to see the Neapolitan wonder-worker who had penetrated the secrets of nature and was expected at any moment to discover the philosopher's stone. He could count as friends, admirers, or detractors the most learned men of his time. Kepler, for example, and Sarpi, Bodin, Campanella, Peiresc, and Galileo. The literate world knew the results of Della Porta's investigations, experiments, and speculation through his heterogeneous publications, for the earliest edition of his Magiae naturalis (Neapoli, 1558) to De aeris transmutationibus (Romae, 1610), the last of his scientific works printed in his lifetime. He wrote on cryptography, horticulture, optics, mnemonics, meteorology, physics, astrology, physiognomy, mathematics, and fortification, and when he died at eighty, he was preparing a treatise in support of his claim to the invention of the telescope.....
Della Porta's Life
Giovanni Battista was the third of Nardo Antonio Della Porta's four sons, and the second of the three who survived childhood. The boy's mother was a Neapolitan patrician, sister to Adriano Guglielmo Spadafora (or Spatafora) learned conservator quinternionum of the Naples archives from 1536. The Della Portas claimed a family tree planted in the time of Hannibal. It flourished later in the person of the Lombard prince Adalferio, whose descendants held important positions in Salerno, Vico Equense, and Naples. The main branch of the family, established in Salerno, was considered noble from the beginning of Angevine rule in the thirteenth century, but the subsidiary line form which Nardo's father, Ferdinando, sprang seems to have been less exalted. Father and son are referred to in various documents, however, as magnifici, a term often used to denote untitled property owners of good birth.
Nardo Antonio's considerable wealth comprised land and ships. He once leased three vessels to Charles V, and together with his father and three uncles, received from the emperor in 1548 the formal status of familiar or court domestic, exemption from all tribunals but the Collaterale, and the right to maintain armed followers. From 1541 Nardo Antonio held the office of Scrivano di Mandamento or royal secretary for civil appeals to the vicariate, in which he was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Gian Vincenzo. Like many other petty nobles of the time, some of the Della Portas lost their fortunes in 1551 by supporting the unsuccessful anti-Spanish rebellion of Ferrante Sanseverino, prince of Salerno, but Nardo Antonio must have cherished more profitable sympathies, for the Spanish viceroy never revoked his privileges nor deprived the family of the office which Gian Vincenzo held for many years.
The Neapolitan branch of the Della Portas had three domiciles. A town house in Via Toledo near the Piazza Carita, in that aromatic hive known today as Napoli vecchia but forming then the most elegant central section of the city; a villa in Due Porte, a tiny hamlet in the hills immediately to the northwest of Naples; and another, more magnificent, villa at Vico Equense. This little paradise on the sea, twelve miles south of the city, had been from the time of the Angevine kings a favored summer resort of aristocratic Neapolitans, who followed the example of Charles II by spending lavishly on local improvements. In the sixteenth century it became the site of the printing presses of Giovanni Cacchio, Carlino e Pace, and Orazio Salviani, from which issued learned texts in some of the most beautiful editions of the period. The Villa delle Pradelle at Vico Equense may well have been the actual birthplace of Giambattista and his brothers, for although he always signed himself "napolentano" it appears that all his life Della Porta exercised rights in Vico Equense's church politics permitted only to the native-born landowners.
For many years the date of Della Porta's birth was, owing to his own mis-statements, a controversial subject, providing material for numerous little scholarly notes and articles and resulting in the playwright-scientist's being considered in some quarters a monster of unscientific inaccuracy, and in others a congenital liar. The preface to the first edition of Magiae naturalis gives an impression of experience and wisdom, but in the preface to the second edition of 1589, Della Porta stated that he was then fifty and that he had first published the book at fifteen. The earliest known edition, however, is that of 1558. In 1612 he wrote not Cardinal Borromeo that his Taumatologia contained the labors of seventy-seven years. Della Porta was, in fact, seventy-seven at this time, but since even Hercules could hardly have begun such intellectual labors in the cradle, some scholars have been misled by his statement to think he was eighty-five when he died in 1615, a misconception carelessly launched by Prince Cesi in 1625. Even the date of his death was temporarily cast in doubt by a stonecutter's error in lettering the family tomb. Such discrepancies and the equivocation of Della Porta's own account are responsible for Gabrieli's and Duchesne's dating his birth 1538 and 1545, respectively, and for Guiscardi's dating his death 1610. Now that Gioacchino Paparelli has persuasively marshaled the arguments for dating Della Porta's birth between October 3 and November 15, 1535, there remains in question only the reason for the mystery. It is likely that Della Porta's conflicting statements about his age were dictated less by forgetfulness or sheer inability to tell the truth than by his instinct for showmanship in presenting an image of himself to the world, and in part by the necessity of self-defense. He loved secrets and ceremony, enjoyed mystifying the public, and cultivated a remarkable variety of interests, some of which were frowned on by the Inquisition. Had the Holy Office not threatened, or had he not felt the Renaissance urge to be, or at least seem to be, simultaneously as many things as possible, he might have spared himself his unsynchronized attempts to appear now more precocious, now more mature than he actually was.
Circumstances more than half determined Della Porta's choice of a many-faceted persona for himself, by providing him with a wonderfully broad education. Nardo Antonio had a taste for learning, and so delighted in the company of philosophers, mathematicians, poets, and musicians that his house in Naples became a veritable academy. In how weather the erudite society was probably transported down the coast to the Villa delle Pradelle, as Giambattista's learned circle of friends was to be in later years. In this intellectual ambience Gian Vincenzo, Giambattista, and Gian Ferrante were reared, stimulated by celebrated visitors and tutored by permanent members of the group. Giambattista's lifelong devotion to his maternal uncle, and the similarity between their minds and methods observed by Bernardino Rota suggest that Spadafora supervised his nephew's education, which included the usual humanistic curriculum but emphasized mathematics and medicine. Della Porta's first biographer, Pompeo Sarnelli, skims over the early years of schooling by remarking that in boyhood the future playwright and scientist shone in literary studies, composing admirable orations in Latin and the vernacular after he had mastered rhetoric and poetics, and excelled in "natural philosophy," substituting his own speculations wherever the opinions of his masters struck him as commonplace. Among this masters were Domenico Pizzimenti, classicist and alchemist, Donato Antonio Altomare and Giovanni Antonio Pisano, philosophers and doctors active in Naples during Della Porta's youth. The last of these, who was also public lecturer in applied medicine from 1557 to 1585 and attracted capacity crowds, is praised by Della Porta in the dedication of De refractione (1593) to Pisano's son, Ottavio. Possibly Della Porta also attended lectures by the adventurous physician Girolamo Cardano, who roamed the peninsula, expounding his wild and brilliant theories at every university which received him. Although the University of Naples was not officially established until 1581, there were scuole pubbliche fostering science, to which Giovanni Domenico di Lega, was the author of a very early sacred tragedy. Possibly these were among the first examples of drama set before the young Della Porta. In spite of the difficulty of dating the composition of most of his dramatic works, it is safe to suppose that he first tried his had at playwriting in boyhood, and that some of his published comedies were revisions of scripts he originally produced for the amateur players among his family and friends, a conclusion supported by several of his contemporaries' later references to Della Porta's literary precocity. The first of his comedies, L'Olimpia, was published in 1589 but composed in "i suoi primi anni," according to Pompeo Barbarito. Regrettably, the editor did not specify which years he meant. The earliest possible date for the play is 1550.
In that year Della Porta was fifteen, the age at which he claims to have published the first edition of the Magia. In the absence of an edition to substantiate the claim, however, and despite the twisting and turning of his words and sates by scholars who wish to avoid impugning his veracity, it seems necessary either to agree with Edward Rosen that Della Porta was quite willing to lie in order to pass himself off on the public as a "wunderkind," or to assume that he hoped to excuse as youthful errors certain magic formulae in the book which first attracted the Inquisition's attention to him. But although the Magiae was not printed until Della Porta was twenty-three, it is very probable that at fifteen he was already experimenting with chemicals, herbs, and magnets, and collecting the occult rumors which make up the first version of this remarkable work. His classics master, Pizzimenti, later privately claimed to the author of the original Magiae. But whatever aid he may have received, Della Porta was universally credited with the work. The years of his young manhood, of which even less is known than of other parts of his long, poorly documented life, were probably the most untroubled he was ever to enjoy, for the clouds that were to settle permanently over him later had not appeared and could not appear until they had been set in motion by the disquieting reputation he was now in the process of acquiring.
In this pleasant period perhaps occurred the youthful love affair recorded by Giulio Cesare Capaccio. Once involved, Della Porta felt that he had been incautious and determined to fall out of love. Either his will power was strong or his love weak, for he succeeded, then celebrated his release by inventing an impresa: a butterfly breaking out of a cocoon, with the motto, Et feci et fregi. His own man once more, Giambattista could return to the laboratory.
He was not working alone. Gian Vincenzo followed the example of their uncle in building a collection of books, statues, and ancient marbles. His interest lay more in the library then the laboratory, and he put his classical learning at the disposal of his experimenting younger brother. The elder was more proficient in the art of astrology, which fascinated them both, and it has been suggested that he taught Giambattista much of what he knew, especially about the classical methods of prognostication. There was great love between the two, and marked taste Giambattista displayed all his life for working in fellowship was undoubtedly fostered not only by the atmosphere of his father's circle, but also by the long and fruitful association with his quiet, learned elder brother. The youngest, Gian Ferrante, shared the other's interests, but before fame touched the family he died, leaving behind an excellent collection of crystals and geological specimens as a monument to his scholarly pursuits. About the time of his death the Della Porta fortunes dwindled a bit, necessitating the sale of Gian Ferrante's collection.
The financial crisis may have been precipitated by expenditures in the name of learning. The mysterious and undoubtedly costly academy of the Segreti was formed probably before Della Porta's first travels, during the period when he was collecting material and preparing his first published work. Each aspirant to the academy, which met in its founder's home, was required to discover a secret of nature unknown to the rest of mankind. To judge by some of the harebrained fictions Della Porta published as scientific revelations, the emphasis was on meraviglia 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 Magiae. It is not known whether or not the Segreti were organized before 1558, in time to contribute to the first edition, that shorter and less scientific potpourri of magic.
While his experiments proceeded apace, Della Porta turned another part of his mercurial mind to an interest that lay outside the laboratory. The art of cryptography appealed to his love of mystery, and since its use i diplomatic dispatches provided a practical demand for a work on the subject, he found it worth his while to make a compilation of cipher systems. Published in 1563, De furtivis literarum added greatly to his growing fame. By 1564 he was so well-known as to be included among the celebrities whose witty sayings were being collected by Lodovico Domenichi for the sixth edition of his Facetie.
About this time Della Porta began to travel. In Spain he presented Philip II with his book on ciphers. If the gift was in printed form, it may be assumed that Della Porta traveled out of Italy in 1563 or 1564. But as he took with him also the third edition of Magiae (Antwertp, 1561) with a three line dedication to King Philip added as a politic afterthought, the trip may have begun in 1561, when De furtivis literarum was still in manuscript. His preface to the Magiae recalls that whenever he went in France and Spain he sought out learned men and libraries, buying books as his means permitted and gathering new "secrets." Known by reputation as a promising mathematician, doctor, and philosopher, he was well received by the Spanish king, a fact which added to his prestige at home in the Spanish-ruled Naples, and which may have helped him through later difficulties with the authorities. Like the date, the itinerary of this journey is unknown. Della Porta also traveled extensively in Italy. His Villae reveals the author's familiarity with Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily, while at least one of his sojourns in the north is illuminated by a little batch of letters from, to, and about Della Porta in the Este family archives.
By 1566, to judge from the publication in Naples that year of his Arte del ricordare, he was at home again. The breadth of Della Porta's interests and the number of subjects which he had staked out for conquest explain his personal concern with cultivation of the memory. He wrote the treatise either in order to organize methods for his own improvement, or to increase his fame by sharing the means which had already proved successful with him. He was, of course, not unaware that the subject was currently in vogue. Della Porta clearly did not have a photographic memory, but his talent for categorizing and organizing enabled him to use mnemonic devices with high efficiency. The book was written in Latin but was not published in its original version until 1602. The first edition was in the translation of Dorandino Falcone da Gioia, obviously a pseudonym, perhaps of the author himself.
L'arte del ricordare testifies to Della Porta's continued interest in the drama, by its references to the importance of good memory to players, and its lists of mnemonic ways to remember the difficult names of Plautus's characters. Della Porta was composing plays during the 1560's and 1570's but he sent only his non-dramatic works to the printer. La turca contains a reference to "quest ano del settantadue"; there is every possibility that Della Porta wrote this comedy in 1572 and that he was producing other works of this genre, for in 1578 Giovanni Matteo Toscano hailed him as a flower of Italian literature. Evidently his three published works were not the only bids for fame he had made so far; he could hardly have gained a name for literary talent with his books on natural magic, cryptology, and mnemonic devices.
It is possible that Toscano chose not praise Della Porta with the poets rather than with the investigators of hidden truth, out of fear of seeming to approve studies which had become suspect. For at this time occurred a hair-raising event in Della Porta's life, one that was to influence everything else in it, from his scientific aims to his daily habits. It inevitably caused suppression of facts and dissemination of lies by his family and friends, perhaps deliberate destruction of letters, and left to posterity as a record of his life only fragments of a colorful mosaic.
The cataclysm was a brush with the Inquisition. It was only that - nothing to compare with the horrors in store for Campanella, Bruno, and the other unfortunates who could not abandon their research or alter their views to suit the censors. But it was enough to frighten Della Porta, to make him modify his investigations and conceal the incident as much as possible.
No one knows exactly when it happened. A record made by the notary Joele in 1580 of Inquisitional activities before that year notes "item: le ripetitioni per Gio:battista della porta," referring to the re-examination of testimony required by Rome in all inquisitional trials. Amabile declared that imprisonment in Rome ordinarily preceded such re-examination, and that if Giuseppe Valleta, in his study o f the Holy Office in Naples, neglected to mention any incarceration in his brief account of Della Porta's sentence, it was because Valletta was less concerned with accuracy than with expounding his thesis that the Neapolitan Inquisition's function was primarily preventative, not punitive. The trial and probable imprisonment must, in any case, have taken place before November 1579, for by that date Della Porta was in Naples, free to accept Cardinal Luigi d'Este's invitation to join him in Rome. The immediate cause of Della Porta's being hauled before the Inquisition was a denunciation by some fellow Neapolitans who were scandalized by his growing reputation for magic and by the titles of Indovino and Mago bestowed on him by the populace. Both Giambattista and Gian Vincenzo were adept at casting horoscopes, and the former had, in addition, a pretty knack for prophecy. He neither took all comers nor charged fees, and he believed in his prophecies. When they proved true, as they quite often did, no one doubted that is was due to the occult knowledge he had acquired in his workroom. Magic was a passion with Della Porta. If it was later modified for a time by external pressures, the passion never left him, not even in the last years of his life.
The denunciation must have been made between 1558, and when Della Porta's first work appeared, and 1578, when Toscano praised his poetry. Apparently not wanting to omit so famous a name from his roster of celebrities, yet recognizing the imprudence of lauding the forbidden lore on which the fame was based. Toscano compromised by praising Della Porta only for his literary hobby, though he had never published a line of poetry or drama. However uncertain the date, the watchdogs of the true faith surely snapped at him. Della Porta was summoned before the tribunals in Naples and Rome, perhaps briefly imprisoned, and charged by papal order to disband his academy and refrain from practicing illicit arts. As a parting shot, the Neapolitan tribunal commanded him to write a comedy. Corsano suggests that the judges knew Della Porta's reputation as an amateur playwright and therefore advised him, half sardonically, half indulgently, to stick to his plays. This sort of literary recommendation was not uncommonly issued from the inquisitional bench. Luigi Tansillo was once brought into the court for making offensive jokes in his Vendemmiatore, and was ordered to make reparation by writing a comedy and reworking his unfinished Christian epic, Le lacrime di San Pietro.
The papal order disbanding the Segreti has never come to light, but the academy did cease functioning, and in the Magiae preface is referred to as a thing long past. Sarnelli reported, without evidence, that when Della Porta was called to Rome to account for his writings, the inquisitors were vastly impressed by his learning, and when he had satisfactorily proved that his secrets were all "natural" he was given an official commendation and was feted by the leading local prelates. Almost certainly this is part of the whitewash posthumously spread on Della Porta's name by his family and associates. That he himself refers only obliquely to his clash with the Inquisition, and that his friends felt it necessary to publish pious lies about him at his death testify to the truth of Lorenzo Crasso's observation in 1666 that Della Porta had suffered anguish of soul when he was forced first to defend, then to recant his opinions. The Inquisition had not finished with him entirely - this was never to be - but for the time being he was let off with a warning. Soon afterward, he joined the Jesuit lay congregation and began to distinguish himself by zealous performance of religious duties, spending one day a week on works of charity.
Fear of imprisonment, torture, or death was not the only possible motive for Della Porta's immediate submission to the Inquisition. The temper of his mind must be considered. He was never much interested in theological or philosophical speculation.
Always concerned with the immediate, the tangible, he often even lost enthusiasm for his own discoveries and experiments after observing the basic spectacular fact and completing the concrete part of the investigation. Since it was precisely speculation that the Inquisition considered most dangerous to the faith, there was little likelihood of Della Porta's becoming at its hands a martyr to free thought. Moreover, there was little honor attached to such martyrdom. Francesco Fiorentino, a true child of the nineteenth century, barely hid his disgust at Della Porta's failure to join the glorious ranks of those who suffered for science, liberty of conscience, and other noble concepts yet unhatched in the sixteenth century, but the fact is that the ranks did not seem glorious then. As Jefferson B. Fletcher observed of the Counter-Reformation period, "orthodoxy was a pride of caste" and Della Porta, who dearly loved a lord, not to mention pomp, circumstance, and ritual, and who was indeed a Catholic by nature, may well have regarded heretics as many Anglicans regarded Dissenters. There have always existed Catholics who recognize that the church can be wrong, but agree that it would be ill-bred to say so. In late sixteenth-century Italy, under Spanish influence, the majority of educated people shared this attitude. No wonder, then, that Della Porta submitted to the commands of the Inquisition and avoided publicizing his encounter with the tribunal.
Between 1566 and 1583 he published nothing, but his experiments continued, and his fame grew fat on the reports of those who visited the Academy of the Segreti in its heyday. The result was the offer of a connection very valuable to a scientist under the surveillance of the Inquisition and in need of financial backing for his experiments. Cardinal Luigi d'Este, who upheld the tradition of his family by patronizing learning, and who, because of the Estensi's battle with the papacy over Ferrara, was perhaps sympathetic toward scholars suspected by the Roman Inquisition, heard enthusiastic praise of Della Porta from his own doctor, Teodosio Panizza. he wrote to the Neapolitan marvel in November 1579, inviting him to join the Este household in Rome. In addition to money and protection, the cardinal's invitation offered the possibility of angling at close quarters for the offices of Papal Engineer or Papal Secretary of Ciphers, either of which would have done much to rehabilitate Della Porta's reputation for orthodoxy. He accepted the offer with alacrity and arrived in Rome within two months. His Maecenas, sojourning at Tivoli, sent orders that the new dependent be lodged in Palazzo d'Este and supplied with money. The majordomo, Tolomeo, settled the learned newcomer in the apartments of Dr. Panizza, who had not accompanied his patron to Tivoli. This arrangement satisfied Della Porta well enough, but poor Panizza began to regret his earnest recommendation of the great wizard.
The discommoded doctor's letters to the cardinal provide rare details of one side of Della Porta's personality. Blaming the trouble on Tolomeo's bad managements, Panizza complained that his social life had been demolished by the habits of the southern genius, who insisted on going to bed immediately after dinner, rose very early and noisily to study before breakfast, and demanded that total silence be maintained whenever he was working or sleeping. This excessive and antisocial concentration on study does not match the picture others have drawn of Della Porta as a gregarious host and inspired conversationalist, but his moods were doubtless as varied as his interests, and though he preached moderation, he tended toward extremes. At one period in his life he was even taken with a notion for absolute solitude, and almost decided to retire permanently with his books to the Island of Ponza, even today a wild, if lovely, retreat.
As he began his service with Luigi d'Este, Della Porta had better reasons than usual for working hard. He wanted a position at the papal court. Another of Panizza's complaints was that Della Porta continually harped on the possibility of the cardinal's helping him to one of the desired offices. Utilizing every means to advancement, Della Porta sent his patron plays along with reports on his experiments. One of the cardinal's letters acknowledges receipt of a comedy and tragi-comedy, and announces his intention of having the former staged. Such valuable bits of evidence about the dating of the plays are all too rare.
Life in Luigi d'Este's household had its drawbacks, especially when the master was away. Tolomeo was a scrupulous but unimaginative administrator, who could not understand why the resident inventor needed more than the daily twelve baiocchi allotted to ordinary dependents. The ill-treated but faithful Panizza had to write several times to the cardinal in Tivoli and Ferrara before Della Porta received the necessary increase in allowance. Any reluctance the prelate might have felt to disburse additional amounts to his protege was overcome by Panizza's report that during a bout of tertian fever, Della Porta had refused 150 ducats offered by Cardinal Orsini, assuring the solicitous prince that excellent care was provided him in the Este establishment.
Della Porta's susceptibility to fever was only one of the physical weaknesses which plagued him all his long life. But he bore illness well and turned his suffering to profit when he could, by studying his symptoms and trying out his own medicines. His prescriptions were famous but not always successful. A remedy for the "stone" published in the Magiae, never cured the physician himself of that ailment. Fever kept him in Rome in August and September 1580, preventing him from obeying the cardinal's summons to join him in Venice. When Della Porta at last was strong enough to travel he left Rome on October 1 and reached Venice on December 1. Luigi d'Este wrote to Panizza that Della Porta had arrived in good health but that there had been no word from him on the road. Panizza could offer no explanation, and Della Porta never revealed where had had spent the two months. In all likelihood, he had done nothing more sinister than to travel slowly, stopping to visit scholars and libraries along the way. It was characteristic of the Mago, however, to make a mystery of his journey, by his reticence implying any number of occult commitments. Luigi d'Este, in the hope of profiting from Della Porta's astrological and alchemical lore, may have been impressed by hi portentous silence. At any rate, the cardinal asked no questions.
Settled in Venice for the time being, Della Porta began work on a parabolic mirror and an "occhiale." The latter was probably a large magnifying or burning glass, or perhaps and experiment in eyeglasses. Campori believed that it was a telescope, hoping to connect the project at Venice with the widespread belief that Della Porta was the original inventor of the telescope. Cardinal d'Este returned alone to Rome, but Della Porta kept him informed of all progress. He was delighted to have at his disposal the skilled glassworkers in the environs of Venice, and reported on November 29, 1580, that with the help of Giacomo Contarini he had found an artisan of Murano capable of constructing the delicate mirror. But if the Venetian craftsmen pleased him, the aria grossa of the lagoons did not, and he blamed it for the new attack of fever which now forced him to bed. Again a Panizza came to the rescue, this time the brother of Teodosio, one Alessandro, who on learning of Della Porta's indisposition, awakened him at three A.M. to transfer him bag and baggage from rented lodgings to the Panizza home, where a proper cure might be effected. When the cardinal returned to Ferrara, he sent for Della Porta, but he eager lens-designer was loath to leave his Murano project. He used bad weather and his own illness to excuse the delay. Finally, with rather bad grace, he agreed to leave Venice, in December 1580, but his love of secrecy was outraged by having to reveal his plans to Contarini and to leave the lens-grinding under his supervision.
In February 1581, Della Porta was still with the cardinal in Ferrara. The Este court had for three generations boasted a brilliant literary circle. Della Porta could hardly have avoided meeting Tasso and Guarini; the prologue to Penelope suggests contact with the latter and all three of Della Porta's verse dramas reflect the influence of Tasso and of the earlier Ferrarese lion, G. B. Giraldi Cinthio. But the only record of Della Porta's visit to the city is a business letter he wrote to Pietro Burghetti, ordering some property in Naples to be sold. Perhaps the sale was necessitated by Luigi d"Este's failure to finance Della Porta, but there was no lessening of cordiality between them, even after the Neapolitan at last went home in April 1581. Later the same year, when the cardinal made a triumphant entry into Rome, ending a temporary exile imposed on him and winning a round in the Este-Vatican battle, Della Porta sent his patron warm congratulations, accompanied by some carnation conserve, good for plaque, falling sickness, vertigo, poison, and animal bites. This useful remedy was made from Della Porta's own recipe, tested in his laboratory and guaranteed efficient. The cardinal responded with an invitation to Tivoli.
In the following year the versatile experimenter perfected a process for extracting beechnut oil and created a sensation with his demonstration before the Reggente de Cancelleria, by order of the Spanish viceroy. He boasted to Teodosio Panizza in September 1582 that his discovery was the talk of the town and was unsurpassed in importance by any other in the world. Apparently he did not realize the commercial value of his "secret" until he had already published it. Upon receiving belated bids from merchants, he admitted, with rarely revealed chagrin, "Sia maladetta la mia disgratia che dopo fatto lo matrimonio vengano mille mariti." (Cursed be my misfortune that after the wedding a thousand suitors appear.) Advised of his protege's latest success. Cardinal d'Este promised to help him obtain the equivalents of patents on his process in the various cities where it might be used.
The cardinal, however, like the Dukes of Mantua and Tuscany, the Holy Roman Emperor, and all the aristocratic angels who smiled on the famous Mago at one time or another, was more interested in distilled gold than in beechnut oil, and must have congratulated himself on his investment when he heard through Panizza that Della Porta was on the verge of discovering the lapis philosophorum. Della Porta's own excitement about it reduced him almost to babbling. His epistolary style was usually breezy and informal, sometimes to the point of rudeness, although the prose of his scientific and dramatic works is as fulsomely elegant as a well-performed sarabande, but when he thought himself on the verge of achieving the highest aim of alchemy, words temporarily failed him, and he repeated stupidly that "E la piu bella cosa che sia in terra" and "spero essere il piu felice che sia in terra." (It is the most beautiful thing on earth...I hope to be the happiest man on earth.) His hopes were delayed by quarrels, domestic troubles, and a steady stream of visitors, Neapolitans and foreigners, who flocked to the informal academy in Della Porta's house, kept him from sleeping, drove him to desperation, and worst of all, prevented him from testing his new secret. Meanwhile he cherished the untried recipe, which he had learned from one Angelo Siciliano, who learned it from a friend, who learned it from a Spanish doctor, who learned it from a French monk. Della Porta's burst of interest in the subject was most timely, coinciding with the furor caused all over Europe by the case of Sebastian Siebenfreund, murdered in Wittenberg for reputedly knowing the secret of the philosophers' stone. Cardinal d'Este snapped at Della Porta's news and invited him to Rome posthaste, but apparently when the tests were made they yielded nothing, for the ecstatic alchemist dropped the matter and pleaded hot weather as an excuse for staying home.
Although his attempts to find the philosopher's stone were abortive, his other projects were literally bearing fruit. At one or both of his villas, Della Porta planted orchards for experiments in grafting, cross-breeding, and other "secrets" of plant cultivation. In 1583 he published Pomarium, a treatise on fruit-growing, followed the next year by Olivetum, on tree culture. Both were later included in his larger treatment of agriculture, Villae (1592). It usually took at least two years after a manuscript's completion to license it for printing, so Pomarium and Olivetum must have been ready by 1581 and 1582, respectively. Unlike his elder brother, who took so long to write De emendatione temporum that Scaliger was able to publish the material first, Giambattista composed rapidly, and by May of 1583 he had finished another book, parts of which, however, may have been ready as early as 1581. This was De humana physiognomonia, possibly his most famous and certainly one of his most curious works. He announced its completion to Cardinal d'Este, adding with some bitterness that the licensing would probably take longer than the writing.
This book reflects Della Porta's passion for categorizing and his belief in a system of signs whereby the unity of creation is manifested. Supposedly originating with Orpheus and flourishing in innumerable Renaissance scientific and literary works, the Doctrine of Signatures, interpreting the virtues of plants by their outward characteristics, was essential to Della Portean thought. His discussion in the Magiae (I, II) has been cited as the definitive exposition of the doctrine as understood in his time and in the succeeding century. In Physiognomonia the principle is applied to sentient life in the thesis that physical traits shared by animals and men are indices to their characters. Comparing the faces of a sheep and a sheeplike man, Della Porta observes that the wide strongly defined mouth common to both indicates stupidity and impiety (II,16). He agrees with Aristotle that fleshy faces denote laziness, and illustrates the point with parallel figures of a man and a cow who look like brother and sister.
In the course of expounding this ingenious and absurd system, Della Porta describes himself, adapting the facts to his classical ideal of the golden mean. He says he is of medium height and weight, his brow moderately high, his dark hair moderately curly, his face of medium sharpness, his eyebrows symmetrical, and his voice moderately loud. Only the admission that his eyes are deep and bright agrees with contemporary portraits which unanimously show him with a sharply thin face, long irregular nose, and unusually high forehead.
The Physiognomonia was finally published in 1586, with a dedication to Luigi d'Este. The censors' unusually long delay is not hard to explain. Since the additions of Pope Paul IV to the Index of 1559, all the arts of divination, physiognomy specifically included, had been under official fire. The reasoning behind the church's attack may be deduced from Della Porta's defense, which denied fixed destiny and reaffirmed individual responsibility. Divining human character was not far removed from soothsaying, and to suppose that internal qualities depend on external features was tantamount to a denial of free will. Under the influence of classical literature in the Renaissance the idea of fortuna or Fate had gradually been separated from the Christian concept of divine providence. Simultaneously, the strangle hold exerted by judiciary astrology on the minds of peasant and scholar alike threatened to choke belief in free will. Alarmed, Counter-Reformation popes encouraged attack on astrology. The bulls of Sixtus V in 1585 and 1586 outlawed fortunetelling by means of chiromancy, physiognomy, or other arts. The accusation of determinism was to plague Della Porta for some time to come. He tried to avoid it at this point, perhaps at the censors' command, by affixing to the Physiognomonia a preface declaring that human features indicate only tendencies, and that the choice of following or resisting one's natural bent always rests with the individual conscience.
Meanwhile, Della Porta's interest in finding the philosophers' stone had not died. He seems in 1586 to have made some progress in his search, for in a letter congratulating Cardinal d'Este on recovery from an illness, the indefatigable alchemist promised to visit his patron two months hence, in August, bringing him the secret of the stone, if possible. Less than two weeks later, in another characteristically careless letter to the cardinal, dated June 27, Della Porta betrayed great depression. Obviously as busy as ever, he still planned to visit Rome and to deliver two new books to the licensers: the Phytognomonica, or physiognomy of plants, and Magnalia naturae, Della Porta's current title for his augmented edition of Magiae naturalis. He announced that the former contained over 2000 secrets, the fruit of research so extensive that the human mind could go no further. The more famous Magiae is an even stranger book, combining valuable observations of physical phenomena, including a detailed description of Della Porta's re-invention of the camera obscura, and chapters on magnetism, farming, and Empedoclean atomism with notes on compounding cosmetics, charms, love philtres, and practical jokes. Even in those unspecialized times such a miscellany appeared frivolous to more serious scientists, for whom Giovanni Francesco Sagredo spoke in remarking to Galileo that Della Porta's place among scholars was like that of church bells among musical instruments.
But while, on one hand, Della Porta was more content with himself than any man is entitled to be, on the other he was in poor spirits. He wrote, speaking of his secret,
"Avea deliberato non farli vedere ad huomo e per gelosia che altri non gli sapesse e per dubbio di qualche maleficio che insegna. Adesso che mi sono venuti in fastidio con la vita insieme, daro lo libro a V.S. Ill. ma."
(I had decided not to show them to anyone, both from desire fro secrecy and from fear of their teaching evil. Now that they, together with my life, disgust me, I will give the book to Your Most Illustrious Lordship)
Explanations of Della Porta's depression at this time can be conjectural only, and none has more authority than another. Three years earlier he had mentioned domestic troubles. Della Porta must have married sometime before his fortieth year, for he had adult grandsons when he was in his seventies. These were the children of his daughter Cinzia, who married Alfonso di Costanzo of Pozzuoli and survived her father. Colangelo supposed on slim evidence that Cinzia had a brother and sister who died young. That Della Porta had nephews and cousins is stated in his will. Considering the communal arrangements preferred even today by Italian clans, it is quite probable that a fairly large number of Della Portas, Spadaforas, de Gennaros and di Costanzos lived at least part of each year under the Della Porta roof in Via Toledo. If the 1580's were the years in which marriages had to be arranged for the younger generation of Della Portas, their conflicting claims may have made Giambattista's life a fastidio. Perhaps his own marriage was unhappy or perhaps his wife died during this period, leaving him to shoulder domestic responsibilities alone.
But the unhappiness expressed in 1586 may equally well have sprung from other causes. Della Porta was never physically strong. His whole constitution must have been affected by long sieges of the fever to which he was susceptible. Perhaps he had already begun to suffer from the kidney ailments which were to torment him in old age. He was wont to say cheerfully that in illness he was expiating his sins, apparently preferring immediate pain to that in the hereafter.
More distressing than family trouble or sickness to one of Della Porta's intellectually but religiously orthodox mind, however, was pressure from the ecclesiastical authorities. The scholastically trained minds of the censors had quickly perceived the ultimate danger of Della Porta's investigations of forbidden knowledge, especially judiciary astrology. After his censure by the Inquisition, he had found it difficult to obtain licenses for his books. Jean Bodin had attacked him as a sorcerer in 1581. (De magorum demonomania - Basileae, 1581, Lib.II, Cap.II). The authorities had forced him to wait three years for printing of Physiognomonia. The divining arts which fascinated him had been denounced by the pope. Now, with two works in manuscript, Della Porta could foresee the licensing delays, perhaps the eventual impossibility of printing. The preface of the Magiae of 1589 is the work of a man embattled. A brief apologia of his studious life, it contains Della Porta's famous statement that the first edition was published when he was fifteen. He may have hoped thereby to excuse some of the magic recipes, significantly omitted in the second edition. He accused Bodin of being a Huguenot, and declared himself an investigator of nature, denying that his title of Mago connoted occult powers. These were obviously attempts to placate the Inquisition, and they took a spiritual toll of the author. Would not any man who had just been forced to defend the reputation which was once his boast feel "in fastidio con la vita insieme"?
Della Porta fulfilled his promise to visit the cardinal in Rome in October 1586. By 1588, when the Phytognomonica was published, he was again in Naples. The second edition of Magiae naturalis was at last published in Naples in 1589, a milestone year which saw also the printing of L'Olimpia, the first of Della Porta 's plays to reach the press. the author was apparently not much excited by the latter event; Pompeo Barbarito, editor of the comedy, recounts Della Porta 's reluctance to make public this "trifle" which had,however been acclaimed at private performances. The production Barbarito singles out was a magnificent one staged for the Count of Miranda, current viceroy of Naples, but there had undoubtedly been earlier performances in Della Porta's familiar circle. The "reluctance" referred to was probably no more than the traditional gentlemanly deprecation of vernacular compositions, but it is not to be questioned that Della Porta was prouder of the Magia than of L'Olimpia and expected his true fame to come from works like the former, despite the latter's immediate popularity.
According to Amabile's dating of events in Tommaso Campanella's life, 1589 was the year in which the brilliant young Dominican first visited Naples, where he was introduced into the intellectual circle surrounding the Della Porta brothers, including Colantonio Stigliola, Giovanni Paolo Vernalione, and Marthos Gorostiola. Della Porta, ordinarily proud of his learned acquaintances, left no trace in his published works or correspondence of the connection with Campanella. His silence must be interpreted as caution, and indeed anyone whom the Inquisition had already distinguished with a reproof was well-advised for his health's sake to minimize his association with the unfortunate friar from Calabria, whose heretical, anti-Aristotelian philosophy and ill-fated conspiracy earned him twenty-seven years of intermittent imprisonment. Campanella himself, however, reveals that he knew Della Porta fairly well and was influenced by the older philosopher's theories.
Elsewhere Campanella declares himself indebted to Della Porta for medical care when he was suffering on ocular inflammation. In a semi-public demonstration of his skill, Della Porta applied to Campanella's eyes a collyrium of his own concoction which immediately cured the affliction.
Despite a paucity of evidence, it is clear that this acquaintance offered Campanella literary as well as scientific associations. The only poet mentioned in Amabil's sketch of the group around Della Porta is Giulio Ceare Cortese. This friendship alone would suffice to connect Della Porta with the main current of Neapolitan literary life. Although academies formed and dissolved as fast as snowflakes, their raw material remained more or less the same, and the fragmentary records of their appearances and disappearances often reveal hereditary patterns. In 1586, for example, Cortese formed the Svegliati with members of G. B. Rinaldi's defunct academy, convoking them in Thomas Aquinas' erstwhile lecture hall in the cloister of San Domenico Magiore. Since Della Porta was a charter member of the academy, there can be little doubt that he had long been part of the group which became its nucleus. Certainly it was for just such cultivated spectators as Manso Francesco Zazzero, Giulio Cesare Capaccio, and the others whose names appear on the Oziosi Charter that Della Porta's comedies were privately performed before publication. And it was just such a literary milieu that Campanella entered when he visited Della Porta in 1589.
By 1590 the applause of his friends and the success of L'Olimpia had resolved whatever doubts Della Porta may have had about publishing his plays, and Barbarito easily prevailed upon him to seek a license for his tragicomedy, Penelope, which appeared in 1591. The editor's dedication names nine comedies, already known to audiences and destined for the press.
The death of Cardinal d'Este in 1587 had not ended Della Porta's travels. He was heard to say in later years that philosophers should travel in their youth and stay at home as they grew old. But apparently the time of repose still seemed distant to him his late fifties, for by 1592, he was again in Venice. There he renewed a cherished friendship with Fra Paolo Sarpi, to whom he had owned himself indebted in the preface of the Magiae, declaring that the famous Servite scholar must have been fathered by an encyclopedia. They had met in 1581, during Della Porta's first sojourn in Venice, and the bond between them was strengthened when Sarpi was sent on Servite business to Naples between 1585 and 1588. Sarpi combined the pursuit of learning with the duties of high office in his religious order and managed to say out of prison and eventually, to die of natural causes, but he was patriotically active in the long struggle of the Venetian Republic against the Vatican. For this, as well as for his independent intellectual excursions and his correspondence with Huguenots, he was regarded with marked disfavor by the Roman Inquisition. Even before the papal ban on Venice in 1606, communication between Sarpi and his southern friend lapsed. In the interests of personal security, Della Porta made many such sacrifices.
The year 1592 was an especially dangerous one in Venice for those on whom the Holy Office frowned, for in May, Giordano Bruno was denounced as a heretic, tried, and extradited to Rome, to be seen no more until his execution in 1600. Della Porta's works and extant correspondence ignore Bruno as they do Campanella, undoubtedly for the same reason, but it is inconceivable that the two Neapolitan philosophers should not have been somehow know to each other. They held similar views on magic, on universal atomism, and the unity of all created life. Both published works on the art of memory. They had in common a number of acquaintances. As visiting celebrities on the Venetian intellectual scene, they would have found it difficult to avoid contact with one another. But if association with Bruno was risky before he was apprehended by the Inquisition, it became downright suicidal afterward, and no one can be surprised at Della Porta's reticence on the subject.
Since 1589 he had published nothing more than a pair of innocuous plays, but suddenly six weeks before the pressure against Bruno finally broke, Della Porta was served by the Venetian Inquisition with an order from Cardinal Sanseverino in Rome, forbidding him under pain of excommunication and a a fine of 500 gold ducats, to publish anything at all without express permission form the Roman High Tribunal. The local Inquisitors who signed the document were, with one exception, the same who presided subsequently at Bruno's trial. This order made Della Porta a suspect of distinction. Previously, licenses for this works had been issued by the censors in Naples, but after April 9, 1592, he was forced to submit every manuscript directly to Rome. The prohibition did not slow his immediate output, however; the comedy La fantesca, its dedication dated April 15, appeared shortly afterward in Venice, and Villae as published in Frankfurt, also in 1592. Although translations of his earlier works had been printed abroad, he had never before published a first edition outside of Italy. The Frankfurt printing may have been an attempt to circumvent the Inquisition, but the result must have been unsatisfactory, for he never used this ruse again.
Although he was careful not to publicize it, Della Porta's taste for philosophical and scientific investigation and the doubtful society of those who engaged in it was not at all dampened by proofs of the Inquisition's continued interest in him. The company of which he made one in Padua in the early months of 1593 might have provided enough unorthodoxy to occupy a regiment of Inquisitors. It was an illustrious trio, consisting of Della Porta, Sarpi, and the young relatively unimportant Galileo, and it turned into a quartet when Campanella joined them later. Unfortunately there is no record of their conversations. The letters which must have passed before and after between Della Porta and Sarpi have never come to light, and the frequent compliments and occasional insults which in later years were exchanged, for the most part indirectly, by Galileo and the old Neapolitan say nothing of earlier encounters. At the Padua meeting of 1593 there must have been some discussion of Della Porta's De refractione, published in Naples later that year, the treatise on optics which figured after 1611 in the controversy over the invention of the telescope.
The next eight years in Della Porta's life are unaccounted for. His only new publication during this period was La trappolaria in 1596. That the comedy was printed in Bergamo may indicate another northern journey. Meanwhile, vernacular translations of his earlier works were gaining international prestige. The Italian version of Physiognomonia, with difficulty licensed and printed in 1598, was probably translated by the author himself, although it bears the name of Giovanni de Rosa, a friend who later was one of the executors of Della Porta's will.
The tireless old scientist may have been in Venice again in 1601, when two of his comedies, I due fratelli rivali and La Cintia were printed there, but in the spring he was at home to receive the complimentary visit of Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peirsc, then a neophyte scholar, later a champion of learning, protector of Gassendi and Campanella. The young French nobleman came recommended by Fra Paolo Sarpi and made an excellent impression on the Della Porta brothers. Through them Peiresc obtained entry into the studios of other learned Neapolitans, such as Ferrante Imperato, and was permitted by Gian Vincenzo and Giambattista Della Porta not only to examine their private museum but to observe their experiments as well. Peirsc was touched by the reverence which gray-haired Giambattista showed toward his elder brother, whom he treated like a father. Not only at home but in Naples generally, Gian Vincenzo was a somewhat more important person then his internationally famous brother. As the heir to his father's office he functioned with unparalleled honesty, and formed close personal bonds with the current viceroy and his powerful entourage. Gian Vincenzo's collections were celebrated, and the superiority of his classical learning gave rise to the rumor that he was responsible for large sections of his brother's books. He corresponded with Peiresc in 1602, but as he did not share in the connection Giambattista formed with Federigo Cesi in 1603, it is presumed that Gian Vincenzo died before or in that year.
Since the Inquisitional order in 1592 Della Porta had published nothing new about the "illicit arts," but he was still actively investigating them and could not keep silence forever. In 1601 he published Coelestis physiognomoniae, which aimed at reconciling the art of prophecy based on a mysterious connection between earth and the stars with the orthodox church doctrine of free will and condemnation of judiciary astrology. It was a difficult feat of juggling, one he would never have attempted had he not been moved to it by the Inquisitions's constant suspicion. His theory here was akin to that in De humana physiognomonia. man is directed not by astral influences but by the elements which compose his body and which also determine the various characters of planets and stars. Human beings and heavenly bodies are all part of a vast system of signatures. By reading the natural signs, and expert can foretell the future to which the indicated tendencies will lead, provided that they are not overruled by free will. Recanting his former belief in judiciary astrology and emphasizing the natural basis of his prophetic art, Della Porta sought to remove dangerous interpretations from the title of Mago which he proudly claimed in Magiae and provided with an elaborately and apologetically innocent definition in Magiae.
The next year saw the publication of Ars reminiscendi, an augmentation of the earlier treatise on memory, his only nondramatic work of which the Italian version appeared before the Latin. Simultaneously another press brough out Pneumaticorum . . . cum dubus libris curvilineorum elementorum, a relatively sober work on hydraulics and pure mathematics, testifying to Della Porta's awareness of the new objectivity in science. He always liked to have a finger in the latest pie. But his gullibility and hankering after the occult made him incapable of total objectivity; the index to his lost Taumatologia indicated that his penchant for demonology was even stronger in his last years then it had been formerly.
A new chapter in Della Porta's life began in 1603 with the introduction of Fedrigo Cesi, marchese di Monticelli, a grave scholar of eighteen. Apparently some correspondence had passed between the two before their first meeting in Naples. At this time Cesi was struggling to save from dissolution a recently founded brotherhood which he hoped to build into a sort of institute for scientific research. He and the three other charter members had vowed dedication to learning and hoped eventually to spread like a religious order, establishing research centers all over the world. Their emblem was a lynx, inspired by Della Porta's impresa on the title-page of the 1589 Magiae and the words in the preface: ...with lynx like eyes, examining those things which manifest themselves, so that having observed them, he may zealously use them.
No sooner had the newly christened Lincei agreed
upon a code for their private communications and begun to outline their first
projects than Cesi's father, the Duke of Acquasparta, forbade their association,
regarding it as a cabal against his won authority and a plot to alienate
his son's mind from family interests. The Lincei were temporarily scattered
and Cesi traveled to Naples, where he described his academy to Della Porta,
who responded with a vociferous enthusiasm which contrasted amusingly with
Cesi's calm determination. The only thing the old
Mago liked more than hugging a secret to himself was sharing
one with a handful of elite colleagues in an atmosphere of organized mystery.
Remembering, perhaps, his own forcibly disbanded academy of the Segreti,
Della Porta encouraged the young nobleman's project. His knack of
foreseeing the future may have given him an inkling of the important part
he was later to play in the history of the Lincei. His approval of
Cesi's intention combined with a respect for high birth prompted him in 1604
to write a history of the Cesi family, tracing it in true humanistic fashion
back to Hercules. A brief version survives, together with many fulsome
compliments, in the dedicatory letter to Cesi prefacing De
distillatione, a treatise on chemistry and alchemy, finished in 1604
and printed four years later.
While Della Porta heaped admiration on Cesi, he was
himself courted in the most gratifying manner with a request which proved
the extent of his fame. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, an amateur
astronomer and alchemist who understandably preferred conversation with Kepler
to converse with ambassadors, sent an envoy to Naples to invite Della Porta
or one of his trained disciples to Prague, where the imperial castle housed
a laboratory and an observatory. Unable to accept the invitation, Della
Porta nonetheless to strengthen and to use the offered connection, therefore,
he responded by dedicating to the emperor his Taumatologia, an
encyclopedia of seventy-five secrets by which the old scientist set great
store. His intention was not so much to honor Rudolph as to enlist
his aid, for the censors were highly unsympathetic to the
Taumatologia. But the emperor could not or would not secure
a license for the book, and there is no record of further communication between
author and dedicatee.
Meanwhile, the Roman Tribunal seemed quite willing to license Della Porta's more straightforward writings and his comedies. La sorella was printed in 1604 and L'astrology, La turca, and La carbonaria all appeared in 1606. An augmented edition of Pneumaticorum was also issued that year in an Italian translation by "Juan Escrivano." De munitione, a quite unoriginal work on fortification, was licensed at the same time, although its printing was delayed two years. Another comedy, Il moro, followed in 1607. this was the year in which Sarpi was stabbed by assassins, but survived, to the disappointment of the Roman Curia. Della Porta's reaction is not recorded, but he event could have done nothing to calm his fear of the religious authorities.
Nevertheless Della Porta could not give up fortune-telling, and in 1608 was still hoping for the censor's approval of a manuscript on palmreading which he had written in 1581. Despite his solicitations on its behalf, Chirofisonomia was not published for sixty-two years after his death. Of no scientific or literary value, this book nonetheless deserves some attention for its compact illustration of Della Porta's merits and failings as an investigator of nature. His study of hands and feet is based on an extension of the theory which underlies his entire philosophy of nature, the Doctrine of Signatures. He introduces his findings with this premise,
"...I decided that the Great Artificer and creator of things had always observed the same order in all His works, whereupon I returned to the same explanations which I had adopted in (my works on) human, celestial, and botanical physiognomy..."
There follows a good deal of systematic nonsense: quotations from the ancients, especially Aristotle (toward whom Della Porta was not invariably respectful), charts of hands divided into parts corresponding to the planets, lists of character traits which may be deduced from lines in the palm, comparisons of human hands and animal paws falling in the same planetary classification, and so on. Yet the methods Della Porta employed in preparing this patchwork of superstition are those of an empirical scientist with a Baconian determination to see for himself what others are content to accept on classical authority. To test the theory that dire events and evil character are visibly marked in hands and feet, he spared no effort to procure criminals and other unfortunates fir examination, as his own words reveal:
"...And so that I might have enough such men I arranged for the Neapolitan executioner, Antonello Cocozza, to notify me whenever he took down hanged men and carried them to the Ricciardo bridge (a place 1000 steps from Naples, where the unfortunates are hung as an example to evil passers-by until the elements destroy them). Going there I observed their hands and feet and sketched them on paper or else took plaster casts of them, from which later to make wax figures; thus at night I could study them at home, comparing them with others, from the signs coming to the truth, until I had discovered all the signs indicating hanging; thus I satisfied myself. Moreover, in order to know more about those who are murdered or die violent deaths, I arranged with the deacons of the Neapolitan Cathedral (who have the pious duty of burying in the Church of St. Restituda Virgin and Martyr all those who are killed and those who die unshriven) to notify me when death occurred, and going to that venerable church, I observed the hands, feet and foreheads, sketched the number and position of the wounds to compare with the others, so as to know which were valid and which weak for demonstration. Nor was I less assiduous in visiting public jails where there were always many thieves, parricides, street assassins, and similar men, so that I could study their hands, and later observing the hands and feet of animal, I compared them with those of the men, not without natural explanations and by the same method I used in the Physiognomy..."
His scientific method was excellent thus far, but it went no further. Satisfied by personal observation that criminals' hands and feet bore the telltale signs he expected, he never undertook any general examination of people in better circumstances, and therefore never discovered how many virtuous men have vicious hands.
Della Porta's advancing age, great fame, and obvious willingness to obey the Inquisition by now almost guaranteed him peace in his remaining years, but he was never to be in the censors' good graces, and was glad to have any help he could get in the continual struggle over licensing. Federigo Cesi undertook to influence his uncle, Cardinal Bartolomeo, in behalf of his controversial friend, who was soon calling on the young aristocrat for all his licenses. The letters which passed between Rome and Naples from 1608 until Della Porta's death in 1615 reveal the strong mutual admiration and personal interest which existed between the young marquis and the old Mago, even before the latter joined the Lincei, and continued undiminished, despite occasional evidence of senility on Della Porta's part and superciliousness on Cesi's.
Although the torments of kidney stones forced the septuagenarian to retire to his favorite villa for a large part of 1608, enthusiasm for nature's marvels kept him as busy as ever, and in October he wrote excitedly to Cesi that he had learned several new secrets from a Signor Borelli,whose interest in science was so sincere that he had paid the extravagant sum of 100 scudi for a slave on whom to try a new recipe for poison.
In 1609 Della Porta published two comedies, La furiosa and La Chiappinaria, and finished De aeris transmutationibus, a work on meteorology, which was published the following year with a dedication to Cesi. In August an old acquaintance, Galileo, created a furor by demonstrating his occhiale to the Venetian Senate. Cesi immediately asked Della Porta's opinion of the talked-of instrument, and was answered with more irritation than accuracy,
"Concerning the secret of the telescope, I have seen it, and it is nonsense and it is taken from my Book 9 De Refractione, and I shall write it down..."
As promised, a design of the telescope is crudely sketched in the margin. There is, in fact, no word about anything resembling a telescope in Book 9 of De refractione, nor even in Book 8, which deals with lenses. Della Porta was probably thinking of the passage in Magiae, XVII, 10, which mentions a combination of concave and convex lenses. But his light tone is more revealing than his vague memory, for, as Vasco Ronchi observes, if Della Porta had invented the instrument in question, he would not have joked about it at this juncture. Some months later he wryly expressed regret that Galileo and not he, had "accomidato mia inventione," but he did not insist much on his claim to priority.
Cesi's succession to the dukedom of Acquasparta had
freed him by 1610 to develop his cherished academy, and after the publication
that year of De aeris...., the Lincei invited Della Porta to
join them. Charmed, as usual, by the prospect of cozy exchanges of
secrets, passwords, codes, and all the ritual of a solemn fraternity, the
old scientist was delighted to accept, and indeed was wise to do so, for
the academy, supported by Cesi's wealth, planned to publish its members'
research and could exert more pressure on the licensers than an individual
could hope to do. Yet his membership was even more to the academy's
advantage than to his own. For all his dodging of the Inquisition,
the old Neapolitan had a name to conjure with. World famous as a scientist,
physician, philosopher, general scholar, dramatist, and wit, he could not
but lend authority and prestige to any academy he joined, especially a brand-new,
rather revolutionary one founded by very young men and dedicated, not to
gentle arts or to abstract speculation, but to direct investigation of nature.
Moreover, Della Porta owned a magnificent library, which Cesi hoped
he would bequeath to the Lincei.
Often as he had undertaken it, travel had never been easy for the constitutionally weak Della Porta, and now it was out of the question, so Cesi made a second trip to Naples for the investiture which took place July 6, 1610. According to the entry he himself made in the Linceo register, Della Porta was then seventy-five years old. Shortly afterward, proudly announcing himself "Linceo," he published and dedicated to Cesi a new edition of Elementorum curvilineorum with an added section on squaring the circle. It was a characteristic display of bravura to tackle in his old age this knottiest of mathematical problems. He did not solve it.
The following April Galileo was made a member of the Accademia dei Lincei during a visit to Rome, where he expounded his celestial discoveries to Pope Paul V. He seems to have concurred in the popular opinion, supported by the other Lincei and by Kepler, that Della Porta was indeed the inventor of the telescope, for he later permitted these lines by Givanni Faber, another Linceo, to appear in the preface to the Saggiatore:
Porta holds the first, the German has the second.
The third realm, Galileo is your work.
But the heavenly constellations are as far from earth
As you, Galileo, shine before others.
But after the Sidereus nuncius revealed Galileo's findings to the literate public in 1610, and counter-claims broke out from various would-be fathers of the telescope, Della Porta felt that he had not been given his due. He complained in a long letter to an anonymous friend, perhaps Faber, that, like Galileo, he had suffered much from plagiarists and had not only been robbed of credit for the invention of the telescope, but had also seen his work on the magnet filched by a certain barbarous Englishman, who was, moreover mad enough to believe that the earth moves. He was justified in asking recognition for his explorations, but certainly he never constructed a telescope nor specifically described one, and through his study of the magnet was undeniably valuable, it was too inconclusive to justify doubts of the "barbarous" Gilbert's originality. Perhaps because he realized the weakness of his claim to the telescope, Della Porta made no public charges, and busied himself with writing a treatise to be called De telescopio, lamenting the while that old age slowed his work.
His continued enthusiasm for the Lincei brother hood, however, was vigorously youthful, and he was overjoyed when Cesi decided to open a branch of the academy in Naples. Della Porta was to be the local chief, and his first duty was to suggest for membership a very few, highly qualified Neapolitans, while Cesi's assistant, Francesco Stelluti, was looking for a palace or villa to serve as a headquarters. Della Porta submitted four names, three of scholars admirably suited to the august academy, the fourth of his eighteen-year-old grandson, Filesio di Costanzo, whose only qualifications for membership were that he was literate and devoted to this grandfather. Motivated in part, perhaps, by affection for Della Porta, but more certainly by a desire to secure his library for the Lincei, Cesi agreed to number Filesio among them, and instructed Stelluti to remind the old man, when next they discussed the final disposition of his books, that his grandson would share the benefit which inheritance of the library would confer upon the Lincei.
Della Porta meanwhile was dangling his books as bait in another pond. The previous year he had donated several volumes and promised the whole collection in the future to the Ambrosian Library of the Milanese Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. Following this generous gesture, Della Porta dropped a hint or two about his pet project, the Taumatologia, which the censors had so far refused to license, but all the cardinal sent in return were thanks, and a portrait, with relic, of Saint Carlo Borromeo. After Della Porta began promising his books to the Lincei, but in the end, whether by his design or carelessness, they passed with the bulk of his property to his daughter.
That property, which he assessed in 1612, was considerable, although probably not as extensive as his father's had been. In addition to the town house and two villas which became entirely his after his brother's death, Della Porta had inherited 20,000 ducats from his father, and had been given large sums by royalty and other patrons, and had earned 12,000 ducats with his pen. A large part of his wealth, however, was tied up in the collection of antiquities which Giambattista and Gian Vincenzo had amassed together, and great amounts had been poured into research and experiments. The "secrets" to be revealed in the Taumatologia, Della Porta estimated, had cost him, his colleagues, and Cardinal d'este a total of 100,000 scudi.
Still he lived well in these last years, as he had been accustomed to do all his life. His daughter and her four sons ministered to his domestic comfort, and though in one letter to Cesi he spoke distastefully of one nephew or grandson greedy for his inheritance, on the whole he was content with his family. The wit that led him to concoct emblems for his friends in the midst of laboratory experimentation, and literary whimsy that prompted him to give his daughter and grandsons romantic names from his comedies were stimulated by a variety of literary associations. The preface to Cortese's Vaiasseide (1614) testifies to the existence of contemporary academy devoted to Neapolitan dialect literature, called the Schirchiate de lo Mandracchio e' Mprovesante de lo Cerriglio (roughly, the Wits of the Mandracchio and Improvisers of the Cerriglio). The Mandraccio was a waterfront district of Naples, and the Cerriglio a popular local tavern. Although the club probably met in Cortese's house, its spiritual home was the Cerriglio,which became both subject and setting of dialect poems. Cortese wrote a mock epic, Lo Cerriglio 'ncantato, recounting the Cerriglio kingdoms's fall and transformation into a tavern. The greatest of the dialect writers, G.B. Basile, who was probably in the Schirchiate and was certainly a friend of both Cortese and Della Porta, entitled the third of his nine Neapolitan eclogues Talia o lo Cerriglio, picturing the inn as a rollicking den of thieves. Another favorite subject of the Schirchiate was lo chiappo, the hangman's noose, as indicated by the manuscript discovered by Minieri-Riccio of an anonymous member's Discurzo Napolitano ncoppa l'accellenze de lo Chiappo. The title of Della Porta's Chiappinaria (1609) seems to allude to this joke. More significantly, he named the Cerriglio as headquarters for the criminal characters in L'astrology (1606) and made it the central scene of action in La tabernaria (1616), a comedy written partly in Neapolitan dialect. On the wispy evidence of five references to the Schirchiate, Minieri-Riccio was unable to establish the date of its founding or to identify more then four of its members. But Della Porta's use of the club's special topoi suggests that he was either a member or an interested associate, and that the group was active before 1606, the year of Astrology's publication.
A well-documented and more dignified literary society enjoyed by Della Porta in his last years wast eh Academy of the Oziosi, officially begun in 1611. Perhaps remembering the Svegliati's disbanding by one Spanish viceroy and the earlier wholesale suppression of the academies by another, the chief Ozioso, Manso, protected his academy by extending membership to the current viceroy, Pedro fernando deo Castro, Count of Lemos. The count actually furnished for their entertainment a comedy of his own writing, and the Oziosi flourished. Giambattista Marino's election as prince of the academy and his publication of an octave in praise of Della Porta occurred after the old man's death, but in his lifetime also the Oziosi numbered many notable men of letters. Scipione Errico was a charter member, and the versatile Gabrile Zinano was soon admitted, as was G.B. Basile, who wrote a complimentary ode on Della Porta's Georgio (1611). Drama seems especially to have been cultivated by the Oziosi, although no other playwright of Della Porta's stature emerged from their number. Zinano was admired for this tragedy L'Amerigo, Errico and Basile wrote plays, in addition to their works in other genres, and among the other dramatists in this first crop of Oziosi were Andrea Santa Maria, Francesco Zazzero; Ettore Pignatelli; Fabrizio Carafa; Filippo Caetani, duke of Sermoneta; and Fabrizio Marotta. These early Oziosi formed a distinguished and stimulating circle, of which Milton may have seen traces some twentyfive years later, when he visited the aged Manso in Naples and wrote verses to Basile's niece, singing in Rome.
But although Della Porta was an active member of the academy, he seems to have regarded it rather negligently, maintaining his persona of serious scientist who wrote comedies only as 'scherzi de' suoi study piu gravi". Unlike his fellow academicians, he never advertised his membership on a title-page. There is no record of his academic name, and he did not deign to contribute to the Oziosi's collection of memorial verse on the death of Queen Margaret of Austria. In contrast, he often publicized his connection with the Accademia dei Lincei, and in his eagerness to augment the prestige of that exclusively scientific society, he proposed that Cesi admit to it several of the most aristocratic Oziosi.
A minor struggle now ensued between sober youth and giddy old age. Cesi, whose devotion to learning was so unswerving that he spent his honeymoon in Palestrina writing an archeological monograph on the nearby Temple of Fortune, intended to make his academy a tight network of dedicated scholars. The liberal Della Porta, on the contrary, envisioned an organization something like the Order of Malta, with ceremonial trappings and honorary membership for nobly born dilettantes, among them the Spanish viceroy. Possibly Cesi felt that his own high rank, further adorned in 1613 with the title of Prince of Sant'Angelo e Polo, shed sufficient lustre of this sort on the academy. Eventually he admitted Tommaso Carafa at Della Porta's request, but suggested tactfully that the Neapolitan membership be strictly limited until the academy possessed a local place for its meetings. Meanwhile he sent rings for the new members, and Della Porta answered with an account of the manner in which he bestowed them...
(I have received three rings and have begun to distribute them, but not without some ceremony. I made the recipients kneel and I put the rings on their fingers with fine words and with many thanks to Your Most Illustrious Lordship. I regret not having robes ready, and if God permits us to have the palace, I shall order two robes of gold silk or brocade, one for the Vice-Prince, and the other for the Linceo initiate. And we should write a handbook of the ceremonies, for without this, it would seem a childish game...)
The most famous of the Lincei was now very old and ill, but the pains of fever, catarrh, and kidney stones did not overwhelm him. In 1611 he published Georgio, a sacred tragedy followed by a comedy, La tabernaria, perhaps in 1612. In that year one of his friends suggested that he write a verse tragedy about the death of Ulysses. Obligingly he did so, and together with a comedy, I du fratelli simili, Ulisse was printed in 1614, the last of his works to be published in his lifetime.
Though he sent no scientific books to the printer after 1610, Della Porta never abandoned his laboratory, and the Inquisition never abandoned its watch over him. He was experimenting with mercury in 1612, and still nursed some hope of discovering the philosopher's stone. That summer he informed Cesi that he was planning a book on the telescope in answer to Galileo's attackers, Sisi and the others who (...talk nonsense, because the know nothing about perspective.) He announced also that some Venetian merchants had approached him about publishing his complete works, but that he and no time to write all the necessary dedications. It is more then likely that the censors would have opposed the project. They steadily refused to license the Taumatologia, even after Cesi gave it a less occult-sounding title, and they inspected Della Porta's mail, often forcing his correspondents to address their communications through intermediaries. Either as a proof of orthodox piety or as a preliminary to his approaching end, Della Porta constructed a chapel to St. John the Baptist near none of his villas and entreated the Vatican to attach an indulgence to it. The indulgence was granted, but the license for the Taumatologia was permanently withheld. The censors' mistrust seems to have been justified. The manuscript index through which the Taumatologia has survived revels the Della Porta had returned more credulously than ever to belief in demonology.
In 1613 the Lincei ordered a medal struck in honor of their illustrious eldest member, and hopefully discussed the possibility of publishing his complete works. The plan came to nothing, but Della Porta was gratified by the homage and continued working to deserve it. Cesi reported to Galileo in June that, although the old man's memory was somewhat weakened, he had a number of compositions in hand and daily received the admirers who visited him in droves. For every visitor bent on scientific enlightenment, there were four or five attracted by Della Porta's reputation as a wonder worker and seer. although he claimed to be irritated by the crowds, he often obliged and with a demonstration in fortunetelling, reiterating the while that he employed only natural means. Upon being shown a portrait of Henri IV, he dazzled the company by foretelling that monarch's violent death. Later, when history had borne him out, Della Porta explained to his friend, Stelluti, that he had based his prediction on the king's pouting lower lip, which made him look as though he were on the verge of tears.
In the summer of 1614 the venerable Mago was shaken by the death of his youngest grandson, Attilio, and was bedridden by a nearly fatal concentration of kidney stones. But following a special blessing obtained from the pope by Cesi, Della Porta rallied, and in October, announced to Galileo that he was constructing a new kind of telescope which would penetrate the empyrean. This was his last project. A few days before his death, he told nicantonio Stellliola, that he telescope was the most difficult thing he had ever undertaken and that it had killed him. He died on February 4, 1615, and after a magnificent funeral, was buried in the family vault in the Church of San Lorenzo. His will, notarized on February 1, is signed almost illegibly in the hand of a very ill and tired old man. With the exception of small bequests to a cousin, Urania "Spatafore," and a nephew or grandson, Trojano de Gennaro, and several religious charities, Della Porta's property was left to his daughter, Cinzia di Costanzo, and her three sons, Eugenio, Filesio, and Leandro.
Some of his papers went into the Lincei collection, but many of them passed through Della Porta's heirs and Lorenzo Crasso to Pompeo Sarnelli and then disappeared, after Sarnelli had extracted material for a short biography, appended to his translation of Chirosisonomia in 1677. The other works which were unpublished in Della Porta's lifetime are known by title only, with the exception of De telescopio, discovered in manuscript in 1940 and published in 1962.
It is most regrettable that Peiresc's plan in 1617 for a biographical sketch of Della Porta never bore fruit; the French scholar might have issued a franker account than his Italian contemporaries dared to give. The Inquisition became more and more suspicious of the Lincei as time passed, until weakened by Cesi's death in 1630 and Galileo's condemnation in 1633, the academy drifted into a long hibernation. The Neapolitan branch could not survive Della Porta long and died even before Cesi, either from natural debility or by Spanish order. The biographical notes made by Cesi or Faber and sent to Giovanni Ricchio in 1625 to be worked into the academy's official eulogy of Della Porta was, of necessity, an attempt to make the Lincie and their illustrious Vice Principe palatable to the Inquisition. Although the account contains certain useful facts, it completely ignores Della Porta's lifelong troubles with the Inquisition and concentrates on is piety, charitable works, and friendships with highly-placed churchmen. It even goes so far as to allege that he scrupulously avoided attending risque plays, and wrote his own comedies solely for didactic purposes. These and Della Porta's own attempts to whitewash his reputation are responsible for the scarcity of factual material about his life and for the enormous amount of misinformation that his would-be biographers must sift.
The historians of magic and of Renaissance science who refer to Della Porta agree that he lacked common sense. The breadth of his learning and the depth of his interest in natural phenomena are unquestioned. Like the best of his colleagues, he recognized the value of experimentation, but his methods were even faultier than most. A little-known letter written to Giovan Francesco Angelita provides one of the best examples of Della Porta's merits and shortcomings in this connection. In answer to Angelita's request for information about procreation in snails, Della Porta replies that he is not satisfied with the authority of the ancients, for he believes in his own eyes more than Aristotle. He has noticed baby snails appearing in one of his flower boxes in which there are no adult snails, and deduces that these creatures are born of putrefaction. He ends with a recommendation that Angelita cease wasting time on such trifles.
The Magiae is essentially only a combination of medieval secret lore with fifteenth and sixteenth discoveries in physics; even the sections on magnetism and the camera obscura, much respected in his time were not new. De refractione is recognized as a serious work but does not justify his being called the father of modern optics, for it adds nothing to the Opticae thesaurus of his predecessor Risner.
Illustrating the Renaissance search for a unity in nature, all his works take for granted a universal plan which expresses itself in analogies among all forms of existence: Between men and animals in the Physiognomonia and Chirosisonomia, between animals, and plants in the Phytognomonica. But utility was always Della Porta's highest aim. Every book of the Magiae emphasizes the practical application of the secrets of nature revealed therein.
At least in the fields of botany and natural history modern historians of science take Della Porta seriously. In his experimental orchards he achieved solid results in grafting and plant feeding, described with charming poetic embellishments in Villae and Magiae. The greatest of Renaissance natural historians, Ulisse Aldovrandi, acknowledged his debt to Della Porta's observation of bird life. And even his jumbled laboratory work benefited future scientists. Antonio Corsano observes that although Della Porta's desire to astound his friends made him neglect to search for constant laws and vital connections, his work was so varied and unceasing that he could not avoid occasionally formulating sensible and careful criteria for research.
Thorndike suggests an influence on Francis Bacon, specifically of Della Porta's plans in Magiae XX, 5, for an instrument for long-distance hearing, to be constructed according to principles based on observation of sharp-eared animals. Be that as it may, Della Porta was in many ways like the author of the Advancement of Learning. He had the same reverence for nature and concern with utility, the same lamentable impatience with details. And certainly, for all his credulity and carelessness, Della Porta's hope of treasuring up all the secrets of nature within the covers of a single book had a touching Baconian grandeur.
Both Bacon and Della Porta would be unpleasantly surprised to know that modern readers neglect their scientific works for the essays of one and the dramas of the other. Although Della Porta took pride in his plays, his deprecation of them was not mere convention. He considered them a hobby, a frivolous ornament to the results of his serious studies. This relative negligence has increased the difficulty of investigating his dramatic works. So vaguely and so rarely does his surviving correspondence mention the plays, that it has never been possible even to date these compositions accurately.
"End of Chapter I"
Giambattista Della Porta Dramatist
Louise George Clubb
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