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"Science and the Secrets of Nature"

by William Eamon

(Princeton University Press, 1994)

(Chapter SIX)

"Natural Magic and the Secrets of Nature"

The professors of secrets put little faith in theory.  They rarely asked why particular recipes worked.  Nor did they use experiments to test theories.  For them experiments were tests of the efficacy of recipes or attempts to improve them.  They were guided more by the trial-and-error methodology of the inventor than by the theoretical bent of the experimental scientist.  Moreover, they were distrustful theory, which struck them as vague, abstract, and dubious.  They knew that in empirical matters, explanations do not necessarily contribute to successful results.  Following a rule tested by an experienced practitioner is safer than attempting to devise new techniques based on general principles, as every user of a cookbook knows.  The professors of secrets were convinced that experience was a more reliable guide to truth than theory.

Nevertheless, they inherited a coherent view of the natural world and carried out their investigations with an intellectual framework that most of their readers shared.  Otherwise their books would not have sold so well.  The philosophical statement of this outlook was natural magic, the science that attempted to give rational, naturalistic explanations of the occult forces of nature.  The basic assumption of natural magic was that nature teemed with hidden forces and powers that could be imitated, improved upon, and exploited for human gain.  As Isabella Cortese expressed it, "man is not content with investigation, but strives to put everything into works, to make himself the ape of nature, indeed to supersede nature, as he tries to do what to nature is impossible.  And that this might be true, he is able to dig up secrets that every day are seen being put into execution."

The expanding Renaissance interest in magic has been amply documented.  However, modern scholarship has tended to treat natural magic as a strictly intellectual problem, while ignoring its political and social dimensions.  Nor have historians looked seriously at the relationship of natural magic to popular values and attitudes.  Yet natural magic was an ideology as much as it was a natural philosophy.  Its rise to prominence in the sixteenth century and the campaign waged by the Church against it cannot be understood in isolation from the momentous Counter-Reformation debate over the future of Catholicism.  Indeed, the controversy over natural magic was essentially a political and religious dispute.  At issue were doctrinal uniformity and the Church's jurisdiction over supernatural forces.  As John Bossy has pointed out, the aim of the Tridentine reform was to enforce a code of uniform parochial practice.  Among the various measures it took to enforce parochial uniformity, the Tridentine Church was particularly vigorous in its attempt to eradicate the "errors and superstitions" of popular religion.  Besides teetering dangerously close to demonic magic, natural magic was anathema to the Church because it smacked of pagan superstition.  Moreover, because it claimed to make "miracles" natural, it encroached upon the Church's jurisdiction over supernatural forces.  In its attempt to protect the faithful from the superstitions of supernatural magic, the Church condemned all magical activity as heretical.  In the heat of the Reformation conflict, the net grew too large.  Natural magic was caught up along with popular superstitions, witchcraft, and consort with demons.

Giambattista Della Porta

Perscrutatore dei secreti naturali

The professors of secrets' "research program" consisted of an aggressive search for the "secrets of nature," which they believed were hidden underneath nature's exterior appearances.  But that quest shaded dangerously into impious curiosity about demonic forces, and worse, into heretical attempts to control them.  Traditional exhortations against forbidden knowledge were still widespread in religious and academic circles, particularly against looking into the secrets of nature, the secrets of God, and the secrets of the state.  Carlo Ginzburg has stressed the ideological meaning of this triple exhortation.  "It tended to maintain the existing social and political hierarchy by condemning subversive political thinkers who tried to penetrate the mysteries of the State," he writes.  "It tended to reinforce the power of the Church (or churches), subtracting traditional dogmas from the intellectual curiosity of heretics.  As a side effect of some importance, it tended to discourage independent thinkers who would have dared to question the time-honoured image of the cosmos."  Nevertheless, many of the traditional limitations imposed on the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge were being broken down in the sixteenth century.  Niccolo Machiavelli's Prince, a "how-to" book on how to gain and keep power, exposed secrets of statecraft to the entire community of European intellectuals.  Within a few decades, Protestant propaganda was hammering out a profound religious secret, announcing to a popular audience the possibility of gaining salvation on one's own, without the intervention of the priesthood.

In the realm of natural philosophy, the assault upon the concept of forbidden knowledge came from a new front.  In the growing number of apologetics for natural magic as a legitimate scientific pursuit, entirely distinct from the demonic magic so vigorously opposed by the churches, both reformed and Catholic.  Yet despite attempts by thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to create an occult philosophy based on purely nondemonic principles, it was practically impossible to find a clear distinction between the impersonal planetary spirits that were supposedly the basis of natural magic and the personal spirits (i.e., demons) that resided in planetary spheres and performed exactly the same function as the celestial spirits.  If the only difference between demons and  and celestial spirits was that demons were intelligent souls, how was the magical operator to tell them apart?  Any planetary effect might be caused by a demon.  Moreover, demons were notoriously deceptive.  How could the magus be sure he was not invoking evil demons when they were always lying in wait for the opportunity to deceive those who tried to make contact with celestial spirits?  If by his attempt to purify magic Ficino tacitly reopened the door leading to demonic magic, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) recklessly rushed through it.  In his De occulta philosophia, Agrippa defended invocation of demons so long as they are good demons (and hence the agents of divine miracles), and openly discussed methods for compelling the assistance of evil demons in magical operations.  In attempting to distinguish between truly religious ceremonies, which are based on faith, and superstitious practices, which are based on credulity, he was forced to conclude that the effects of credulity and faith are about the same.  The outcome of this line of reasoning was to explain religious miracles in terms of the psychological effects of ceremonies, a stance that was very dangerous to religion.  Agrippa anguished over the atheistical implications of magic: although the completed his work on magic in 1510, he did not have it printed until 1533, several years after publishing a retraction of his views (De vanitate scientiarum, 1530)

Unlike Agrippa, the Neapolitan philosopher and magus Giambattista Della Porta never disavowed his commitment to magic, despite continual harassment by the Inquisition.  From his first juvenile effort to his last unpublished work, Della Porta dedicated his life to establishing natural magic as a legitimate empirical science.  He wrote more than a dozen books on various aspects of natural magic and was acknowledged as Europe's foremost authority on the subject.  Regarded by many contemporaries as the age's "most diligent scrutinizer of the secrets of nature," Della Porta articulated the theoretical underpinnings of the professors of secrets' research program.

Della Porta was born in 1535, the second son of Nardo Antonio Della Porta, a Neapolitan nobleman.  Like most of the Italian nobility, he and his two brothers, Giovan Vincenzo and Giovan Ferrante, were taught by private tutors.  Their education consisted not only of classical letters, but also of "chiyalric exercises" such as music, dancing, riding, and gymnastics.  None of the Della Porta brothers obtained a university degree or pursued an academic career.  Yet the courtly atmosphere of the  Della Porta household, with its informal cultivation of aristocratic virtuosita, provided the brothers with a sort of connoisseur's familiarity with the arts, crafts, and letters.  Giovan Ferrante, the youngest, had a large collection of crystals and geological specimens, which he left to his brothers at his premature death.  The eldest, Giovan Vincenzo, was an authority on antiquities and an avid collector of marble statues, busts, and medals.  Giambattista, who according to Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc revered his older brother as a father, used Giovan Vincenzo's collection in doing the research for his books on physiognomy.  In addition to his books on natural magic, Giambattista wrote on alchemy, astrology, physiognomy, cryptography, the art of memory, agriculture, optics, geometry, pneumatics, and munitions.  He was the most accomplished comic playwright of his generation.  And though reportedly tone-deaf, all three of the Della Porta brothers studied musical theory at the Scuola di Pitagora, an exclusive academy for musicians.

This courtly, amplitudinous style of education helped shape the development of Della Porta's interests in natural magic.  It freed him from the rigorous constraints of scholarship that were the usual prerequisite for the study of natural philosophy, and it stimulated his somewhat dilettantish interests in "experiments" designed to exhibit meraviglia.  Even his dramatic works displayed an exaggerated preoccupation with the marvelous:  "When he turned from the secrets of nature to write a play, he could not leave off hunting miracles."

Equally important for the development of Della Porta's interests was the cultural milieu of mid-sixteenth-century Naples.  Nicola Badaloni has suggested that the circle of natural philosophers known to have influenced the Della Portas was motivated by the ideal of a comprehensive moral, religious, and medical reformation.  Matteo da Solito, the Della Porta's astrology teacher, reportedly held radically anticlerical views.  According to Nicolo Franco's testimony before the Roman Inquisition in 1658, Solito "frankly and menacingly denied the power of the papacy, declaring it to be null and vain, and he said the same of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of the communion and all the other articles of the faith."  Giovan Abioso da Bagnola, another Della Porta tutor, thought that the conjunction of 1524 portended the possibility of an immanent reformation of human manners, a social reformation, and a restoration of human dominion over the material world.  To accomplish this instauratio magno, Abioso proclaimed it would be necessary to turn away from the books of the ancients and to "hunt for the new secrets of nature" (venari nova naturae secreta).  Abioso urged the study of the habits of animals as a way to learn how to act directly on the primeval forces of nature in order to use them for human benefit.  Alchemy, he thought, provided a tool with which to recover the primordial substantia vitae, thus producing a universal medicine that could cure all diseases and restore human vitality.  The quintessence, separated off from the dross of organisms through distillation, was for Abioso a metaphor for the reformation of society.  Entirely consistent with this "primitivist" outlook was the avid interest among many Neapolitan intellectuals in the idea of the golden age, their fascination with American Indians, and their feverish desire to restore society to its pristine simplicity.  As for the latter, some intellectuals advocated the overthrow of Spanish rule in Naples and the restoration of the aristocracy.  There can be little doubt that these radical ideas attracted Tommaso Campanella to the Della Porta circle on his first visit to Naples in 1589.

This complex medley of ideas and political ambitions found a sympathetic hearing in the informal literary and philosophical academies that flourished in Naples - until they were closed by the Spanish viceroy in 1597.  As we have already seen, the style of scientific research motivated by Abioso's dictum venari nova naturae secreta came to a fruition in the Accademia Segreta that Girolamo Ruscelli helped to organize in the 1540's.  Although Della Porta would have been too young to take an active part in the academy's deliberations, he is likely to have been aware of its existence.  Badaloni speculates that the precocious Della Porta may even have attended some of the Segreti's meetings.  Although there is no direct evidence for this conjecture, circumstantial evidence suggests a link between Della Porta and the Ruscelli group.  Historians have generally expressed incredulity over Della Porta's claim to have written his famous Magia naturalis (1558) at the tender age of fifteen.   Generally they have dismissed the claim as Della Porta's attempt to pass himself off to the public as a wunderkind.  But if Della Porta attended meetings of the Segreti (possibly in the company of his older brother), he would have heard frequent discussions of the subjects he later wrote about in the Magia naturalis.  His book on magic may have been inspired by the Accademia Segreta.

Additional circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between the youthful Della Porta and the Segreti.  I have already presented evidence to suggest that the Accademia Segreta existed under the patronage of Ferrante Sanseverino, the prince of Salerno, and that it disbanded following Sanseverino's unsuccessful rebellion against the Spanish government.  The Della Portas were also a noble family from Salerno.  Giambattista's father, Nardo Antonio, owned an estate in Vico Equense on the Sorrentine Peninsula, in the principality of Salerno, where Giambattista was born.  Nardo Antonio was thus a subject of the prince of Salerno and also held noble privileges in Naples.  Evidently some members of the Della Porta family supported Sanseverino's rebellion, a fact Giambattista bitterly lamented.  Although Della Porta's father must have remained loyal to the Spanish viceroy during this affair (for he did not lose his estates or office he held in Naples), the involvement of relatives in the rebellion cast suspicion on the entire family.  About this time the family's fortune dwindled somewhat, necessitating the sale of Giovan Ferrante's collection of crystals and the geological specimens.  Events may also have forced Giambattista to leave Naples, the occasion of his first trip to northern Europe.  Years later, Della Porta would recall, "From my parental heritage I suffered some adverse and very melancholy things; suffered exile and persecution."

A final, more telling piece of information suggests that Della Porta was familiar with the activities of the Accademia Segreta.  It is well known that Della Porta later organized his own experimental academy at his home in Naples.  What has not been generally noticed is that his academy was remarkably similar to the one described by Ruscelli.  Even the name Della Porta gave it, the Accademia dei Secreti, brings to mind Ruscelli's Secreti nuovi and to the Secreti of "Alessio Piemontese" that there can be no mistaking its close relationship to the general aims of experimental science articulated by Ruscelli.  Indeed the Magia naturalis reads like a manifesto for a new scientific methodology.  That of science as a venatio, a hunt for "new secrets of nature."  The nearly identical names of the two academies, their proximity in time and place, and the similarity of their experimental methodologies, was surely no coincidence.

Tantalizing little is known about Della Porta's Accademia dei Secreti.  Della Porta himself mentioned the academy only once, int eh preface to the second edition of his Magia Naturalis (1589), where he wrote, "I never wanted also at my House an Academy of curious Men, who for the trying of these Experiments, cheerfully disbursed their Moneys, and employed their utmost Endeavours, in assisting me to Compile and Enlarge this Volume, which with so great Charge, Labour, and Study, I had long before provided."  From this passage it appears that the academy was formed with the express purpose of trying out the experiments Della Porta had proposed in the first edition of his Magia naturalis, and of expanding the scope of that earlier work with the addition of new experiments.  The Magia naturalis may thus be read as an extension of the research program set forth in the Accademia Segreta and continued in Della Porta's academy.  This interpretation is corroborated by the testimonies of two of Della Porta's younger contemporaries, which provide additional details about the academy's activities.  In an eloge of 1640, Giovanni Imperiali reported that the academy met at Della Porta's house, and that no one was admitted to it "unless he had discovered some new secret of nature useful in medicine or the mechanical arts and beyond the level of ordinary comprehension."  Somewhat later, Lorenzo Crasso referred to Della Porta's "famous academy called de' Secreti."  Pompeo Sarnelli, who owned Della Porta's letters, gave the fullest account of the academy:

Not content with his own intelligence, he submitted his opinions to some of the more learned men, for whom he had erected in his house an academy with the title of Secreti.  And these men vied with one another to add new discoveries to his researches, which, being well examined in the academy, they were pleased to see established afterwards.  To accomplish this he embarked on a pilgrimage, and traveled (as he himself said) through all of Italy, France, and Spain, visiting very learned men and famous libraries, in order to find out new things; and returning home, he examined all the opinions in his academy, registering only those that had been proved as true.

Della Porta's informal academy devoted itself to a research program almost identical to the one described by Ruscelli: to seek out "secrets" from books and from other savants, to put them to the test of experiment, and to "register only those proved true."

It is not known when the Accademia dei Secreti began its meetings.  According to Sarnelli, the society already existed before Della Porta left Naples for an extended tour of Italy, France, and Spain, about 1563.  When he returned to Naples around 1566, Della Porta reconvened the group in order not discuss and experiment on the information he had collected during his travels.  Although no official roll for the academy exists, we can be reasonably certain about the general character of its membership.  Besides Della Porta and his brother Giovan Vincenzo, the academy's experiments was in all probability composed mainly of other local noblemen.  As we have seen, aristocratic Neapolitan social life revolved around academies. In addition to such unnamed individuals, several of Della Porta's close intellectual companions can be identified.  

Domenico Pizzimenti, a classicist, alchemist, and one of Della Porta's teachers, may also have been a member of the academy.  Another likely candidate is Donato Antonio Altomare, a local physician, close friend of Della Porta, and a founder of Altomare, an academy devoted to the study of medicine.  Giovan Antonio Pisano, a professor of practical medicine and anatomy at the Studio of Naples and another of Della Porta's teachers, might also have participated in the society's meetings.  Pisano had been a member of the short-lived Euboli, which was closed down by the viceroy.  Della Porta also reported that he engaged craftsmen, including a distiller and an herbalist, to help with the experiments undertaken in the academy.

In his biography of Della Porta, Sarnelli rather cautiously and tentively mentions another event in connection with the activities of the Secreti:  some unnamed Neapolitans denounced Della Porta to the Inquisition for the groups magical activities.  Sarnelli goes on to say that when he was brought before the Inquisition, Della Porta proved to everyone's satisfaction that all of his secrets were natural, and defended himself so well that he was given an official commendation.  This was a complete whitewash, one of many pious lies invented by Della Porta's family and friends to save his reputation.  In fact, Della Porta was brought before the Holy Office on at least two occasions.  His first appearance before the Inquisition occurred in 1574, when he was arrested and sent to Rome to answer for "things concerning the faith."  As a result of the event, he was forced to disband teh Accademia dei Secreti.  Della Porta's case was reopened in February 1580, when he was brought before the Neapolitan inquisitors.  Again the charges related to his magical activities.  According to the eighteenth-century historian Giuseppe Valletta, who had the Inquisitorial documents before him, Della Porta was charged with "having written about the marvels and secrets of nature."

But the Magia naturalis was published in 1558, and since that time Della Porta had published nothing on magic.  What caused the Holy Office to reopen his case twenty-two years later?  The answer is that he was implicated in a famous international dispute over witchcraft between the French jurist Jean Bodin (1529-1596) and the German physician Johann Wier (1515-1588).  In his treatise on witchcraft, De prestigiis daemonum (1564), Wier argued against the persecution of witches, citing Della Porta's experiment demonstrating the the "witch's salve," supposedly used to transport witches into flight, could be understood according to naturalistic principles.  Della Porta maintained that the witch's salve was in reality a sleep-inducing hallucinogenic drug, which when rubbed on the body caused supposed witches to fantasize their nocturnal flights.  Attacking Wier in his Demonomanic des sorciers (1580), Bodin brought Della Porta into the dispute, damning him as "un grand Sorcier Neapolitan" and accusing him of propagating demonic magic.  Natural magic, experimental science, or sorcery.  It was all the same to Bodin, who was absolutely convinced about the reality of witchcraft.

Although Wier denied the reality of witches, he did not deny the existence of demons.  Nor did he accept any attempt (including Della Porta's) to naturalize magic.  A Lutheran, he condemned all magic, but especially that of the Roman Catholic church, as diabolical.  Wier argued the the operations of magic and witchcraft were delusions induced by demons.  He attacked the witchcraft persecutions on the grounds that supposed witches were not heretics who had made a pact with Satan, but innocent persons whose imaginations had been derranged by evil demons.  Since Della Porta had concluded from his experiment with the witch's salve that the ingredients in the unguent simply caused credulous old women to experience bad dreams, his argument nicely suited Wier's purpose.

Bodin easily dismantled Wier's position.  It was a contradiction, he pointed out, to admit that demons could cause witches' delusions, and yet maintain that such deeds were due solely to demons and never to the individuals who evoked them.  If the devil can traffic with humans to wreak physical effects, as Wier constantly admitted, why cannot humans equally traffic with demons?  To make his position even more impossible, Wier did not deny the latter possibility.  While the supposed witches suffered only from melancholic delusions and did not consort with demons, he argued, the magicians did traffic with demons and should be punished accordingly!  As Bodin pointed out, such "capricious and sophistic" reasoning denied the whole relationship between cause and effect, and served only to absolve witches of responsibility for their maleficia.  Such reasoning must have come from either ignorance or wickedness.  Since Wier was obviously not ignorant, he must be in league with the devil and must have written his work with the aim of teaching the black arts.  Turning to Della Porta, Bodin pointed out that by publishing an account of how to make the witch's salve, the "Neapolitan sorcerer," like Wier, was actually an accomplice in the devil's design to subvert the social order.

Della Porta defended himself against Bodin in the second edition of the Magia naturalis (1589), insinuating the Bodin was a heretic.  Nevertheless, he deleted the account of the witch's unguent from that work, and for the rest of his life he struggled with the Inquisition to gain approval for the publication of his books.  In 1592, when he tried to publish an Italian edition of his work on human physiognomy, the Inquisition stepped in.  On orders from the Holy Office in Rome, the Venetian Inquisition halted the work's publication and forbade Della Porta, under pain of excommunication and a fine of five hundred ducats, to publish anything without the express permission of the Roman High Tribunal.

Magic and Superstition:

The Politics of Occult Qualities

It would be a mistake to conclude from these events that Della Porta's troubles with the Inquisition were the result simply of the "witchcraft hysteria."  As I have already indicated, his case was first opened in 1574, six years before the Bodin-Wier dispute took place.  It was his work on natural magic, not suspicion of practicing witchcraft, that brought him before the Holy Office.  The debate over magic in the late sixteenth century makes better sense if understood within the broader context of post-Tridentine politics.  The Church, determined to consolidate an ecclesiastical monopoly over access to supernatural forces, saw any attempt to utilize occult powers as a threat to its jurisdiction over the miraculous.  One of the Church's principal targets in its struggle to defend this territory was popular superstition.  Della Porta believed that natural magic would also eradicate superstitions, not by suppressing them, but by giving them rational, scientific foundations.  The only thing superstitious about popular magic, he maintained, was the belief that demons were responsible for it.

The history of Inquisitorial processes in the sixteenth century confirms the Church's growing concern over popular superstitions.  Until about1580, the Roman Inquisition busied itself with combating the Protestant heresy.  Having succeeded in stamping out Protestantism in Italy, or at least driving it underground, the Inquisition turned its attention to eradicating popular magic.  Although the statistics vary somewhat from city to city, the pattern of persecution was everywhere the same:  illicit magic replaced doctrinal heresy as the most common charge brought before the local tribunals of the Holy Office.  In Naples, where Protestantism was considered to be less of a problem for the Inquisition then it was elsewhere, magic became the single most common crime after 1570 and remained so down through the seventeenth century.  The overwhelming majority of such cases of "superstitious errors" concerned magical healing, love magic, and divination.  That is, the accused were charged with using charms, incantations, and magical devices to heal various physical ailments, to prevent disease, to detect thieves, to find stolen objects and buried treasure, or to incite sexual passion.  In contrast to northern Europe, the focus of of the witch craze, popular "superstitions" rather than satanic witchcraft constituted the bulk of the crimes prosecuted by the local tribunals of the Italian Inquisition.

Historians have argued that these activities were part of a systematic campaign by the Tridentine Church to reform popular culture, to eradicate popular superstitions, and to "divert all streams of popular religion into a single parochial channel."  With that as the Church's principal objective, it is not difficult to see why popular magic came under attack.  While Protestantism emphasized the need to accept conditions as they were, Catholicism offered a religion that was "remedial" in concrete ways.  Popular devotional life revolved around such practices as appealing to saints for their intercession in human affairs, requesting aid from holy relics and religious amulets, and using prayers to seek divine assistance.  Such practices were in principle entirely orthodox, but the distinction between acceptable practice and superstition was repeatedly blurred.  Although ordinary people were encouraged to pray for divine aid, many of the prayers that circulated among the people were more like spells or magical secrets than supplications.  Extrapolated from conventional prayers, these "spiritual recipes," which tacitly guaranteed success, implied a mechanical means of manipulating divine power.  Put simply, magical remedies competed with clerical ones.  The Church was "a repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems."  The problem lay in the irresistible temptation luring unauthorized persons to try to get at this power.

The Tridentine Church regarded such unauthorized attempts to gain access to supernatural powers as "superstitions."  This represented a significant change to the Church's definition of magic and witchcraft.  Prior to the fifteenth century, Inquisitorial jurisdiction limited itself to cases involving explicit pacts with demons.  The most common cases of popular sorcery, maleficia (causing physical harm through magic), were treated like other crimes involving physical harm to persons, crops, or animals without regard to the magical means employed.  Fifteenth-century legislation shifted the focus to the means employed, as opposed to the ends.  All magical activity, whether harmful or beneficial, came under suspicion as involving, implicitly or explicitly, a pact with demons.  In 1607, the Council of Malines drew up a definition of superstition that summarized the general practice followed by the Roman Inquisition in the second half of the sixteenth century.  "It is superstitious to expect any effect from anything when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institutions, or by the ordination and approval of the Church."  Magic, even without directly invoking demons, drew on forces not controlled or sanctioned by the Church, and hence was superstitious and presumptively diabolical.  In elaborating the "typical" figure of the witch during the fifteenth century, theologians conflated activities traditionally regarded as stemming from mere ignorance or credulity with stereotypes drawn from learned magic and the underworld of heresy.  As modern studies of witchcraft have shown, the identification of the ordinary village sorcerer with the magician who knowingly enters into a pact with Satan dramatically extended the scope and severity of witchcraft persecutions.

In light of these changing juridical practices, it is easy to see why natural magic came under attack.  It was not just that churchmen suspected natural magic of involving consort with demons; worse, they say it as an arrogant attempt to usurp the Church's prerogative in controlling access to supernatural forces.  The dangerous tendencies of naturalism were made glaringly clear earlier in the century, when the Paduan philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) eliminated all nonnatural agency from physical causation, thus denying the existence of angels and demons and rejecting even the miracles attested in the Scripture.  The violent controversy that erupted over Pomponazzi's views brought the issue of miracles into sharp focus and put the Church on guard against naturalism.  In the tense political climate of the post-Tridentine period, the Church was incapable of accepting naturalistic interpretations of such practices as chiromancy or healing by sympathetic magic, both of which the proponents of natural magic considered natural.  Nor was the Church able to condone astrological forecasting, because it threatened to usurp its guardianship over scriptural prophecy.

Della Porta wrote all of his works in Latin, hence not for a popular audience.  Yet his books were in steady demand.  His Magia naturalis appeared in more than twenty Latin editions and was translated into Italian, French, German, English, and Dutch.  More than fifty editions of the work appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   After his trial, however, he had great difficulty getting his books published.  His Latin treatise on physiognomy, De humana physiognomia, was printed in 1586, after a three-year delay.  That same year, Pope Sixtus V issued a bull banning works on astrology and divination.  Della Porta had to wait ten years for approval of his petition to publish an Italian translation of the work.  He complained bitterly that it took longer to get his books published than to write them.  But from the Church's point of view, censorship of magical books was a necessary step toward maintaining its control over occult forces.

In order to understand why the Church considered Della Porta's works to be dangerous, we must take a closer look at Della Porta's views on magic, sorcery, and "superstitions."  In his youthful Magia naturalis, Della Porta made a traditional distinction between black and white magic, pointing out that whereas sorcery "is infamous, and unhappy, because it hath to do with foul spirits, and consists of Enchantments and wicked Curiosity," the other magic, "is natural, which all excellent wise men do embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there anything more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning."   But this was not to be Della Porta's last word on demonology.  He returned to the theme in a later, unpublished work entitled the Criptologia.  This small treatise was to make up a book of his planned magnum opus, the Taumatologia, which the Inquisition steadfastly refused him permission to have printed.   The Criptologia was a head-on challenge to the Church's conception of popular magic:  "In this book are treated the most hidden secrets that are buried in the intimate bosom of nature, for which neither natural principles nor probable explanations can be given - but are not for that reason superstitions."  There were great truths in popular magic, Della Porta concluded.  But these truths were distorted by popular superstitions and by learned demonology.  On the one hand, the common people were extremely foolish to believe that the effects of natural magic were caused or enhanced by the invocation of supernatural aid.  Witches and cunning men produced their effects by using natural forces.  the ceremonies, rites, and spells connected with their practices were useless and blasphemous.  On the other hand, the scholastic philosophers and, following them, the Church were just as credulous in attributing these effects to demonic agencies.  According to Della Porta, Aristotelian natural philosophy was hopelessly inadequate to account for "superstitions"  and hence contributed to their growth:  "The ignorant philosophers, when they cannot give reasons to these things according to the principles of Aristotle (as if he knew all things), judge them as superstitions.  But learned men know well that of the infinite number of things seen in this great machine of the world that they want to know, they know scarcely a particle of them."  Della Porta believed that popular and learned views about witchcraft were equally superstitious.  He wanted to eradicate both kinds (omni explosa superstitione). 

Della Porta went on to give a critical but unusually positive evaluation of demonology.  He thought that demons, or fallen angels, although deprived of God's grace, "did not because of that lose their natural ability to know the virtue of the heavens, metals, stones, plants, and animals."  Like angels, demons were superior natural philosophers, although they used their superior intelligence to deceive humans in order to "pull them from paradise to the eternal darkness of damnation."  In reality, demonic magic is nothing more than natural magic, to which many superstitions, magical rituals, ceremonies, and secret words had been adjoined.  Moreover, "these secrets would have been very difficult things for man to uncover"  had they not been revealed (manifestati) by demons.  Undaunted by the prospect of losing his soul, Della Porta resolved to seriously study these phenomena, and to prove that they are natural by putting them to the test of physical experiment.  "I began to look over magical rituals and worthless words, and I discovered that the effects derived from natural causes; and by simply experimenting on these things, and arriving at the truth, I unmasked (detexi) the frauds and the diabolical trickery."  Thus demonic magic was based on the mistaken belief that the rites, words, and ceremonies attached to magical events were the causes of those events, when in reality they had purely natural causes.

Della Porta's claim to have "experimented" on the effects of demonic magic should not be taken literally.  His method of research in the Criptologia was primarily textual and historical.  In investigating popular superstitions, he examined the "empirical" books of Marcellus, Pseudo-Apulcius, Pliny, and others, and discovered that the ancients employed many of the same practices village healers used, but without adding to them any magical formulas or sacred words.  Della Porta applied this research method to various forms of love magic employed by the village streghe (witches), such as touching the flesh with a white magnet while reciting certain incantations to provoke amorous feelings.  Della Porta discovered that Marbod and Kyranides affirmed the natural aphroditic agency of white magnets, thus "exploding" the popular superstition that demons were behind it.  In another literary "experiment," he exploded a superstition of his own.  When he was much younger, he used a certain "mystery of nature" as an antidote against poisons.  He had the patient place his bare foot on the ground, and then, after tracing the footprint in the dirt, he inscribed inside the footprint the words Caro, caruze sanum reduze, reputa sanum, Emanuel paraclitus.  Della Porta used this technique successfully on several occasions, once healing some harvesters bitten by tarantulas.  But he began to have doubts about the procedure's orthodoxy.  After consulting a cleric and learning that the incantation was sacrilegious, he stopped using it.  Later, upon observing an acquaintance's success with the same technique, but with an entirely different incantation, Della Porta "immediately discovered the devil's fraud, because a certain blasphemy was inherent in the words, and the same thing can be produced without appealing to these formulas.  Having experimented on it, I obtained the same results."  Then, clinching the argument, he determined that Marcellus Empiricus and other ancient authors recommended similar remedies to be administered on bare feet.

With this method Della Porta discovered that many popular "superstitions" were in reality instances of profound natural magic.  He ridiculed the practice of certain "impostors" who carved magical characters on a forked stick, which they used as a divining rod for finding buried treasure.  The technique, he maintained, was in reality a natural method used by miners to find veins of ore, the enchantment of the stick having no effect whatsoever upon the stick's natural attraction to precious metals.  He observed that many psychosomatic ailments only appeared to be treated magically.  In reality they are treated naturally with herbs and other hidden devices, and "cured 'marvelously' with the secure conviction on the part of the afflicted ones that they will be healed."  The amulets the streghe used as love charms, the enchanted herbs with which they exorcised demons, and their supposed magical remedies against impotency were all natural, as we can plainly see by reading Ovid, Pliny and Dioscorides.  Such "superstitions" were all corroborated by the ancients, who said nothing whatsoever about needing incantations to make them work.  Philological research even enabled Della Porta to discover the fish that the biblical Tobias used to cure Sarah of demonic possession.  Della Porta did not doubt the effects produced by these magical techniques.  He only disputed the efficacy of the incantations and rituals associated with them in the popular (and learned) imagination.

But the Criptologia was no defense of the people's wisdom.  It was a critique of their credulity.  Della Porta did not deny the existence or potency of demons, he maintained that their powers were purely natural.  All the rituals added by sorcerers and witches to these powers were nothing more than useless words, superstitions stemming from credulity and ignorance. Della Porta maintained that humans can exploit the same powers without adding to them the superstitions of sorcery.  Yet his research led him to believe things even stranger than the people's magic.  He maintained, fore example, that people could tap the natural force of the witch's salve, which caused old women to be seized by visions and hallucinations, to transmit their imaginations, thus enabling them to communicate across distances.  Instead of being seized by "demonic" hallucinations, the natural magician could control the forces that caused hallucinations in order to telegraph his thoughts.

By classifying demonic magic as natural, Della Porta opened up to experimental investigation events that the Church condemned as diabolical.  Although the "superstitions" he attacked were the same as those the Inquisition hunted, his position on the status of demonic forces was radically different.  Since demonic forces are natural, he maintained, it is legitimate to investigate and even employ them, as long as one avoids the rituals adjoined to them.  Indeed, he claimed that the natural magic originally taught by demons could be used to eradicate demons.  He believed that the research program of the Criptologia would lead to a "smashing of superstitions" - not by persecution, but by exploding the false beliefs surrounding the real, natural phenomena.  He also thought it would lead to a recovery of the true, natural magic practiced by the ancient magi.  The most convincing way to expose the fraud of demons, thought Della Porta, was to discover the natural truth behind the superstitions of popular magic, and to demonstrate these by producing marvels naturally.

Obviously, such a radical position on diabolism could never gain the Church's approval.  Della Porta's position was essentially that of Pomponazzi, whose De incantationibus was condemned by the Inquisition.  Not only did Della Porta's view amount to an assault on the Church's jurisdiction over the marvelous, it directly challenged the official mechanisms against demons sponsored by the Church, such as exorcism.  Just as the Church was intensifying its campaign against popular superstitions, Della Porta was developing a theory that would undermine its entire conception of superstition.  But the Church needed demons as much as it needed Aristotle.  Witchcraft was a necessary component of the sixteenth-century moral economy.  As Stuart Clark has argued, it was one of its "conventions of discourse."  In a world predisposed toward seeing things in terms of binary opposition, such polar opposites as good/evil, rule/misrule, and chaos/order were universal principles of intelligibility as well as configurations of the real world.  A well-ordered commonwealth implied the existence of a world upside-down.  Witches, "conventional manifestations of disorder," confirmed the legitimacy of established authority because, according to the operative tautology, "the Devil's tyranny was an affront to all well-governed commonwealths [and] to every state of moral equipoise."  Thus witchcraft legitimized established authority and the instruments by which it exercised its power;  "Each detailed manifestation of demonism presupposed the orderliness and legitimacy of its direct opposite, just as , conversely, the effectiveness of exorcism, judicial process and even a royal presence in actually nullifying magical powers confirmed the grounds of authority of the priest, judge or prince as well as the felicity of his ritual performance."  The Criptologia, by attempting to naturalize the miraculous, presumed to spell out the instruments of occult power and threatened to put them into the hands of anyone who could read.  Reasonably enough, the Church could never allow such a work to be published.

Although the Criptologia represents an extreme version of Della Porta's general theory of natural magic, his temerity in venturing into such forbidden territory makes it easier to understand why the Inquisition found it necessary to summon him to answer questions "concerning the faith."  Not only did Della Porta think it was legitimate to investigate demonology, he argued strenuously for the benefits of doing so.  "I rejoice more in having found out this fraud of demons," he declared, "than in whatever else I have done in my life of seventy years, having thereby opened the way for investigators to recover other things that are manifested in the inexhaustible treasure of God."  Serious, experimental study of necromancy, he thought, would lead to knowledge of "the most hidden secrets" of nature; it would eradicate superstitions; and by recovering a lost ancient science, it would clarify once and for all the real distinction between superstition and natural magic.

The Magia naturalis

According to Della Porta, natural magic was a science of the extraordinary.  In contrast to Aristotelian natural philosophy, whose aim as to explain the normal, everyday aspects of nature, natural magic explained the exceptional, the unusual, and the "miraculous."  The overarching aim of Della Porta's major and best-known work, the Magia naturalis (1558 and 1589), was to develop naturalistic explanations for the supposedly "marvelous" phenomena recorded in the great medieval encyclopedia of secrets: as he put it, to "reduce all those secrets into their proper places."  The task he took on was already a familiar one.  To some extent it was the same as that undertaken in the thirteenth century by the author of the pseudo-Albertine De mirabilibus mundi, a work Della Porta knew well.  In devising a metaphysics to account for nature's "secrets," he made generous use of the standard authorities on the occult tradition.  But he also drew on local influences and synthesized the diverse influences that made up the Neapolitan intellectual tradition into a distinctly south-Italian philosophy of nature.

Della Porta's natural philosophy was a blend of Aristotelian physics, Renaissance Neoplatonism, naturalistic metaphysics in the tradition of Telesio, and a poetic fancy mainly his own.  Although he subscribed to the Aristotelian doctrine of substance as a composite of matter and form, he believed that the scholastic interpretation of the doctrine was incomplete.  In particular, it was unable to account for the special "properties" (proprietates) of things, the unique, insensible qualities that give rise to magical operations.  Following Aristotle, he explained that the four elements of matter (earth, air, fire, and water) contain within them the common, "primary" qualities (hot, cold, dry, and moist).  When the elements are mixed, they give rise to "secondary" and "tertiary" qualities, such as hardness, density, malleability, and smoothness.  Yet in addition to such uniform material qualities, every object also has its own peculiar "properties" that cannot be accounted for in terms of the qualities of the four elements alone.  The power of the lodestone to attract iron, for example, is peculiar to it and not to other stones or earthy substances.  Nor does the ability of certain drugs to expel poisons or earthy substances.  Nor does the ability of certain drugs to expel poisons seem to arise from mixtures of the elements.  The Peripatetics attributed such properties to the power of essential form.  But in Della Porta's view, this vague formulation did not go far enough.  It could not explain the origin of occult properties.  What was needed, he believed, was a closer analysis of the union of form with matter, the intersection where occult properties arose.  In undertaking this analysis of hylomorphism, he discovered that the deepest secrets of nature were all instances of attraction and repulsion, sympathy and antipathy, love and hate, which jointly govern the economy of properties.  Concord and discord rule the world, but not willfully: Their dominion is determined by form.

Della Porta meant this literally.  Nature is alive.  Everything inherently possesses the sensations of attraction and repulsion, the sentiments of love and hate.  Matter is not altogether without force in determining the distribution of these occult properties, he conceded: the elements and their qualities are the sensible matrix upon which form impresses the properties of concord and discord.  But Aristotle's material cause was vastly inferior in potency to formal cause.  Indeed, while material qualities are prepared by the elements, all occult properties proceed from form.  Della Porta likened form to an artisan who carefully selects the materials appropriate to his work, then shapes and molds them according to his specific design:

But the form hath such singular virtue, that whatsoever effects we see, all of them first proceed from thence; and it hath a divine beginning; and being the chiefest and most excellent part, absolute of her self, she useth the rest as her instruments, for the more speedy and convenient dispatch of her actions: and he which is not addicted nor accustomed to such contemplations, supposeth that the temperature and the matter works all things, whereas indeed they are but as it were instruments whereby the form worketh: for a workman that useth a graving Iron in the carving of an Image, doth not use it as though that could work, but for his own furtherance in the quicker and better performance thereof..... Wherefore that force which is called the property of a thing, proceeds not from the temperature, but from the very form itself.

Understanding this, the magus, who is also a kind of artisan, discovers ways to manipulate the power of form and makes nature do his bidding.

The superiority of form over matter was the linchpin of Della Porta's theory of natural magick.  Form was the immediate cause, or as close as he could come to one, of the generation of occult qualities.  Form, he explained, proceeds from God, who communicates it to the celestial intelligences, the spiritual beings intermediate between God and man - in the Christian view angels, in the Neoplatonic view demons.  The intelligences, in turn, communicate with the elements through the heavens.  The planets and stars immediately govern the allocation of form.  They stamp upon everything the capacity of sensation and the forces of sympathy and antipathy:

The form, as it is the most excellent part, so it cometh from a most excellent place; even immediately from the highest heavens, they receiving it from the intelligences, and these from God himself; and the same original which the Form hath, consequently the properties also have .... For God, as Plato thinks, when by the Almighty power of his Deity he had framed in due measure and order the heavens, the stars, and the very first principles of things the Elements, ... and he enjoined inferior things to be ruled of their superiors, by a Law, and poured down by heavenly influence upon every thing his own proper Form, full of much strength and activity: and that there might be a continual increase among them, he commanded all things to bring forth seed, and to propagate and derive their Form wheresoever should be fit matter to receive it.

The celestial intelligences, the stars, and the planets were thus links in a chain of multiple causation in which form, emanating from God, permeates the universe like the rays of the sun emanating from a central source.  This doctrine, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Neoplatonic in origin, was widely embraced in Renaissance natural philosophy.  "No man doubts but that these inferior things serve their superiors," wrote Della Porta, "and that the generation and corruption of mutable things, every one in his due course and order, is over-ruled by the power of these heavenly Natures."  But the influence of the stars over natural objects was only one instance of the interconnectedness of things. God fashioned the universe and the social hierarchy according to the same principles of proportion.  The entire universe was a vast system of interrelated correspondences, a hierarchy in which everything has its assigned place, a world in which everything acts upon everything else.  Evoking the image of a well-ordered utopian society, whose members are all "linked together in their ranks and order," inferiors serving superiors and deriving their natures from those above them, Della Porta concluded:  "The parts and members of this huge creature the World, I mean all the bodies that are in it, do in good neighborhood as it were, lend and borrow each others Nature; for by reason that they are linked in one common bond, therefore they have love in common; and by force of this common love, there is among them a common attraction, or tilling of one of them to another.  And this indeed is Magick."

We cannot hope to fully explain the properties arising from the complex web of correspondences that is the universe, Della Porta admitted.  They exist because "it is the pleasure of Nature to see it should be so."  But we can know occult qualities empirically and can use them for human benefit.  Once begun, Della Porta's illustrations of such properties proliferate rapidly.  There is a "deadly hatred" between vines and coleworts, which is why coleworts are a good remedy against drunkenness.  Rue and hemlock are also enemies:  if rue is handled with bare hands, "it will cause Ulcers to arise; but if you do chance to touch it with your bare hand, and so cause it to swell or itch, anoint it with the juice of a Hemlock."  By analogy, rue is an antidote against hemlock poisoning.  A wild bull is tamed by being tied to a fig tree; thus it was discovered that wild fig stalks can be used to tenderize beef. Humans and serpents are such deadly enemies that if a pregnant woman catches the scent of an adder, it will cause her to abort her child.  Because of the antipathy between wolves and dogs, "a Wolves skin put on upon any one that is bitten of a mad Dog, asswageth the swelling of the humour."

But how is experience to weave its way through this labyrinthine network of correspondences and hidden similitudes?  How are nature's "secrets" to be discovered?  The answer is that nature puts a mark on things?  How are nature's "secrets" to be discovered?  The answer is that nature puts a mark on things:  the outward appearances of things provide clues or signs pointing to the properties that would otherwise be totally hidden from view.  These "signatures," or visual likenesses, enable us to know, for example, that the herb scorpius, which resembles the scorpion, is a good remedy against the scorpion's sting; that the milky galactites, powdered and sprinkled over the back of a goat, will cause the goat to give milk plentifully to her young; or that the wine-colored amethyst prevents drunkenness.  Such signatures were not merely coincidences but were divinely ordained.  They were woven into the fabric of nature, giving it meaning and intelligibility.  Without signatures, nature would be baffling and impenetrable.

The doctrine of signatures was a cornerstone of Della Porta's throry, "the very root of the greatest part of [the] secret and strange operations" of natural magic.  He devoted several independent works to the study of natural signatures, including treatises on chiromancy and physiognomy.  His science of physiognomy, like his science of demonology, was aimed at discrediting the "superstitions' of the various charlatans and palm-readers who made prognostications about future events.  By giving physiognomy and chiromancy credible theoretical foundations, he believed it would be possible to restore the science to its ancient status.

Della Porta drew his examples of sympathies, antipathies, and correspondences straight from classical and medieval sources.  In this respect, he was very much a product of his age.  Nothing could be more characteristic of Renaissance natural history than its reverence for classical antiquity and its attachment to philology.  As Brian Copenhaver writes of the Renaissance naturalists, "their curiosity about antiquity and their reverence for it stirred tham so powerfully that their natural history became as much philological as biological."  Printing gave scholars of Della Porta's generation access to ancient texts unimaginable a century earlier.  The embarrassment of riches produced by humanist scholarship convinced them that the entire book of nature could be read in the books of the ancients. Swamped as he was with written sources, there is little wonder that Della Porta was better able to record and broadcast ancient testimony about occult powers than to explain or refute it.  That such boundless enthusiasm and such earnest devotion should have gone into unearthing ancient reports of occult qualities testifies, more than anything, to the poverty of erudition.

Despite his wholehearted approval of philogical methods, Della Porta also insisted upon the primacy of experience.  Natural magic, he wrote, "is nothing else but he survey of the whole course of Nature."  Like Fioravanti, he believed that nature was a great teacher that has long instructed humankind on how to use art to imitate its work.  "Knowledge of secret things depends upon the contemplation and view of the face of the whole world," he wrote, "of the motion, state and fashion thereof, as also of the springing up, the growing and the decaying of things:  For a diligent searcher of Natures works, as he seeth how Nature doth generate and corrupt all things, so doth he also learn to do."  In a lengthy discussion that reminds us of Fioravanti's primitivism, Della Porta described how the natural magician "learns from living creatures, which though they have no understanding, yet their senses are far quicker then ours; and by their actions they teach us Physick, Husbandry, the art of Building, the disposing of Household affairs, and almost all the Arts and Sciences."  The ancients observed, for example, that doves gather bay leaves to protect their young against enchantments.  Elephants eat wild olives as an antidote against chameleons, "whence Solinus observes, That the same is a good remedy for men also in the same case."  Partridges eat leeks to clear their voices, and "according to their example Nero, to keep his voice clear, ate nothing but oil of leeks certain days in every month."  The beasts "have also found out purgations for themselves, and thereby taught us the same."

Such examples from the Magia naturalis could be multiplied almost indefinitely.  Obviously, Della Porta and his contemporaries adopted empirical standards that were radically different from ours.  For the Renaissance naturalists, experience did not necessarily imply direct, personal observation.  Indeed, by their very nature the "extraordinary" phenomena that were the subjects of natural magic were not accessible to ordinary experience.  They were open only to careful scrutiny, or to some special intuition such as that of the magnus.  You had to "know" what you were looking for.

How did Della Porta know what to look for?  He knew by reading the ancient authorities.  For the Renaissance naturalists, the basic topography of nature had already been mapped out in classical literary sources such as Ovid and Pliny, who portrayed nature as full of wonder, variety, and surprise.  In completing the map of nature, the sixteenth-century naturalists were essentially fulfilling the promise of classical literature.  Della Porta's "empiricism" was not some proto-Baconian inductivism, but history and literature verified by experience.  Historical research generated certain expectations about nature that, he presumed, experience would fulfill.  Della Porta did not make a clear distinction between history and experience.  For him, "reading" nature was like reading a text.  The book of nature could be expected to contain many of the same delights and surprises he found in Pliny's Natural History or in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Not surprisingly, he did find them in nature.  In Della Porta's world, fecund nature brought forth myriad creatures "of her own accord": the silt overflowing from the Nile River engendered mice, horses brought forth wasps and hornets, and red toads arose spontaneously out of dirt and menstrual blood.  Della Porta barely needed a creator God: nature was sufficient to spontaneously populate the world: "The earth brought forth of its own accord, many living creatures of divers from, the heat of the Sun enliving those moisture that lay in the tumors of the earth, like fertile seeds in the belly of their mother; for heat and moisture being tempered together, causeth generation.  So then, after the deluge, the earth being now moist, the Sun working upon it, divers kinds of creature were brought forth, some like the former, and some of a new shape."  Ever changing, ever joking, subtle, ingenious, and prodigious, nature exhibited the same luxuriant style as the best poets of antiquity.

The Magician as Artisan

But if for Della Porta scientific research began in the library, it did not end there.  He conceived of natural magic as an empirical, even experimental science.  "In our Method I shall observe what our Ancestors have said," he wrote, "then I shall show by my own experience whether they be true or false."  To him nature was an "inexhaustible treasury of secrets."  Wherever he went he collected specimens of plants, gems, geological materials, and "curiosities," amassing a sizable private natural history museum.  At his villa in Vico Equense, he kept a garden in which he cultivated the botanical specimens he collected during his travels.  He carried on a lively correspondence with other naturalists, exchanging specimens and information with them.  These activities were all channeled toward one aim, which was the ultimate goal of natural magic: to bring to light the hidden secrets of nature and to put them to practical use.  "Our task," he wrote, is "to teach the way and method of searching out and applying of secrecies."  Natural magic was thus both the "consummation of natural philosophy" and its "practical part."  The natural magician was like a superior artisan who possessed an intimate knowledge of materials and the forces acting upon them.  Substituting philosophy for the artisan's cunning, he is able to do with nature what nature cannot do on its own:  

Art being as it were Nature's Ape, even in her imitation of Nature, effecteth greater matters than Nature doth.  Hence it is that a Magician being furnished with Art, as it were another Nature, searching thoroughly into those works which nature doth accomplish by many secret means and close operations, doth work upon Nature, and partly by that which he sees, and partly by that which he conjects and gathers from thence, takes his sundry advantages of Nature's instruments, and thereby either hastens or hinders her work, making things ripe before or after their natural season, and so indeed makes Nature to be his instrument.

Natural magic does not work against nature but is a minister of nature, supplying by artificial means what nature wants:  "The works of Magick are nothing else but the works of Nature, whose dutiful hand-maid Magick is, ... as in Husbandry, it is Nature that brings forth corn and herbs, but it is Art that prepares and makes way for them."

The Magia naturalis is about making marvels naturally.  Della Porta began the work, appropriately, with a chapter on natural prodigies and monstrous births, examples of which he found in abundance in ancient and medieval literature.  But his real interest in monstrous births was to discover ways to supersede or improve on nature: he wanted to produce "marvels" of his own.  The way to do this was to imitate nature.  "Whosoever wouldst bring forth any monsters by art," he advised, "must learn by examples, and by such principles be directed."  Consider, for example, the powerful force of imagination, which, acting upon the seed during the conception forces its imprint upon the offspring.  Imitating nature, it is possible to produce animals of a predetermined color by causing the female to gaze upon that color during conception.  Della Porta reported that stablemasters hang multicolored tapestries in the stables where mares are bred, "whereby they produce Colts of a bright Bay colour, or of a dapple Gray, or of any one colour, or of sundry colours together."  Similarly, a woman can be made to bear beautiful children if pictures or statues of Cupid, Adonis, or Ganymedes are placed in the bedroom where she conceives, a secret Della Porta tested by experience:

After I had counseled many to use it, there was a woman who had a great desire to be the mother of a fair Son, that heard of it, and put it in practice; for she procured a white boy carved of marble, well proportioned every way; and him she had always before her eyes....And when she lay with her Husband, and likewise afterward, when she was with child, still she would look upon that image, and her eyes and heart were continually fixed upon it, whereby it came to pass that when her breeding time expired, she brought forth a Son very like in all points to that marble image, but especially in colour, being as pale and as white, as if he had been very marble indeed.  And thus the proof of this experiment was manifested and proved.

Nature can also be imitated in other activities, such as gardening, metallurgy, distillation, and the making of cosmetics, perfume, ammunition, and fireworks. You can make strawberries ripen out of season by picking them while the berries are still white, storing them in an airtight container, and setting them out later in the sun:  this is natural magic.  To have lettuce for a winter salad, bind the leaves to blanch them, and transplant them indoors at the end of the summer.  To make roses bloom later in the season, pinch the early buds and let the later ones bloom. Whenever a gardener plants hotbeds indoors in the winter or early spring to extend the growing season, he is practicing natural magic.  The natural magician is like a gardener, who neither leaves things to nature nor acts contrary to nature, but imitates nature's methods and uses nature to his advantage.

Domestic economy can also be improved through the techniques of natural magic.  Della Porta's instructions for preserving fruits, storing grain, and making oil, wine, and jam were all similar to the techniques described in other books of secrets.  He showed how to make bread from cheap grains and nuts, "that not only the Householder may provide for the his family with small cost, but when provision is dear he may provide for himself with small pains in Mountains and Deserts."  He discussed the causes of putrefaction.  Terrestrial organisms decay, he explained, when they come into contact with air, whose temperature varies because of the celestial influences acting upon it.  The "active principle" of heat in the air acts upon the "passive principle" of cold in vegetables or fruit and consumes it.  "But man is not of such a dull sense, and of such a blockish wit, but that he can tell how to prevent these inconveniences, and to devise sundry kinds of means whereby the soundness of Fruits may be maintained against the harms and dangers both of cold and of heat."  Natural magic teaches that one can preserve fruits and vegetables merely by keeping them in airtight containers.

Della Porta dedicated a full chapter of the Magia naturalis to alchemy, which he considered to be "an excellent Art discredited and disgraced" by certain practitioners who abused it, "so that nowadays a man cannot handle it without the scorn and obloquy of the world, because of the disgrace and contempt which those idiots have brought upon it."  He warned readers against those who attempted to manufacture the philosopher's stone or the elixir of life, "a mere dream."  Alchemy promises no such miracles.  Della Porta's restrained view of alchemy was similar to the stance taken int the Rechter Gebrauch d'Alchimei and the Italian books of secrets:  "I do not here promise any golden mountains, as they say, nor yet that Philosopher's Stone, which the world has so great an opinion of, ...neither do I promise here that golden liquor."  Instead, his recipes of the "transmutation" of metals were designed mainly to improve the quality of metals, to make them "more excellent" or worthier," or to prepare them for specific processes.  Some of the techniques, he advised, were but "sleights" and "counterfeits" (such as the methods for coloring metal surfaces to make them resemble precious metals):  "let them be esteemed no better than they deserve."  but they were useful to learn because they trained alchemists in necessary skills and in turn led to new discoveries.  Alchemy was for Della Porta not unlike other craft procedures, although nobler because it showed the way "to the searching out of the secrecies of Nature."  His laboratory was the artisan's workshop, where he observed technical operations firsthand, absorbed the lore of the crafts, and attempted to distinguish between folklore and empirically tested techniques.  His chapter on tempering steel exhibits the extent to which he profited from these experiences.  He drew attention, for example, to the importance of color tests to guide tempering, a technique not mentioned in the Kunstbuchlein:

When the iron is sparkling red hot, that it can not be hotter, that it twinkles, they call it Silver; and then it must not be quenched, for it would be consumed.  But if it be of a yellow or red color, they call it Gold or Rose color; and then quenched in Liquors, it grows harder.  This color requires them to quench it.  But observe that if all the Iron be tempered, the colour must be blue or violet color, as the edge of a Sword, Razor, or Lancet; for observe the second colors; namely, when the iron is quenched, and so plunged in, grows hard.  The last is Ash color; and after this if it be quenched, it will be the least of all made hard.

This was an acute observation.  As the historian of metallurgy Cyril Stanley Smith pointed out, it led Della Porta to realize the advantages of the two-stage quench over a direct quench, and as a consequence to reject outright some of the exotic quenching baths that had characterized earlier metallurgical literature.  He emphasized the necessity of using clear quenching liquids so that the tempering colors could be discerned, and recommended rubbing a blade with soap before heating it, "that it may have a better color from the fire."  Della Porta roundly criticized a recipe from Albertus Magnus that had appeared in numerous craft booklets:  "Albertus, from whom others have it, says that Iron is made more strong if it be tempered with the juice of Radish, and Water of Earthworms, three or four times.  But I, when I had often tempered it with juice of Radish, and Horseradish, and Worms, I found it always softer, till it became like Lead; and it was false, as the rest of his recipes are.

There are no printed antecedents for these observations.  Della Porta learned metallurgy, as he learned other crafts, by observing artisans at work and by experimenting on his own.  By putting conventional techniques to the test of experiment, he hoped to find ways of improving existing techniques and to make new inventions.  The results were often successful.  Investigating the problem of how to make armor musket-proof, he noticed that finished armor often contained tiny, almost invisible flaws that caused the iron to break under stress.  Observing the process by which smiths made armor, he discovered that they often heaped coals over the iron to make the iron heat up more quickly.  "And with theis trumpery-dust, there are always mingled small stones, chalk, and other things gathered together in pieces; which, when they meet in the fire, they cause many knots outwardly, or cavities inwardly, and cracks that the parts cannot well fasten together."  Della Porta's solution:  wash the coals in water, the dry them out before using them to pile over the ironwork.  The magnus was rhapsodic about this discovery:  "what a blessing of God this profitable Invention is!" he exclaimed, "for thus men make Swords, Knives, Bucklers, Coats of Mail, and all sorts of Armour so perfect that it were long and tedious to relate: for I have seen Iron breasts that scarce weighed above twelve pounds to be Musket-proof."

Della Porta's experimental method did not aim to test general hypotheses.  Instead, it attempted to imitate nature in order to produce utilitarian knowledge, and to correct and amplify the written tradition.  Based on his experiments, Della Porta could assert that the metalworker can control the degree of hardness more effectively by observing color changes in the heated metal than by adding organic material to the quenching bath; that the attractive force of a magnet is not augmented when it is heated red hot, nor diminished when garlic is rubbed on it; or, refuting Pliny's claim, that seawater can be freshened by distillation but not by straining.  Apologizing for the mundaneness of some of his experiments, he pointed out that only from such common and familiar examples can the mind ascend to higher truths.  "Sometimes from Things most Known and meanly esteemed, we ascent to Things most Profitable and High, which the Mind can scarce reach unto," he affirmed.  "One's Understanding cannot comprehend High and Sublime Things, unless it stand firm on the most true Principles...Wherefore I thought it better to Write true Things and Profitable, than false Things that are great.  True Things be they never so small, will give occasions to Discover greater things by them."  Instead of being grounded in past opinion, natural science was to be a dedicated search after the secrets of nature and the arts that were hidden from the intellect and revealed only to those willing to undertake the laborious search.  "You have heard the beginnings," wrote Della Porta; "now search out things, work on them, and put them to the test."

Magic and Court Culture

Della Porta was widely acknowledged as Italy's most distinguished natural philosopher and "scrutinizer of natural secrets" (perscrutatore dei secreti naturali).  Until Galileo taught a new generation an entirely different way of investigating nature, Della Porta dominated teh scene of Italian science.  The Antwerp printer Christopher Plantin;s superb Latin edition of the Magia naturalis (1560) assured the work's wide distribution in scholarly libraries throughout Europe.  Translations of the work into Italian, French, Dutch, German, and English established Della Porta's reputation among educated and popular readers alike.  It was said that the two greatest tourist attractions of Naples around the year 1600 were the baths of Pozzuoli and Giambattista Della Porta.

However, in Della Porta's day literary fame and status were not measured solely by the number of books a writer might sell, any more than artistic styles were fashioned by popular tastes.  More importantly, they were measured by the patronage one received from princes and by the recognition one gained in courts.  By this measure, Della Porta succeeded brilliantly.  Princes and prelates throughout Italy and Europe recognized him as a master magus and lavished their patronage upon him.  The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and the duke of Florence sent embassies, while the duke of Mantua came in person to see the Neapolitan wonder-worker.  Toward the end of his life, the old magus recorded that his patrons had given him more the 100,000 ducats for his research, a sum about ten time the annual salary of the Spanish viceroy of Naples.  To understand Della Porta's success, we must understand how culture was produced at the courts.

Italy in the late Renaissance was a "honeycomb of princely courts," each a center of autonomous political power and a magnet for ambitious artists and men of letters.  The engine that drove the patronage system was the competition among princes and courts for "honor" which took the form of lavish displays of grandeur, wealth, and magnificence.  Political power in sixteenth-century Italy rested not just upon military might, but upon the performance of rituals of power:  in other words, upon theater and spectacle.  The luxurious ostentation of court culture was no mere show; it was a display of the prince's power.  "Without such an exhibition, there was somehow no sufficient claim or title to the possession of power."  Art and literature were deployed to enhance the self-image of the prince.  All public occasions, such as marriages, baptisms, funerals, coronations, and religious processions, gave princes the opportunity to self-glorify and to affirm their titles to rule.  The cultivation of self-images made courtly art a form of political propaganda.  Since they aimed to enhance the prince's self-image, practically all forms of culture produced by the courts served a propagandistic function.

In a world dominated by courts, princely patronage not only provided monetary support to cultural activity, it was also a mechanism for fashioning social identities.  To belong to a court, even to a minor one, was to share in the prestige that went with rendering service to an overlord.  Honor - that is, the praise and recognition of a prince -was the reward of servitude and the engine of courtly ambition.  Torquato Tasso caught the dynamics of self-fashioning at court in his Malpiglio, a dialogue on courtly virtues, wherein one of the interlocutors observes, "The courtier's end is the reputation and honor of his prince, from which his own reputation and honor flow as a stream from a spring."  Patronage was also a mechanism for legitimizing the products of cultural activity, whether works of art, theatrical performances, or scientific books.  The style of art or science that won favor in the courts was in large part conditioned by the replication of princely self-images.  To be sure, science also served practical needs.  Astrologers, engineers, and mathematicians performed important practical services by casting horoscopes, designing bridges and fortifications, and providing expertise on matters such as ballistics.  But if in retrospect the prince's primary needs were for technical assistance, from a contemporary perspective even more important was "reputation," since what others thought of him was an important determinant of what he actually was.  Machiavelli noted that "a prince ought to show himself a lover of ability (virtu), giving employment to able men and honoring those who excel in a particular field."  Above all, he wrote, "a prince should endeavor to win the reputation of bing a man of outstanding ability (virtu)."

Princely virtu, rehearsed and extolled ad nauseum in the courtly literature and in dedications of books to patrons, gave rise to a potent cultural ideal, that of the "learned prince."  The cult of the learned prince, which deployed the Platonic image of the philosopher-ruler who combines power with wisdom, helped to legitimize the political rule of the Medici dukes and the newly established condottieri rulers at Milan, Mantua, Ferrara, and Urbino.  Sapientia/potentia - wisdom combined with power - became a conventional formula in humanist political rhetoric.  As an epigram to Lorenzo de' Medici proclaimed, fate united power with wisdom in the person of the prince:  "Because you know everything, O medici, you are all-powerful" (Sic sapis, o Medices, omnia sicque potes).

Among the qualities of the idealized "learned prince" (hence of the ideal courtier), two stand out as being particularly important for their influence upon courtly science:  curiosity and virtuosity.  The stern, negative medieval attitude toward intellectual curiosity was completely absent from the Renaissance courts.  Not only was curiosity considered a virtue worthy of a prince, it was an important symbol of his power.  Striking visual demonstrations of the new valorization of curiosity could be seen in the cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammern) that Renaissance princes collected and put on display at the courts.  In these fabulous collections, the court projected an aura of the uncanny and the superhuman.  Carved gems, watches, antiques, mummies, and mechanical contrivances were displayed side by side with fossils, shells, giant's teeth, unicorns' horns, and exotic specimens from the New World, making up an encyclopedia of the bizarre and the marvelous.  Full of strange and exotic naturalia and mirabilia, they were meant to delight spectators and to provoke wonder rather than to serve as museums for scientific research.  Indeed, the curiosity-cabinets were arranged so as to deliberately exclude the normal and the ordinary.  Objects were not considered worth collecting unless they were monstrous or had some bizarre peculiarity.  As if to mock the Augustian concept of curiositas, these collections invited viewers to gawk at them, to be amused by them, and to be filled with wonder.  For that matter, the court itself was a menagerie of bizarre forms, where clowns, dwarfs, and exotic animals mingled amiably with princes and courtiers.

However, the curiosity-cabinets and the living curiosities that inhabited the courts were not mere amusements.  They were visual manifestations of the prince's power.  In them the prince appropriated and reassembled all reality in miniature, symbolically demonstrating his dominion over the world.  Similarly, the intricate courtly botanical gardens, with their complex mathematical designs and their fantastic floral and architectural displays, demonstrated the prince's power to transform nature itself.  As a guidebook to one of the gardens expressed it, "in this little theater, as it were a world in miniature, a spectacle will be made of all the marvels of nature."  In its design and arrangement, the Renaissance botanical garden was a microcosm reflecting a measured and orderly universe at the prince's command and disposal.

The new attitude toward curiosity, which affirmed the value of inquisitiveness about nature, gave rise to another cultural ideal:  virtuosity (virtuosita).  Put simply, the virtuoso was "the product and fusion of two traditions, of the courtier and the scholar."  He was, so to speak, the codification of the "learned gentleman" described by Castiglione at the idealized court of Urbino.  Besides being the offspring of court culture, the ideal of virtuosity was also the result of the Renaissance reevaluation of the concept of nobility.  According to Castiglione, whose formulation became conventional in the late Renaissance, "true nobility" consisted not of noble birth but of virtu, which more than anything else depended upon the acquisition of courtly skills and manners.  "The true foundation of nobility is virtue," wrote Girolamo Muzio in his Gentilhuomo (1571), the handbook he wrote explaining how to acquire it.  As Castiglione's Il Cortegiano makes clear, court culture raised the cultivation of virtu to a high art.  It was this refined, courtly conception of virtu, not the traditional Christian concept of virtue, that gave rise to the early modern ideal of virtuosity.

The distinguishing mark of the courtier, according to Castiglione, was grazia, or grace, "a seasoning without which all the other properties and good qualities would be of little worth."  Essentially identical with elegance, urbanity, and refinement, grace was the highest achievement of culture.  Grazia may be displayed in any action, but the key to it was an art for which Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura, a kind of smoothness and nonchalance that hides the effort that goes into a difficult performance.  However, "nonchalance" conveys only part of the meaning of sprezzatura.  The root of this untranslatable word is the verb sprezzare, meaning to scorn or despise.  Chen Castiglione demands that the courtier act with "una certa sprezzatura" toward what is unimportant, he implies acting with an attitude of disdain and scorn for normal human limitations or physical necessities.  Castiglione put it down as a "universal rule" of courtly behavior that to achieve gracefulness one must "practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it."  The more difficult the performance, the greater the possibility of manifesting sprezzatura, the art that makes what is difficult seem simple and natural.  This is why, when a courtier accomplishes an action with sprezzatura, his behavior elicits another characteristic courtly response, meraviglia, or wonder: "because everyone knows the difficulty of things that are rare and well done; wherefore facility in such things causes the greatest wonder."

Courtly virtuosity, with its feigned disregard for normal limitations and the high esteem it attached to wonderment, fostered - indeed idealized - a dilettantish approach to intellectual and cultural pursuits. The accomplished courtier did not pursue learning with the diligence of a scholar, nor play the lute like a professional, nor fight like a condottiere.  He performed everything with sprezzatura, which made his actions appear as a pastime, success as a matter of course.  Feigning his accomplishments as natural made the courtier seem to to be the master of himself, of society's rules, and even of physical laws.  Holding himself above the common crowd, disdaining the obvious and merely useful, he turned his curiosity toward what was obscure, rare, and "marvelous."

If, as Tasso claimed, dissimulation was the essential courtly virtue, natural magic was courtly science par excellence.  The magus's essential characteristics - his passionate quest for secrets, his craving for rarities, his cultivation of wonder, and his tendency to view science as a theatrical performance designed to delight and astonish spectators - perfectly fit the courtly manner.  To read Della Porta's Magia naturalis is to plunge headlong into the world of courtly discourse. The magus assured his readers that his "Catalogue of Rarities" contained nothing base or common, only those exquisite, curious, and ingenious things fitting the taste of a gentleman. Knowledge of such secrets separated "noble minds" from the vulgar, who would only abuse and discredit the art.  A certain dissimulation was necessary in order to keep secrets from falling into the hands of rude and ignorant men: "Such as are magnificent and most excellent, I have veiled b the artifice of words, ... yet not so, but that an ingenious reader may unfold it, and the wit of one that will thoroughly search may comprehend it."  Like the courtier, the magus had to be knowledgeable about many arts.  In addition to being a "perfect philosopher," he had to be a physician, an herbalist, and an artisan.  He had to be familiar with metals, minerals, gems, and the art of distillation.  He had to be an accomplished alchemist and pyrotechnition.  he knew physics, mathematics, astrology, and the principles of optics, which taught him how to create visual deceptions.  The magus had to know the principles of magic so well that he could artfully conceal the causes of the marvels he produced.  For the aim of magic was to provoke wonder in the beholder, which the magus could do only by understanding the causes and marvels he produced.  For the aim of magic was to provoke wonder in the beholder, which the magus could do only by understanding the causes of marvels well enough to hide them.  Imitating the tricks of the trades and theatrical legerdemain confirmed a general rule about natural magic:  "If you would have your works appear more wonderful, you must not let the cause be known:  for that is a wonder to us, which we see to be done, and yet know not the cause of it.  For he that knows the causes of a thing done, doth not so admire the doing of it; and nothing is counted unusual and rare, but only so far forth as the causes thereof are not known."

This was no sober theoretical treatise; it was a manual for producing marvels con sprezzatura.  Like the art of courtly self-fashioning, natural magic use art to bring nature to perfection.  "It is natures's part to produce things and give them faculties." wrote Della Porta, "but art may ennoble them when they are produced, and give them many several qualities."  The magician was a "servant of nature" who coaxed, cajoled, and extracted from nature what nature could not produce unaided.  His art resembled the masterful masquerading of the courtier, whose "artful dissimulation" won the favor of a prince or lady without flattery or force.

Della Porta's apparent fascination with tricks and illusions has made it difficult for modern historians to take the Magia naturalis very seriously.  He enthusiastically described how to produce half-white, half-black figs, gigantic leeks, nuts without shells, sweet lemons, cucumbers shaped like dragons; how to sire multicolored horses, counterfeit gemstones, or make an artificial egg as big as a man's head.  His ardor seems to result more from perverse curiosity than from genuine scientific interest.  But to Della Porta and his contemporaries, such amusements were not only prescribed by the rules of courtly discourse, they were considered appropriate categories for the study of natural history.  Nature's subtlety and "Playfulness" was thought to be an essential part of the world's architecture.  Sometimes nature mimics itself, as in the seahorse or the mandrake, while at other times it contorts itself and exhibits monsters, giants, and dwarfs, or it demonstrates its cunning by creating artful imitations of human artifacts.  So 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 book were imitations of nature hiding herself.  They were part of the unmasking of nature that natural magick aimed to accomplish.  Once exposed, nature might be imitated by the art of natural magic.  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."

It is significant that besides being Italy's foremost magus, Della Porta was also an accomplished playwright.  Between 1590 and 1615, his presence was almost as commanding on the Italian theatrical scene as it was over Italian science.  He was a master of the commedia erudita, or "learned comedy," which dominated the Italian theater of the Counter-Reformation.  The defining characteristic of commedia erudita, like that of natural magic, was its delight in meraviglia, whether in action, situation, character, or plot.  Exaggeration was its prime tool.  Tortuous plots and imbroglia, characters stylized beyond all pretense to realism, exhibitions of legerdemain, slapstick humor, macaronic language, superfluous disguises, and outlandish caricature were the marks of Della Porta's comic style.  Everything was done in an atmosphere of hilarious unreality, with grace, gravity, and sprezzatura.  His elegant, learned, and ridiculous comedies were expressions of the same courtly virtuosity that produced his natural magic.  Both were predicated upon ingenuity, complexity, preciosity, and dexterity.  Their trademark was artificiality and invention.  Neither merely imitated nature; they surpassed nature, stylizing it into hyperreality.

For Della Porta, the quintessential virtuoso, natural magic no less than comedy was a spectacle.  He delighted in exhibiting marvels and took pride in his reputation as a seer and wonder-worker.  He dazzled courtly audiences with his prognostications of future events, as when, upon being shown a portrait of Henry IV of France, he predicted the monarch's violent death.  But as carefully as he cultivated his reputation as a magus, he nurtured his relations with princes.  Natural magic was not only an instrument for fashioning nature according to human desires; it was also an instrument for self-fashioning at the courts.  Della Porta told one of his patrons that magic was especially useful to princes because knowledge of the secrets of the universe may be applied to government.  The kings of Persia, he noted, studies magic "that by example of the commonwealth of the whole world, they also might learn to govern their own commonwealth... for as nature governs the world by the mutual agreement and disagreement of the creatures, after the same sort they also might learn to govern the commonwealth committed unto them."  An imperious "survey of the whole course of nature," natural magic befitted the image of the prince.  Indeed, the magus was in a sense a prince-in-miniature.  He could read the secret signs in nature; he understood the physiognomy of things, what their uses were, and what the heavens portended.

Della Porta received offers of patronage from many different princes.  In 1579, he entered the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este and spent several years at the brilliant Estensi court at Ferrara.  He wrote plays for the cardinal, sent him reports of experiments, and dedicated to him the enlarged edition of his Magia naturalis (1589).  He reported that Este provided over 100,000 ducats to support his research.  Della Porta tried to use the cardinal's influence to angle his way into the papal court either as papal engineer or as secretary of ciphers, but was unsuccessful.  Other princes also vied for his services.  He refused an off of 150 ducats for one of his secrets from Cardinal Orsini, assuring the solicitous prince that he was being excellently provided for in the Este household.  The duke of Mantua came to visit whenever he was in Naples, and stayed at Della Porta's house until three or four tin the morning discussing the mysteries of nature.  Cosimo II de' Medici, whose avid interest in alchemical and magical secrets made the Tuscan court a center of Paracelsian research, also approached Della Porta.  The expectant duke sent the old magus a gift of a gold necklace hoping to entice a few secrets from him.

Potentially Della Porta's most prestigious offer came from Europe's greatest patron of occult sciences, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.  Although the details of Rudolf's entreaties are not known, more than once he tried to lure the famous Neapolitan magus to his court in Prague.  The melancholy emperor, who had turned his court into a laboratory for the study of alchemy, astrology, and the occult sciences, was eager to learn the secret of the philosopher's stone, which Della Porta had supposedly discovered.  In 1597, he sent an envoy to Naples to invite Della Porta to Prague.  A few years later, in 1604, the emperor sent a letter through his emissary Christian Harmio asking Della Porta to disclose some of his "choicest secrets."  Once again he urged the old magus to come to Prague.  Della Porta was himself partly responsible had boasted to Cardinal d'Este that he was on the verge of discovering the secret, proclaiming it to be "the most beautiful thing on earth."  Of course he was unable to comply with the emperor's request.  In any case he was nearly seventy years old and was doubtless reluctant to leave Naples to spend his last years in Bohemia.  Instead, he sent the index to his unfinished Taumatologia, which was to contain the "quintessence" of his science, promising that the completed work would "open the door to new philosophies, to new speculations, to new and more profound mysteries, which have been for a long time hidden in the most secret recesses of nature."

Della Porta anguished more over the Taumatologia than over any of his other writings.  In 1609 he reported he was doing experiments on the virtues of numbers for the work.  From this point on, the book is mentioned repeatedly in his correspondence.  In 1611, he noted that experiments on the five hundred secrets in the work had cost him great pain and expense.  In 1612, he wrote to Cardinal Borromeo that he had completed the index, and requested the cardinal's assistance in getting the work printed.  Unfortunately, the censors refused to license even the index, with its brief synopsis of the projected book.  The manuscript was never published; only fragments of it survive.

The Accademia dei Lincei

In the meantime, Della Porta found a new patron - or rather, a new patron found him.  In the spring of 1604, he was visited by Federico Cesi (1585-1630), the eighteen-year-old marchese di Monticello, who was then trying to save from dissolution a recently founded brotherhood of "searchers of the arcane sciences."  Motivated by Della Porta's ideal of science as a quest for rare secrets of nature, Cesi had founded the society as an attempt to put these ideals into practice.  He was joined int eh the venture by three companions:  Joannes Eck (1577-1620), a Dutch physician; Francesco Stelluti (1577-1651), a mathematician; and Anastasio de Filiis (1577-1608), a student of mechanics.  The foursome called their society the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of Lynxes.)  In adopting the lynx as their emblem, the Lincei were inspired by the impresa Della Porta had chosen for his 1589 Magia naturalis and by the words in the preface describing the natural philosopher, "examining with lynx-like eyes those things which manifest themselves, so that having observed them, he may zealously put them into operation."  Explaining the choice of the lynx as the society's emblem, Stelluti wrote that the academy's purpose was to "penetrate into the inside of things in order to know their causes and the operations of nature that work internally, just as it is said of the lynx that it sees not just what is in front of it, but what is hidden inside."

The Lincei dedicated themselves entirely to natural philosophy, vowing never to enter into disputes concerning politics or religion.  They pledged not to quarrel among themselves over trivial matters, nor make vain promises nor boast of their accomplishments.  To protect themselves against any interference from Cesi's suspicious father, the duke of Aquasparta, the Lincei kept their deliberations strictly confidential.  They adopted secret names and wrote letters to one another using a cipher they learned from Della Porta's work on the subject.  Cesi imagined the group as a tightly knit brotherhood of philosophers imbued with the spirit of lincealita, a "way of life" (modo di vivere) marked by its fervent almost religious devotion to science.  It would be a sort of monastic order devoted to secular rather than religious learning, its members sworn to vows of chastity and completely dedicated to experimental investigation of "the secret miracles of nature."  When Eck expressed his desire to marry a woman from his hometown, Cesi absolutely forbade it, sternly reminding him of the principles of lincealita.

Such militant devotion to science, inspired in part by the successes of the Jesuit Order, was positively uncourtly.  Cesi detested court life.  "I loath the courts and courtiers like the plague," he confided to Steluti.  The Lincean academy was for him a refuge from the intrigue and dissimulation of court circles.  It was impossible to be a true philosopher in the courts, he maintained, because the courtier's only aim was to earn the prince's favor.  "It is extremely dangerous for the philosopher to fall from his honored station into such a treacherous place full of parasites, buffoons, and flatterers."  Cesi spoke from the bitter experience of having seen his beloved academy become the victim of court intrigue.  No sooner had the Lincei agreed upon their first projects than his father, suspicious of his son's magical activities, disbanded the academy and drove the young prince's friends from the Cesi household.  With the Lincei temporarily scattered, the dejected prince journeyed to Naples to seek the counsel of Della Porta, his intellectual mentor.  The famous magus, perhaps remembering his own disbanded Secreti, responded enthusiastically.  He encouraged the young marchese's project and dedicated to his his recently completed work on distillation.  Writing from Naples, Cesi reported that Della Porta was a "very good friend" of the Lincei, and that he had learned "many wonderful secrets" from him.  When Cesi acceded to the dukedom of Aquasparta upon his father's death in 1610, leaving him free to develop his cherished academy, he invited Della Porta to join and installed him as the head of its newly formed Neapolitan branch.  The world-famous magus had a name to conjure with; besides, he had a large library, which Cesi hoped he would bequeath to the academy.

The spirit of Della Porta continued to inspire the Lincei until 1611 when Cesi enlisted the Lincei's sixth and soon-to-be most celebrated member, Galileo, who had recently published his sensational Sidereus Nuncius (Sidereal Messenger). Galileo's electrifying discoveries with the telescope gave the Lincei an entirely new sense of purpose.  Almost immediately, Galileo's influence on the society began to eclipse that of Della Porta.  The telescope was seen as the perfect symbol of the lynx's keen vision, of the enhanced possibilities of the human intellect, and of the Lincei's scientific objective.  Abandoning its dilettantish preoccupation with secrets, the Lincei took up the Galilean program with a renewed sense of mission.  Esotericism gave way to an identification with the "republic of letters."  Publication became one of the academy's principal aims.  Cesi continued to pay his respects to Della Porta, indulging the old magus when he suggested various rituals, vestments, and ceremonies for the society.  But when Della Porta attempted to admit into the academy a group of Neapolitan noblemen, the marchese resisted.  For while Cesi humored Della Porta, he had become Galileo's disciple. "No one will ever be admitted [to the academy] without your knowledge," he assured the new star of the Lincei, "and those who are will not be slaves of Aristotle or of any other philosopher, but will be noble and free intellects."  By the time Della Porta died in 1615, the Lincei were committed to the research program of the Galileans.  When the society came under attack for upholding Copernicanism, Cesi protested that "this is not so, as they unanimously claim only freedom in philosophizing about things in nature."

The change in the principles underlying the Lincean research program is clearly discernible in an oration Cesi delivered before the academy's Neapolitan branch in 1616, just a few months after Della Porta's death. In his address "On the Natural Desire for Knowledge," Cesi outlined a new vision for the society.  He described the Lincei as an organization whose aim was to support humanity's "innate disposition" for knowledge.  It was to be a place where knowledge would be pursued not for profit, honor, or reputation, as in the courts, but for its own sake and for the improvement of humanity's spiritual and material condition.  The society, he promised,w would endeavor to "remove all the obstacles and impediments to fulfilling this good disposition [for knowledge], setting before itself the keen-sighted lynx as a continual spur and remembrance of that acuteness and penetration of the mind's eyes that is necessary for discovering things, and for examining minutely and diligently, outside and inside, by whatever means, all the objects that exist in this great theater of nature." Turning the academy away from its esotericism and its preoccupation with natural secrets, Cesi dedicated it to the "propagation of knowledge, to the communication and advancement for the public utility of our virtuous toil and the results made by them."

There can be little doubt that the main influence behind this new policy was Cesi's new idol, Galileo, whose meteoric rise to scientific prominence was made possible by the publications revealing his telescopic discoveries.  Galileo expressed the academy's intentions with these words: "The Lincei are a society of Academicians . . . [who] have as their aim the study of letters, and in particular of philosophy and other sciences profitable thereto, and moreover they expect the more expert [among them] to write and publish their labors, to the benefit of the republic of letters."

Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius "was not so much a treatise as an announcement," not only of new discoveries but also of the beginning of a new era in science.  "It told the learned community that a new age had begun and that the universe and the way in which it was studied would never be the same."  The work proposed "great things for inspection and contemplation by every explorer of Nature.  Great . . . because of the excellence of the things themselves, because of their newness, unheard of through the ages, and also because of the instrument with the benefit of which they make themselves manifest to our sight."  Ironically, a few months before Galileo's announcement of his discoveries Della Porta dismissed the telescope as being unimportant (una coglionaria).  He was at the moment preoccupied with other "new things," including perfecting his secret for communicating at a distance, a sort of voodoo-like telegraphy by which pricks in the body would be felt in the same part of the body by another person some distance away.  A year later he lamented that his preoccupation with the Taumatologia had cost him the credit for the invention of the telescope.  Plainly, Galileo was diverting science into a completely different channel from the one in which Della Porta swam.

It was not just that science was passing Della Porta by:  the principles governing scientific communication were also changing.  Della Porta remained wedded to the tradition of esotericism in science.  He believed that the deepest secrets of nature should not be revealed indiscriminately but should be reserved for princes. "Great things are suitable only for great princes," he wrote in his dedication of the Taumatologia to Rudolf II.  To reveal secrets to the public at large, he warned, would risk profaning them and would possibly result in social calamity.  "I am sending [my secrets] to you in manuscript because it does not seem fitting that they should have to die with me," he told the emperor, "nor should secrets of such great price be profaned in the hands of the vilest sort of people that might happen upon them; but Pythagoras would have the king yield to divine sovereignty and make divine mysteries clear to the world."  Yet ironically, even as Della Porta urged withholding secrets from the vulgar, he proclaimed himself a great divulger of secrets.  And despite his claim that the Taumatologia revealed secrets of nature appropriate only for a great prince, he made numerous attempts to have the work printed.  The truth is, Della Porta could not get the Taumatologia published.  It was too hot for the Inquisition to handle, and it was irrelevant to the world of science.


Science and the Secrets of Nature

by William Eamon

(Princeton University Press, 1994)

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