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AROUND NAPOLI
Giambattista della Porta
or, Why am I so obsessed with overachievers? (See previous article on Fanzago!)
by Jeff Matthews
One hundred years ago, the Neapolitan historian and philosopher, Benedetto Croce, wandered up to the hilly part of Naples, an area called the "high Vomero", specifically to the "Due Porte"--the two gates (entrances to caverns) to see what was left of the premises where one of the first scientific societies in European history had convened centuries earlier. That is, by 1580, well before the Academy of the Lynxes or the Royal Society of London, Giambattista della Porta's Academia Secretorum Naturae was meeting to uncover the "secrets of nature". They nicknamed themselves the Otiosi (Men of Leisure), and in order to join you had to have contributed a new discovery or fact in natural science. (Later in life, della Porta helped establish the Academy of the Lynxes, which counted Galileo as its most illustrious member.)

In days of della Porta, Naples was in the middle of the great Spanish rebuilding of the city under viceroy Toledo, but the city didn't even have a population of 200,000 (nevertheless, large for the time). This part of the "high vomero" was, indeed, a hamlet near Naples, known as the area of the washerwomen and of one particulary nasty witch. When Croce visited the place, it was still far enough outside of town to count as a pleasant holiday retreat in the summer a good view from the hillside (about 1000 feet) fresh air, no traffic. He found and described the ruins of what was left of this One-Man Renaissance Manhattan Project. He lamented that little remained. Yet, there was much more than today; traffic and the post-WW2 building plague have pretty much done in any claim to being "bucolic". On the plus side, the concrete apartment house that now stands over the old inner sanctum isn't far from a stop on the new metro line. (That's bogus, too. I've just walked it and it's still hard to get to. The perfect place for secrecy.)

In his first famous publication, Magia naturalis [Natural Magic], della Porta indicated what "magic" meant to him in those days: "I think magic is nothing less than a survey of the whole course of nature." That is the Renaissance context in which moderns must understand the word: everything in the universe is connected and a Renaissance Man must study--and at least try to know--everything. In those days, that meant writing:

--the massive (20 volumes) Magia naturalis (written and expanded upon from 1558 to 1584);
--miscellaneous works on astronomy, chemistry, optics, hydraulics, architecture, mathematics, and how to improve your memory;
--an agricultural encyclopedia;
--a description of a potential steam engine;
--14 prose comedies and 2 dramatic tragedies.

Della Porta also started a private museum of natural science, full of specimens collected during his wide-ranging travels in Europe; it was an important innovation and became an imitated prototype. He also claimed to have beaten his younger contemporary, Galileo, to the telescope. (Be that as it may, one thing is certain: della Porta got into Galileo-type trouble with the watchdogs of the Inquisition for his "secret academy". The Inquisition closed it down in 1578, and della Porta's works were banned from publication between 1594-98.) In his spare time (!), he published De Furtivis Literarum, a work on cryptography, admired even in modern times.

Giambattista della Porta was born in the village of Vico Equense on the Sorrentine peninsula and was well educated at home by his father and private tutors. His father was in the service of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. From all accounts, Giambattista was a prodigy; he may have written the first four books of Natural Magic when he was 15 years old. The entire work was virtually a compendium of science since the time of the ancients down through della Porta's own day; it covered geology, cosmology, plant products, medicines, poisons, distillation, the magnet and its properties, gunpowders, and ciphers. It also covered things such as demonology, astrology, occult philosopy, women's cosmetics, and transmutation of metals, none of which are considered particularly scientific today, but in the late 1500s everything was fair game. (Indeed, a glorious age!) In short, whatever you wanted to know, della Porta had written about it or was in the process of doing so. It was an immediate best seller and was translated almost immediately from the original Latin into Italian, French and German; an English translation was published in the 1650s. Even in Latin, however, the work was accessible to all European scholars when it was written.

Della Porta lived in a strange time--the tail-end of the age of "pre-science". To put things in perspective, young Giambattista's father remembered (!) Leonardo Da Vinci. Della Porta worked a generation before Galileo and Bacon (both inspired by della Porta's tenacious will to investigate nature), a half century before Kepler and Decartes, and a full century before Newton. It was an age which still clung to the Renaissance vision that one good person with drive, time, and a very large brain could learn everything there was to know. He mixed valid work in optics and botany (two of many examples) with nonsense about fortune-telling and the "philosophers' stone". He also soft-pedalled his brash curiosity when the Inquisition told him to. But even Galileo did that.

Della Porta joined the Jesuit order towards the end of his life. That disaqualifies him, in the minds on many, as being counted as an early scientific rebel like Galileo. And maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was just a man who wanted to "survey the whole course of nature". That has to count for something. He was interred in the family tomb within the church of San Lorenzo in Naples.
17/3/2006