Plate 15 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Natural Magic


Giambattista della Porta, a Neopolitan nobleman who wanted to establish natural magic as a legitimate source of natural knowledge, became well known as an authority on the subject. Active in several of the literary and philosophical societies that flourished in sixteenth-century Naples, he also convened his own society, the Accademia dei Secreti, in his house. The members carried out experiments and tested new "secrets" that della Porta had discovered on his travels. He wrote books on physiognomy (the "science" of understanding personality and destiny from facial features), alchemy, cryptography, agriculture, the art of memory, optics, geometry, and munitions, among other topics. His best-known work is the Magia naturalis, first published in Latin in 1558 and then in an expanded edition in 20 books in 1589. The expanded version went through at least twelve Latin, four Italian, seven French, two German, and two English editions in the early modern era.

For della Porta, nature was alive and full of correspondences and hidden similarities. The magus, or natural magician, could discover these secret correspondences by observing "signatures" or visual likenesses. Such observations required above all attention to the experience of nature. Yet by experience, della Porta did not mean a kind of Baconian inductive empiricism, but the careful investigation and intuition of the magus who verified history and literature by his own experience.

The frontispiece of the first English edition (1658) is reproduced here. The engraving was made in London by Richard Gaywood (fl. 1650-1680), who studied under Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), the famous Bohemian engraver who came to England in 1635 to work for the Earl of Arundel. Click Here for a Larger ViewThe frontispiece illustrates the natural world and human ability to understand it. Chaos, the state out of which God's Wisdom will bring "cosmos" (order or world), is depicted in the upper center. In the four corners of the frontispiece are found the four elements—Fire, Air, Earth, and Water—that make up the sublunary realm in the Aristotelian world. Flanking the page are two figures whose relationship is crucial to the mastery of the elements: on the right, a super-fertile and abundant Nature, and on the left, Art in the form of an artisan and his tools. At the bottom center is a portrait of della Porta, the sun shining on his face and the fire of a burning heart heating an alchemical vessel. Taken together, the images represent all the components of a natural magic that seeks to understand the natural world.

In the first chapter of the first book, Della Porta provides an explanation of the terms "Magick" and "Magician." Citing many ancient authors, he writes, "Magic took her name and original [sic] from Persia. . . . In the Persian language, a Magician is nothing else but one that expounds and studies divine things; and it is the general name of wise-men in that country. . . . Magic was begun in Persia by Zoroastres."

Della Porta thus sees himself and others like him as successors to a long "Wisdom" tradition found universally in most ancient cultures: "Those [seeking perfect knowledge of natural things] are called Magicians, whom the Latines call Wise-men, the Greeks call Philosophers, . . the Indians call them Brackmans; . . the Babylonians and Assyrians call them Chaldeans;. . the Celtes in France call them Druids, Bard, and Semnothites: the Egyptians call them Priests; and the Cabalists call them Prophets." Della Porta admits there also exists a degenerate sort of magic, "infamous and unhappy, because it hath to do with foul spirits . . . called sorcery." Thus he distinguishes natural magic from black magic.

In contrast to Aristotelian natural philosophy, which aimed to explain commonplace aspects of the natural world, natural magic attempted to explain the exceptional and unusual, the wonders of nature. In Magia naturalis, della Porta presented naturalistic explanations for the marvels described in medieval writings. His complex theory of natural magic combined Aristotelianism, neo-Platonism, Renaissance nature philosophy, and his own original ideas.

Donald Grabner
Conception Seminary College

Pamela O. Long
Washington, DC

Suggested Reading

della Porta, Giambattista. Natural Magick. Edited by Derek J. de Solla Price. New York: Basic Books, 1957.

Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

On the Web

"Catalog of the Scientific Community in the 16th and 17 Centuries." at this address: