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. The
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
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.
Conception Seminary College
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: