JF Ptak Sciene Books Post 1906
[Detail from the title page of Natural Magic, below.]
Giovani Baptista della Porta was a magus, or a natural (science) "magician", who searched nature for similarities that would serve to build a broad template of forced understanding of seeming likenesses, looking for the great connector in the exceptional and the unusual, the stuff outside of the formerly Aristotlean world. Natural Magic is his magnum opus, an expansion of its earlier version (Magna naturalis) published in Latin in 1558, which Porta expanded to twenty sections in 1589. The 1589 edition was a maturing of the 1558 edition, toning down the philosophical/religio-mystic basis for the ordering of the natural environment with an approach more suitable to observation and experimentation. It was an encyclopedic work of vast proportions, a gold-mine of information and clever wishfulness, and very accessible due to Porta’s wide inter-personal travel, very wide reading and critical abilities, clear reasoning and deep vision: the book was hugely successful, going into at least twelve Latin, four Italian, seven French, two German, and two English editions in the early modern era. Natural Magic, which first appeared in English in 1658, concerned itself with magic, alchemy, optics, geometry, cryptography, magnetism, agriculture, the art of memory, munitions, and many other topics, all grouped together and refined, distilled, into a cloudy assemblage of natural knowledge—it would end up that the magical whole was worth far less than the sum of its parts.
What I’m interested in right now though is the title page of the book (pictured above).
It turns out and as we can see in the top image of the title page, Chaos is not some subspace trajectory of cellular automata, or in Dr. Brown’s/Einstein’s dancing dust—it is right above us. This recognition of its regular, localizable structure probably does not support parameterization, or anything else for that matter, except to say that it is definitely “pretty”. The title page has nine illustrated compartments: the four corners depict the four elements, the two opposing middles show art and nature; the bottom shows the author, illuminated by the knowing sun. The top center image is the element showing “chaos”, which I’ve chosen to use a map, identifying where exactly chaos might be. I’ve not seen an antiquarian map identifying chaos, though I have seen a number showing lots of other non-existent places, like heaven and hell and purgatory and Eden and the Kingdom of Prester John, to name a few. But not chaos.
It is very interesting to note that while in the process of looking at nature, and observing connections real and imagined, and creating ways of organizing and storing information in the brain, Porta conceived of a telescope, and this several decades in advance of Galileo. (The idea of the telescope stretches pretty far back, though. The idea seems ancient, though the scientific thought on the matter really weren't present until the 13th century with the work of Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, and then with Nicolsa of Cusa (in 1451) doing experimental work on the properties of lenses, and then on to John Dee and Thomas Digges in 1570/1. Porta seemed right about there, just ont he edge of the invention of an instrument which would have allowed him to see farther and deeper than anyone else before him, but he didn't follow through. He mentions in the 1589 edition of Magiae:
"With a Concave lens you shall see small things afar off very clearly. With a Convex lens, things nearer to be greater, but more obscurely. If you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things near hand, both greater..." (Porta would expand this section of the 1589 book (section XVII) into a complete and separate work in 1593, De refractione optices.)
I do not know what happened to this idea, or why it didn't flourish in Porta's hand like it would in those of Galileo less than three decades latter.
Porta was a very nimble and penetrating man--his Magia naturalis was a dissecting tool for the complexities that he saw around him, and his later works were in some ways continuations on this theme. The first two books following Magiae were concerned with private visions of Very Large Things: the first, De furtivis literarum notis (published in 1563) was one of the earliest works on cryptology. This looking-deeper book was followed three years later in 1566 by a book on how these thoughts could be organized in the mind. Given the spirit of the times and the difficulty of actually recording what it was you saw, Porta wrote Arte del ricordare, which addressed the very idea of memory and then the more applicable bits of mnemonic devices. He looked for more hidden messages in his next work--on the physiology of hands--but it didn't see the light of publishing day until after Porta died.
Working in the areas of pharmacology, hydraulics, military engineering, physiology, and physics, among many other areas, Porta published De aeris transmutanionbus (1609) on meteorology; De distillatione (1610), on chemistry; Coelestis Physiogranonia (1603), on a sort of "writing in the sky" and both a blast and support of astrology; and De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586), which was a work physiognomy and discerning function from structure. There were other books, not to mention at least 17 dramatic works. Porta was basically unstoppable.
All of this takes me back to the question of wondering about his inability (?) to see the possibilities of the telescope. In all of his books on deterministic vision, and of seeing things deeply--whether it was in the sky, or in chemical experiments, or in seeing the structure of a plant incised with its function in nature, or in the complexities of memory, and so on--it is a mystery to me how he could have left the development of the telescope along.
Porta was one of the founders of modern cryptology, and wrote an encyclopedic work on ciphers and deciphering in De Fvrtivis Literarvm Notis, (published in Naples, Joa. Maria Scotus, in 1563). One of the great and most well-known ciphers in this work was the series of twelve alphabet ciphers in which the meanings of the letters of the second half of the alphabet are reversed to stand as the first half.
Porta's Observations on Magic and the Magician:
"The Instruction of a Magician, and
what manner of man a Magician ought to be his is what is required to instruct a
Magician, both what he must know, and what he must observe; that being
sufficiently instructed in every way, he may bring very strange and wonderful
things to us. Seeing Magick, as we showed before, as a practical part of
Natural Philosophy, it behooves a Magician, and one that aspires to the dignity
of the profession, to be an exact and very perfect Philosopher. For Philosophy
teaches, what are the effects of fire, earth, air, and water, the principal
matter of the heavens; and what is the cause of the flowing of the sea, and of
the diverse colored rainbow; and the of the loud thunder, and of comets, and
fiery lights that appear by night, and of earth-quakes; and what are the
beginnings of gold and of iron; and what is the whole force of hidden nature.
Then also he must be a skillful Physician; for both these sciences are very
like and near together; and physic, by creeping under color of Magick, has
purchased favor among men. And surely it is a great help unto us in the kind;
for it teaches mixtures and temperatures, and so shows us how to compound and
lay things together for such purposes. Moreover, it is required of him, that he
be a Herbalist, not only able to discern common Simples, but very skillful and
sharp-sighted in the nature of all plants; for the uncertain names of plants,
and their near likeness of one to another, so that they can hardly be
discerned, has put us to much trouble in some of our works and experiments. And
as there is no greater inconvenience to any artificer, than not to know his
tools that he must work with; so the knowledge of plants is so necessary to
this profession, that indeed it is all in all. He must be as well, very knowing
in the nature of metals, minerals, gems and stones. Furthermore, what cunning
he must have in the art of distillation, which follows and resembles the
showers and dew of heaven, as the daughter the mother; I think no man will
doubt of it; for it yields daily very strange inventions, and most witty
devices, and shows how to find out many things profitable for the use of man.
As for example, to draw out of things dewey vapors, unsavory and gross scents
or spirits, clots, and gummy or filmy humors; and that intimate essence which
lurks in the inmost bowels of things, to fetch it forth, and sublimate it, that
it may be of the greater strength.
And this he must learn to do, not
after a rude and homely manner, but with knowledge of the causes and reasons
thereof. He must also know the Mathematical Sciences, and especially astrology;
for that shows how the stars are moved in the heavens, and what is the cause of
the darkening of the moon; and how the sun, that golden planet, measures out
the parts of the world, and governs it by twelve signs; for by the sundry
motions and aspects of the heavens, the celestial bodies are beneficial to the
earth; and from thence many things receive both active and passive powers, and
their manifold properties; the difficulty of which point long troubled the
Platoniks minds', how these inferior things should receive influence from
heaven. Moreover, he must be skillful in the optics, that he may know how the
sight may be deceived, and how the likeness of a vision that is seen in the
water, may be seen hanging without in the air, by the help of certain glasses
of diverse fashions; and how to make one see that plainly which is a great way
off, and how to throw fire very far from us; upon which sights, the greatest
part of the secrecies of Magick does depend.
These are the Sciences which
Magick takes to her self for servants and helpers; and he that knows not this,
is unworthy to be named a Magician. He must be a skillful workman, both by
natural gifts, and also by the practice of his own hands; for knowledge without
practice and workmanship, and practice without knowledge, are worth nothing;
these are so linked together, that the one without the other is but vain and to
no purpose. Some there are so apt for these enterprises, even by the gifts of
Nature, that God may seem to have mad them hereunto. Neither yet do I speak
this, as if Art could not perfect anything; for I know that good things may be
made better, and there are means to remedy and help forward that which lacks
perfection. First, let a man consider and prepare things providently and
skillfully, and then let him fall to work, and do nothing unadvisedly. This I
thought good to speak of, that if at any time the ignorant be deceived herein,
he may not lay the fault upon us, but upon his own unskillfulness; for this is
the infirmity of the scholar, and not of the teacher; for if rude and ignorant
men shall deal in these matters, this Science will be much discredited, and
those strange effects will be accounted haphazard, which are most certain, and
follow their necessary causes. 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, does 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
Aristotle in his books of
Handy-trades, says, that master-builders frame and make their tools to work
with; but the principles thereof, which move admiration, those they conceal. A
certain man put out a candle; and putting it to a stone or a wall, lighted it
again; and this seemed a great wonder; but when once they perceived that he
touched it with brimstone, then said Galen it ceased to be a wonder. Lastly,
the professor of this Science must also be rich; for if we lack money, we shall
hardly work in these cases; for it is not Philosophy that can make us rich; we
must first be rich, that we may play the Philosophers. He must spare for no
charges, but be prodigal in seeking things out; and while he is busy and
careful in seeking, he must be patient also, and think it not much to recall
many things; neither must he spare for any pains; for the secrets of nature are
not revealed to lazy and idle persons. Wherefore Epicarmus said very well, that
men purchase all things at God's hands by the price of their labor. And if the
effect of they work be not answerable to my description, thou must know that
you have failed in some one point or another; for I have set down these things
briefly, as being made for witty and skillful workmen, and not for rude and
On looking at the hands of hanged criminals:
"... And so that I might have enough such men I arranged for the Neapolitan executioner, Antonello Cocozza, to notify me whenever he took down hanged men and carried them to the Ricciardo bridge (a place 1000 steps from Naples, where the unfortunates are hung as an example to evil passers-by until the elements destroy them). Going there I observed their hands and feet and sketched them on paper or else took plaster casts of them, from which later to make wax figures; thus at night I could study them at home, comparing them with others, from the signs coming to the truth, until I had discovered all the signs indicating hanging; thus I satisfied myself. Moreover, in order to know more about those who are murdered or die violent deaths, I arranged with the deacons of the Neapolitan Cathedral (who have the pious duty of burying in the Church of St. Restituda Virgin and Martyr all those who are killed and those who die unshriven) to notify me when death occurred, and going to that venerable church, I observed the hands, feet and foreheads, sketched the number and position of the wounds to compare with the others, so as to know which were valid and which weak for demonstration. Nor was I less assiduous in visiting public jails where there were always many thieves, parricides, street assassins, and similar men, so that I could study their hands, and later observing the hands and feet of animal, I compared them with those of the men, not without natural explanations and by the same method I used in the Physiognomy ..."