Giambattista della Porta the most polymathic of all Renaissance polymaths?

Giambattista della Porta (1535(?)–1615) is well known to historians of Renaissance science but for the general public he remains a largely unknown figure. If he is known at all,  he is often written off as an occultist, because of the title of his most well known work Magia Naturalis. In fact in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries he was a highly respected and influential member of the Italian Renaissance scientific community. Although he wrote and published profusely over a wide range of scientific and related topics he made no really major discoveries and produced no major inventions and unlike his contemporaries, Kepler and Galileo, who were both well acquainted with his work, he has been largely forgotten.


Giambattista della Porta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giambattista Della Porta were born at Vico Equense, Near Naples, probably sometime in 1535 (he created the confusion about his birth date), the third of four sons of the nobleman Nardo Antonio dell Porta of whom three survived childhood.  His parental home resembled an intellectual salon where the boys were continually exposed to and educated by visiting philosophers, mathematicians, poets and musicians. Their education was completed by private tutors, who also taught the boys the attributes of a gentleman, dancing, riding, skilled performance in tournaments and games and how to dress well. Della Porta never attended university but enjoyed life as a well educated polymathic, gentleman of leisure. If he can be considered to have had a profession, then it is that of a dramatist, he wrote more than twenty theatrical works, but it is his extensive activities in the sciences that interest us here.

Already in 1558, at the age of 23, he published the fist version of his most well known work, the Magia Naturalis in four books, a sort of encyclopaedia of the Renaissance sciences. From the beginning it was a bestseller running to five editions in Latin within the first ten years with translations into Italian (1560), French (1565), Dutch (1566) and English (1658). A vastly expanded version in twenty books was published in 1589. This final version covers a wide range of topics:


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Book 1: Of the Causes of Wonderful Things Book 2: Of the Generation of Animals Book 3: Of the Production of New Plants Book 4: Of Increasing Household-Stuff Book 5: Of Changing Metals Book 6: Of Counterfeiting Glorious StonesBook 7: Of the Wonders of the Load-Stone Book 8: Of Physical Experiments Book 9: Of Beautifying Women Book 10: Of Distillation Book 11: Of Perfuming Book 12: Of Artificial Fires Book 13: Of Tempering Steel Book 14: Of CookeryBook 15: Of Fishing, Fowling, Hunting, etc. Book 16: Of Invisible Writing Book 17: Of Strange Glasses Book 18: Of Static Experiments Book 19: Of Pneumatic Experiment Book 20: Of the Chaos

The contents range from fairly banal parlour tricks, over engineering, experimental science, horticulture and husbandry to every day things. At the very beginning della Porta is very careful to explain what exactly he mean by the term natural magic:

There are two sorts of Magick; the one is infamous, and unhappy, because it has to do with foul Spirits and consists of incantations and wicked curiosity; and this is called Socery; an art which all learned and good men detest; neither is it able to yield an truth of reason or nature, but stands merely upon fancies and imaginations, such as vanish presently away, and leave nothing behind them; as Jamblicus writes in his book concerning the mysteries of the Egyptians. The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there any thing more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning. The most noble Philosophers that ever were, Pythagorus, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato forsook their own countries, and lived abroad as exiles and banished men, rather than as strangers; and all to search out and to attain this knowledge; and when they came home again, this was the Science which they professed, and this they esteemed a profound mystery. They that have been most skillful in dark and hidden points of learning, do call this knowledge the very highest point, and the perfection’s of Natural Sciences; inasmuch that if they could find out or devise amongst all Natural Sciences, any one thing more excellent or more wonderful then another, that they would still call by the name of  Magick. Others have named it the practical part of natural Philosophy, which produces her effects by the mutual and fit application of one natural thing unto another.

The association of Magick with natural philosophy is continued in della Porta’s definition of the Magician:

This 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.

Despite the very diverse nature of the Magia Naturalis it does contain elements of genuine experimental science. For example, it contains the first experimental disproof of the widely held medieval belief that garlic disables magnets. He also experimented with the cooling properties of dissolving nitre in water. As described here by Andrea Sella (@SellaTheChemist)

As well as the Magia Naturalis della Porta wrote and published a large number of monographs on a very wide range of topics. Cryptography was a popular topic in Renaissance Europe, the most famous book being Johannes Trithemius’ Poligraphia, della Porta published his De Furtivis Literarum Notis (1563), which contain innovative cryptographical ideas.


In 1586 he published a work on physiognomy De humana physiognomonia libri IIII,


From De humana physiognomonia, 1586 Source: Wikimedia Commons

which was still being referenced in the nineteenth century, two years later a book on phytonomy (the science of the origin and growth of plants), Phytognomonica, which contains the first observations on fungal spores.


Phytognomonica, 1588 Source: Wikimedia Commons

These two books confirm della Porta’s adherence to the Renaissance doctrine of signatures. This theory claimed that it was possible to determine the nature of things based on their external appearances.

This was by no means the limit to della Porta’s publishing activities. He also wrote an agricultural encyclopaedia, separate volumes on various fruit bearing trees, books on mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, military engineering, distillation and in 1589 a book on optics, his De refractione optics. We shall return to the latter.


This incredible literary outpouring was just part of his scientific activity, in about 1560 he founded an academic society, Accademia dei Segreti (Academia Secratorum Naturae), the Academy of the Secrets of Nature, which is considered to be the earliest scientific society. The academy met regularly in della Porta’s home and membership was open to all but to become a member one had to present a new secret of nature that one had discovered. We know what some of those new secrets were as della Porta included them in the twenty volume version of his Magia Naturalis. In 1578 della Porta was summoned to Rome and investigated by the Pope. We do not know the exact grounds for this summons but he was forced to shut down his academy on suspicion of sorcery. This is to a certain extent ironic because della Porta was very careful in all his writing to avoid controversial topics particularly religious ones.

Although it was shut down the Accademia dei Segreti, would later have a major influence on another, much more renowned, early scientific academy, Federico Cesi’s Accademia dei Lincei. Cesi was a huge admirer of della Porta and as a young man travelled to Naples to visit the older natural philosopher. On his return home he founded his own academy, whose name was inspired by a line from the preface of the Magia Naturalis:

… with lynx like eyes, examining those things which manifest themselves, so that having observed them, he may zealously use them.

In 1610 della Porta became the fifth member of the Accademia dei Lincei, one year before Galileo.

Another important aspect of Renaissance science was the establishment of private natural philosophical museums also known as Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity. Della Porta had, as to be expected, a particular fine cabinet of curiosity that would influence others to create their own, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher for example.


Fold-out engraving from Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta made minor contribution to the advance of science and engineering over a wide range of disciplines but I first ran into della Porta in the context of the history of optics and it his association with this history that I want to look at in somewhat more detail. The early seventeenth century saw both a significant turn in the theory of optics and independently of that the invention of the telescope, an instrument that would go one to revolutionise astronomy, della Porta played a minor roll in both of these things.

The invention of the telescope, by Hans Lipperhey, first became public in September 1608 and the role it would play in the future of astronomy became explosively obvious when Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610. Already in August 1609 della Porta wrote a letter to Federico Cesi claiming to have invented the telescope, he wrote:

I have seen the secret use of the eyeglass and it’s a load of balls [coglionaria] in any case it is taken from book 9 of my De Refractione.[1]

Here della Porta’s memory is faulty, he is after all over seventy years old, what he is referring to is not in the De Refractione but rather in Chapter 10 of Book 17 of Magia Naturalis (1589). Here we find the following suggestive description:

Concave Lenticulars will make one see most clearly things that are afar off.  But Convexes, things near at hand.  So you may use them as your sight requires.  With a Concave Lenticulars you shall see small things afar off very clearly.  With a Convex Lenticular, 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 and clearly.  I have much helped some of my friends, who saw things afar off, weakly, and what was near, confusedly, that they might see all things clearly.  If you will, you may.

The lens combination that della Porta describes here is indeed that of the Dutch or Galilean telescope but as van Helden say, and I agree with him, he is here describing some form of spectacles but not a telescope. Kepler, however, who owned a copy of Magia Naturalis credits him with being the inventor of the telescope in his Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (Conversation with the Starry Messenger) (1610), where he wrote that a recent Dutch invention had been made public years earlier in Magia Naturalis. In 1641 Pierre Gassendi stated that the actual invention had been made by chance by Metius [Jacob Metius (after 1571–1628), who applied for a patent for a telescope two weeks later than Lipperhey] the idea for a similar one had been published years earlier by della Porta.

Later della Porta would graciously admit that his fellow Lynx, Galileo, had achieved much more with his telescope that he, della Porta, could have ever have hoped to do, whilst not abandoning his claim to having first conceived of the telescope.

Della Porta also played a small role in the history of the camera obscura, describing the improvement to the image obtained by placing convex lens into the pinhole, something probably first suggested by Gerolamo Cardano. He also suggested, this time as the first to do so, using a concave mirror to project the image onto a sheet of paper to facilitate drawing it. The popularity of the Magia Naturalis did much to spread knowledge of the camera obscura and its utility as a drawing instrument. Interestingly della Porta compared his camera obscura with the human eye but, unlike Kepler, failed to make the connection that the lens focuses the image on the retina. He continued to believe like everybody before him that the image in perceived in the lens itself.


First published picture of camera obscura in Gemma Frisius’ 1545 book De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta’s role in the turn in the theory of optics is less disputed but not so widely discussed.  Ancient Greek optics was almost exclusively about theories of vision and when taken up and developed in the Islamic Middle Ages this too remained the emphasis. Ibn al-Haytham in his work on optics showed that one could combine an intromission theory of vision with the geometric optics of Euclid, Hero and Ptolemaeus, who had all propagated an extramission theory of vision. This was a major development in the history of optics. In the thirteenth century Robert Grosseteste introduced optics as a central element in both his vision of science and his theology, which led to it being established as a mathematical discipline on the medieval university. Shortly after Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo introduced al-Haytham’s theories on optics into the medieval European mainstream founding what became known as the perspectivist school of optics. Strangely there were no real further developments in the theory of optics down to the end of the sixteenth century when Johannes Kepler, almost singlehandedly, turned the study of optics from one of theories of vision to one of theories of light, thereby ending the reign of the perspectivists. I say almost singlehandedly but he did have two predecessors, who made minor contributions to this turn, Francesco Maurolico (1494–1575) and della Porta.

One major flaw in the perspectivist theory was its treatment of spherical convex lenses and spherical concave mirrors, which said that the images created by them appeared at a single focus point; this is a fallacy. This flaw was in the theory from its inception in the thirteenth century and remained unchecked and uncorrected all the way down to the end of the sixteenth century. The fact that the don’t create their images at a single focal point is, of course, the cause of spherical aberration, something that would plague the construction of telescopes and microscopes well into the eighteenth century. The man who corrected this error in optical theory was della Porta.  Using a mixture of experiments and analytical light ray tracing he came very close to the correct solution an important step towards Kepler’s light ray based theory of optics.


Della Porta’s ray tracing analysis of the reflection of a spherical concave mirror A. Mark Smith, “From Sight to Light: The Passage from Ancient to Modern Optics”, Chicago University Press, 2015 p. 349

Giambattista della Porta is an interesting example of a widespread phenomenon in the history of science. In his own times he was highly respected and regarded, throughout Europe, as a leading natural Philosopher. His books, translated into many languages, were bestsellers and that even long after his death. Johannes Kepler was a fan and Galileo disliked him because he saw him as a serious rival for the position of top dog natural philosopher, a position that Galileo very much desired for himself. However, today most people have never even heard of him and if then he is largely dismissed as a minor irrelevance or even, because of the title of his major work, as some sort of anti-science occultist. But if historians really want to understand what was going on in the scientific community of Europe in the Early Modern Period then they have to take figures like della Porta seriously and not just focus on the ‘big names’ such as Kepler and Galileo.













[1] Quoted from David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2002, ppb. p. 101 Albert van Helden in his The Invention of the Telescope, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1977, Reprint, 2008, translates the phrase with coglionaria as …”it’s a hoax” pp. 44-45

1 Comment

Filed under History of Optics, History of science, Renaissance Science

One response to “Giambattista della Porta the most polymathic of all Renaissance polymaths?


    A. Mark Smith has produced a translation of Della Porta’s De Refractione of 1593: Optical Magic in the Late Renaissance. American Philosophical Society, 2019, XC, 1-524.

    A ninety-page introduction and analysis explores Della Porta, his optics, and its place and influence (such as it was) in optics history. The last word on the subject. Smith has written unwearingly about medieval optics; always tackling the big and difficult projects. This is another example.

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