Between Superstition and Reason

02 04 giambattista della portaToday I want to tell you about a sixteenth century polymath called Giambattista della Porta. Unfortunately, I don’t know when his birthday was but he might have been born in 1535. He died on this day in 1615. Giambattista was extremely curious about the world and everything in it. At a time in history when it was still just about possible to hold all the world’s knowledge in a single human brain, it’s always interesting to come across someone who had a jolly good stab at writing it all down. Giambattista della Porta wrote a lot of things about a lot of subjects, he even wrote a few plays, but his best known work is ‘Magiae Naturalis’ (Natural Magic) which covers a wide range of subjects.

He was born at Vico Equense, near Naples into a noble family, but not noble enough for anyone to have recorded his date of birth. His father also had a thirst for knowledge and filled his house with learned men. It was a trait he passed on to all three of his surviving sons. He wanted to give them a well rounded education so that they could all grow up to be fine young gentleman. All of them were pretty talented when it came to science and mathematics but they were also interested in the arts, especially music. None of them had any talent for music and couldn’t sing, but because they were good at music theory, or perhaps because they were from a rich family, they were all somehow accepted into a prodigious music academy. Three tone-deaf mathematicians in a school for the musically gifted must have been very difficult for everyone.


Around 1560 Giambattista founded one of the earliest scientific societies in Europe, the ‘Academia Secretorum Naturae’, Academy of the Mysteries of Nature. Anyone could join as long as they could present a new fact regarding natural science. Unfortunately they were forced to disband by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578 because they had been suspected of sorcery. Despite being in trouble with the Inquisition on more than one occasion, Giambattista himself seems to have largely avoided serious trouble. Though he did have friends who were under arrest. It seems he used his scientific knowledge to smuggle messages to them. He knew how to write a message on the inside of an egg, without breaking the shell. He first wrote on the shell using an ink that he made from galls and alum. As the ink dried, it soaked through the porous shell. Then he boiled the egg. The ink on the outside was washed away, but when his friend peeled off the shell, he could read the message on the white of the egg. That’s pretty damned clever.

Secret messages and ciphers were one of his areas of interest. He wrote a whole book about them. But he was also interested in philosophy, astronomy, astrology, optics, mathematics, meteorology, the art of memory, agriculture, hydraulics, military engineering, distillation, the occult and physiognomy. He perfected the camera obscura and may have invented the telescope. He also disproved, through experiment, an ancient belief that magnets could be disempowered by garlic. He was writing and working just before the dawn of what we call ‘The Age of Reason’ so some of what he says makes sense, but some of it is utter nonsense.

02 04 physiognomyPhysiognomy, for example, involves studying a person’s character by their outward appearance. He believed that if people looked beautiful, they were good. It was an unpleasant theory that once rivalled anatomy in importance as a way of studying the human body. Some of della Porta’s beliefs though are an absolute delight. I found a copy of Magiae Naturalis at Internet Archive and I could have read it all day. It has a large section on the spontaneous generation of animals. He tells us earnestly how scorpions can be made out of chewed up basil leaves or bits of dead crab. He also believed that serpents could grow in the spines of men and tells us that in Hungary, three thousand men died from it.

It’s a strange world that he inhabits, between superstition and reason. In his ‘cookery’ section, he advises against eating a partridge that has fed on garlic, because he says ‘it stinks’, which is fair enough if you don’t like garlic. But he also tells us not to eat the meat of a deer in the summer, because they eat adders then and it makes them poisonous.

In his chapter on hunting, he tells us that animals can be trapped with two kinds of bait, food or love. He describes catching a male cuttlefish by attracting it with a female, which is sensible. But then he describes how to catch a fish called a sargue, which is a kind of sea bream. The thing he thinks you need to know about the sargue is that it really, really loves goats. Can’t get enough of them. Whenever a goat comes near the shore it will swim up to be near it. He offers no explanation for this. The best way to catch one is therefore to dress up in a goatskin, complete with horns, and hang around on the beach.

Among his own scientific investigation that were less successful was an attempt to invent what he called a ‘sympathetic telegraph’, an invention for sending messages. There were two devices a little like compasses. Only instead of directions on the dial it had the letters of the alphabet. He hoped that by using a magnet to drag the point to the letters on one device, it would somehow be communicated to the other one, even if it was far away. He also experimented with sound. He knew that sound travelled through the air and he knew that you could speak to someone through a lead pipe. He really thought that if you could construct a long enough pipe, you could stop up the end before the sound had travelled all the way through and then open it up and listen to it later. He blamed his lack of success in this on his inability to find anyone who could build a long enough pipe.

It must have been a terribly frustrating time to be a scientist, with so much superstitious nonsense that was indistinguishable from reality, no clear scientific method, no reliable body of work to build on and running the risk of falling foul of the Inquisition. One of his friends, Giordano Bruno endured a seven year trial and was eventually burned at the stake. Mainly for suggesting that the earth went round the sun.


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