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Number 117 in this series. Link to all items here.
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Giambattista Della Porta   (1535-1615)             (1)

or, Why am I so obsessed with overachievers? (See Fanzago.)

                    della PortaOne hundred years ago, the Neapolitan historian and philosopher, Benedetto Croce, wandered up to the hilly part of Naples, an area called the "high Vomero", specifically to the "Due Porte"—the two gates (entrances to caverns) to see what was left of the premises where one of the first scientific societies in European history had convened centuries earlier. That is, by 1580, well before the Academy of the Lynxes or the Royal Society of London, Giambattista Della Porta's Academia Secretorum Naturae was meeting to uncover the "secrets of nature". They nicknamed themselves the Otiosi (Men of Leisure), and in order to join you had to have contributed a new discovery or fact in natural science. (Later in life, Della Porta helped establish the Academy of the Lynxes, which counted Galileo as its most illustrious member.)

In the days of Della Porta, Naples was in the middle of the great Spanish rebuilding of the city under viceroy Toledo, but the city didn't even have a population of 200,000 (nevertheless, large for the time). This part of the "high Vomero" was, indeed, a hamlet near Naples, known as the area of the washerwomen and of one particularly nasty witch. When Croce visited the place, it was still far enough outside of town to count as a pleasant holiday retreat in the summer—a good view from the hillside (about 1000 feet) fresh air, no traffic. He found and described the ruins of what was left of this One-Man Renaissance Manhattan Project. He lamented that little remained.* Yet, there was much more than today; traffic and the post-WW2 building plague have pretty much done in any claim to being "bucolic". On the plus side, the concrete apartment house that now stands over the old inner sanctum isn't far from a stop on the new metro line. (That's bogus, too. I've just walked it and it's still hard to get to. The perfect place for secrecy.) [See also: Urban Expansion of the Vomero.]

[BUT! -- later comment from June 2014--Selene Salvi of Naples Underground points out to me that there is considerable controversy about whether or not the site referred to in this entry is, indeed, the meeting place of Della Porta's Academy of the Secrets. The assumption that the area Due Porte is somehow, itself, related to the name Della Porta is almost certainly wrong. There really are two entrances.  Also, there are sources from the 1700s that, while acknowledging the widely-held view that "up here somewhere" is where Della Porta had his Academy, no one seems to know where it was.  The name Della Porta did not appear to be connected, even historically, to any of the known villas. Item #2, below, sheds some light on what else the site might have been.]

*note: Selene also informs me that the Croce expedition to the purported Della Porta site is recounted in Vita di Pietro Giannone scritta da lui medesimo, edited by Fausto Nicolini, Naples, Pierro, 1905.

In his first famous publication, Magia naturalis [Natural Magic], Della Porta indicated what "magic" meant to him in those days: "I think magic is nothing less than a survey of the whole course of nature." That is the Renaissance context in which moderns must understand the word: everything in the universe is connected and a Renaissance Man must study—and at least try to know—everything. In those days, that meant writing:

—the massive (20 volumes) Magia naturalis (Natural Magic) (written and expanded
upon from 1558 to 1584);
—miscellaneous works on astronomy, chemistry, optics, hydraulics, architecture,
mathematics, and how to improve your memory;
—an agricultural encyclopedia;
—a description of a potential steam engine;
—14 prose comedies and 2 dramatic tragedies.

Della Porta also started a private museum of natural science, full of specimens collected during his wide-ranging travels in Europe; it was an important innovation and became an imitated prototype. He also claimed to have beaten his younger contemporary, Galileo, to the telescope. (Be that as it may, one thing is certain: Della Porta got into Galileo-type trouble with the watchdogs of the Roman Inquisition* for his "secret academy". The Inquisition closed it down in 1578, and Della Porta's works were banned from publication between 1594-98.) In his spare time (!), he published De Furtivis Literarum Notis, a work on cryptography, admired even in modern times.

*[The Roman Inquisition is not to be confused with the Medieval Inquisition or the Spanish Inquisition. See those links.)

Recent archaeology has revealed such items within the ruins of
   Della Porta's" academy of secrets" as this  fresco of  the Egyptian
    God, Set, and Isis (on the left) nursing the infant Horus.
photo: Napoli Underground (NUg)
(see item 4, below)

Giambattista Della Porta was born in the village of Vico Equense on the Sorrentine peninsula and was well educated at home by his father and private tutors. His father was in the service of Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. From all accounts, Giambattista was a prodigy; he may have written the first four books of Natural Magic when he was 15 years old. The entire work was virtually a compendium of science since the time of the ancients down through Della Porta's own day; it covered geology, cosmology, plant products, medicines, poisons, distillation, the magnet and its properties, gunpowders, and ciphers. It also covered things such as demonology, astrology, occult philosophy, women's cosmetics, and transmutation of metals, none of which are considered particularly scientific today, but in the late 1500s everything was fair game. (Indeed, a glorious age!) In short, whatever you wanted to know, Della Porta had written about it or was in the process of doing so. It was an immediate best seller and was translated almost immediately from the original Latin into Italian, French and German; an English translation was published in the 1650s. Even in Latin, however, the work was accessible to all European scholars when it was written.

Della Porta lived in a strange time—the tail-end of the age of "pre-science". To put things in perspective, young Giambattista's father remembered (!) Leonardo Da Vinci. Della Porta worked a generation before Galileo and Bacon (both inspired by Della Porta's tenacious will to investigate nature), a half century before Kepler and Descartes, and a full century before Newton. It was an age which still clung to the Renaissance vision that one good person with drive, time, and a very large brain could learn everything there was to know. He mixed valid work in optics and botany (two of many examples) with nonsense about fortune-telling and the "philosophers' stone". He also soft-pedaled his brash curiosity when the Inquisition told him to. But even Galileo did that.

Della Porta joined the Jesuit order towards the end of his life. That disqualifies him, in the minds on many, as being counted as an early scientific rebel like Galileo. And maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was just a man who wanted to "survey the whole course of nature". That has to count for something. He was interred in the family tomb within the church of San Lorenzo in Naples.

[Significant and recent archaeology on the premises of the Academia Secretorum Naturae has been done by the organization, Naples Underground. See this link.]

[Dec. 2009 update: Larry Ray, who writes English-language material for Naples Underground, has written and posted an article on the "Academy of the Secrets" at this link.]

[Also see Academies of the Middle Ages]


update May 2014:  Fulvio Salvi of Napoli Underground (NUg--two links directly above) has suggested an alternative to the traditional view that the site in Naples was Della Porta's academy. Below is my translation of his article that appears on the NUg website. Used here by kind concession.

Academy of the Secrets—or “simply” a Garden?

by Fulvio Salvi 
photo courtesy of NUg     
About 25 years ago two geologist friends and I were hunting around on the slopes of the street named Due Porte all'Arenella in an attempt to pinpoint the locations of some caverns that historical sources place in that area. I came across a small grotto that at first left me perplexed. There were three spaces connected by tunnels and corridors; on their surfaces you could still see frescoed plaster, reconstructed columns, semi-cylindrical niches and traces of engraved plaques.

It had all been altered in some way. You could still make out part of the fresco representing three subjects: a woman seated on a bench holding a child in her lap, and a human figure with a damaged face holding out a tray of offerings to her (photo in the main entry, directly above this one). Very probably the artist had intended to depict in Egyptian fashion the goddess Isis nursing Horus. In the same space (a corridor about ten meters long) on the side walls, the plaster had been frescoed to simulate opus reticulatum [a Roman reticulated pattern of diamond-shaped bricks]; there were also four or five semi-cylindrical niches that were empty but led us to believe that they had once held statuary or similar. At the end of this passageway was a single wooden door that led to the outside. We later discovered that this was the bottom entrance to the grotto.

The next chamber (the first room) was jammed with building materials; the walls were covered with panels that hid the surface of the wall in back. In any event, you could see a circular column in the room inscribed with an elongated numeral 8 like a kind of infinity symbol except that it was vertical. A low tunnel led from this room into a second space. The entrance to the tunnel had also been shaped to resemble a large numeral 8.

After a couple of meters the tunnel came out in the second room; the walls still had traces of frescoed plaster but the images were so degraded that you couldn't make out what they were meant to be. In this space there were two fake columns (made of brick and plaster); one was circular, the other was square. There was a horizontal niche on one wall that originally must have been sealed by a plaque, traces of which were still visible. The back wall was of brick and irregular-shaped tufa blocks; a series of openings (a door at the bottom and some spaces for oil lamps higher up) gave the impression that it was meant to represent a face or perhaps a skull (photo, above. Courtesy of NUg). This last wall separated this space from a small parking space behind; it was of recent manufacture and belonged to the building on the surface above. Yet another short passage led to a third room almost totally filled with dumped earth, probably hauled in from a well on the surface. There was a hole high up on on the side of the second room that led to a narrow and steep stairway made of brick that, in turn, led to a garden on the surface. It had been from these stairs and then by lowering ourselves from the hole in the wall that we first gained entrance to this underground chamber.

Obviously, we were amazed at first glance by all of this. We had explored hundreds of spaces beneath Naples, but this was the first time that we had found something like this! We made sketches and took some photos of the grotto. With these in hand we tried to attract the interest of the Superintendency of Naples, but to no avail. Given the difficult access (we had got in only by lowering ourselves through a hole in the wall) and the fact that this particular space really wasn't part of our original research plans, we put it off for another few years.

Another decade passed and I found myself talking with engineer Clemente Esposito (a veteran of Neapolitan speleology) about how the whole thing had sort of gone back into oblivion. Thanks to his insistence and that of my daughter, Selene, I contacted the owner of the property to get permission to enter the premises once again. We reached an agreement. Thus, years later we went back into the grotto, this time by the more comfortable lower entrance. Everything was as it was when we had seen it for the first time. We took more photos and made a video. But the question remained: What could this space have been that no one seemed to know anything about and only old-timers in the area still knew as the teatrino (little theater)?

The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Kingdom in Germany          
photo: Doris Antony           
Esposito was of the opinion that the cavern might have been the laboratories of Giambattista Della Porta, a secret place where meetings of his famous Academy of the Secrets were held. The residential quarters that surrounded the grotto must have been the summer homes of the Della Porta family.

But was it really? Or was it rather nothing more than a sophisticated and fascinating garden structure, part of the property of the ancient casale [a large country estate] that we find on the Duke of Noja map, perhaps torn down in order to make room for more modern cement buildings?

In the 1700s and 1800s a number of aristocratic villas and royal residences in Naples took up the fashion of building those famous “English landcape gardens” that had so much success elsewhere in Europe. I am thinking, among the many examples, of the Capodimonte Wood with its fake dovecotes near the so-called Grottoes of  Maria Cristina di Savoia, and of the fake ruins within the grounds of the Villa Floridiana, or the gardens of the Caserta Palace, or the villa Heigelin (known as the “English villa”), where the gardens, rich with grottoes, ruins and statuary, contained a true Masonic path laden with esoteric symbols. The rest of Italy had its own examples. Among the many, there was the hypogeum [underground chamber] of villa Francescati in Verona, the vaulted entrance of which is so similar to the one at Arenella. Further, there is the curious structure of the Dessau-Wörlitz Gartenreich (Garden Kingdom) in Germany (photo above, right), considered the first English park built in continental Europe in the 1700s. It holds a “stone island” and next to that a reconstruction of William Hamilton's villa at Posillipo in Naples. The stones were meant to simulate the pyrotechnical results of a fanciful eruption of Vesuvius! Here, too, there is a vault with wide-open eyes and mouth, similar to the Neapolitan hypogeum... did Naples take the idea from Germany...or perhaps the other way round?

[translator's note: It certainly was the other way round. Wörlitz Lake in the Garden Kingdom (photo, above), near Magdeburg in Germany, features Europe’s only artificial volcano. When Leopold III (1740-1817) of Anhalt-Dessau went on a grand tour of Europe in the 1760s, he visited Naples and saw a smouldering Mount Vesuvius. Twenty-two years later, he set about building a bit of Naples in Germany. The inner brick building is five stories high and covered with local boulders. At the top, a hollow cone was made and contained a high chamber, complete with three fireplaces and a roof with an artificial crater that could be filled with water. He then constructed a lake around the volcano. Artificial eruptions were a regular garden feature; that feature has been revived in recent years.]

update June 2014
It helps to have read parts 1 & 2, above.
This is not part of the above translation. This one is all my fault--Jeff Matthews

Further considerations

Why was that wall made to resemble a face (and possibly a skull)? (entry #2, above - top photo)

An ogre in the Park Of Monsters in Bomarzo     
in the region of Viterbo, north of Rome.   
For those who like fancy (or even fanciful!) interpretation, here are a few ideas. My first stray thought was that it was meant to be a skull and that there was a connection with the memento mori (remember that you must die), the omnipresent skull found in so many places in Roman Catholic countries to remind you not to get too full of yourself, but remain humble and good. I still like that idea a bit, but I am indebted to Selene Salvi, researcher, artist and member of Napoli Underground for reminding me of all the other possibilities.
She also points out to me (as I note in entry #1, above, that there is considerable controversy over whether or not the site in question was ever really the fabled meeting place of Della Porta's Academy of the Secrets. Another possibility is discussed in #2, above. Whatever it was...

...The face/skull might be an ogre in the sense of the Latin Orcus, that is, a personification of hell, the underworld. The cavern itself might be a symbol of the underworld, such as in The Aeneid or The Divine Comedy, where both Aeneas and Dante descend to the nether realm in order to gain the rebirth that comes with knowledge. You must die in order to be reborn. The face/skull, itself, is Orcus, later transformed in folklore and myth into the man-like monster that devours human beings. Such creatures are common in fairy tales throughout the world, including “The Three Fairies” in The Tale of Tales, also known as The Pentamaron by Neapolitan Giambattista Basile; indeed, his fairy tales predate better-known collections in Europe and helped spread the ogre figure in popular legend. I am not aware of any connection between Basile and Della Porta, although they were contemporaries in Naples. But you never know! Perhaps,

Giambattista Basile: “Say, Giambattista, that's a swell-looking wall you got there.”
Giambattista Della Porta: “Why, thank you, Giambattista.”
GB: “Looks like an ogre.”
GDP: “A what?”
GB: "Or maybe a jack-o'-lantern."
GDP: "Jack Who?"
GB:"Those pumpkins you carve out and put a face on to scare away evil spirits on St. Andrew's day. There's a nice little folk tale I'm working on..."
GDP: "That's very interesting. Look, I'm a little busy here..."
GB: “Right. Where's the door?...That mouth over there? You sure?”

Also, In ancient times, volcanoes were thought to be entrances to the underworld, which may explain the presence in the Dessau-Wörliz park of Mt. Vesuvius (entry#2, above, bottom photo) shaped with the face/skull as the entrance to the volcano and death, yes, but really to eventual rebirth and knowledge. Also, if you wish to expand your search parameters, or as scholars say, "Really go nuts with this, " you may find that Golgotha, the hill upon which Christ was crucified was named Golgotha, meaning "place of the skull." Death and Resurrection.

My erudite informant also says she wonders if the face/skull might have something to do with La Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth), a marble image of a man-like face at the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. The sculpture is probably part of a first-century ancient Roman fountain thought to represent the ancient god of the river Tiber. The salient bit of myth here, however, is the legend that says if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it will bite your hand off! In popular culture, that bit of legend was spread around the world in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday. Gregory Peck puts his hand in the mouth of the stone figure (photo, above, left) and whispers sweet nothings to Audrey Hepburn and... all of a sudden! ... (No, I don't remember, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you!) Of further popular note, "The Ghost Who Walks"
—yes, none other than the comic strip adventure hero, The Phantom, has a really neat house—the Skull Cave! Yes, when Superman (1938) was still sucking mother's milk on Krypton and before Batman and his cave (1939) there was the Phantom (image, right). (He is not the first Masked Avenger. There are precedents such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro and the Lone Ranger, all of whom wore masks, yes, but the Phantom was the first to sport that skin-tight body suit. I rest my case.) Creator Lee Falk, who started the Phantom series in 1936, died in 1999, so I can't ask him where he got the idea of the Skull Cave. If you know, please tell me, but I don't want to hear that the Phantom lives in a pumpkin.

update - July 11, 2016

Neapolitan artist Selene Salvi has sent me this photo related to numbers 1 and 2 (above): respectively, Della Porta's use of Egyptian motifs and "Academy of the Secrets--or simply a garden?" A MUCH larger image plus details are here.


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