Giambattista Della Porta: An Italian Magus at the Warburg Institute

Written by Donato Verardi |
Portrait of Giambattista Della Porta, Flemish school (post 1611 - ante 1618). Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Italy.

On 23 June the Warburg Institute will host an online conference, organized by Donato Verardi (Warburg Institute) with John Tresch (Warburg Institute), dedicated to the natural magic of Giambattista Della Porta (1535-1615), a leading figure of the Italian Renaissance in natural philosophy. The conference will bring together contemporary scholars working on Della Porta, to consider his work and legacy from new perspectives. Among the new topics will be his use of hieroglyphics, recipes and experiments, his approach to sound, and his reputation as “Wizard of Naples.” A keynote paper by Professor William Eamon (New Mexico State University) will follow four talks: by Sergius Kodera, (University of Vienna), Rebecca Cypess (Rutgers University, New Jersey), Arianna Borrelli (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg and Technische Universität Berlin), and Dana Jalobeanu (University of Bucharest). 

In this blog post, Donato introduces the figure of Della Porta, showing the lines of continuity between the objectives of this conference and the seminal research on Renaissance magic conducted at the Warburg Institute by scholars such as D.P. Walker and Frances A. Yates.

The figure of Della Porta is no stranger to the tradition of studies on Renaissance magic promoted by the Warburg Institute. In years when Della Porta’s role in the history of philosophy and science was anything but unanimously recognized by scholars, in his Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (1558), D.P. Walker significantly considered Della Porta’s natural magic “the exact equivalent of philosophia naturalis1. In this work, Walker also showed how the physicist and theologian Thomas Erastus (1524-1583) admitted (at least apparently) that “the only kind of magic which might produce real effects and be free of demons” was Della Porta’s natural magic. Indeed, Walker claimed – this “practical natural philosophy concentrated on unusual experiments which seem, only to the ignorant, to be marvellous”2.

For her part, Frances Yates, who dedicated some important pages of her book The Art of Memory (1966) to Della Porta,3 emphasized the empirical-experimental dimension of Della Porta’s magic in her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition (1964), noting how Della Porta’s main objective was “the organization of magic into a science'4. In other words, according to Yates, Della Porta had transformed magic into a form of natural philosophy capable of “experimentally” explaining the wonders of the cosmos.  

Della Porta was born in Vico Equense, a small town on the Neapolitan coast, in 1535. His father was Leonardo Antonio. His mother, of Calabrian origins, was the sister of Adriano Guglielmo Spadafora, who worked as a conservator in the archives in Naples. His first teachers were his maternal uncle, who possessed a rich museum and a large library, and his brother Giovan Vincenzo, a scholar of natural philosophy and antiquities. From a very young age, Della Porta dedicated himself to the investigation of nature. Eclectic, curious, devoted as much to experimentalism as to the study of ancient classical literature and philosophy, he surrounded himself with scholars and artisans, alongside whom he often worked. Like any good gentleman of the time, he was initiated into the delights of music and singing; he later founded the Academy of Curious Men (known as the Academy of Secrets or Academia Secretorum Naturae) and in his mature years he was among the most significant protagonists of both the Accademia dei Lincei and the Accademia degli Oziosi. In addition, he made numerous trips throughout Italy and Europe. He died on February 14, 1615, in Naples, cared for by his daughter Cinzia.

Della Porta was harassed by the Inquisition after publishing his first book, Magia naturalis (1558), which proclaimed that marvels could be created naturally by deploying empirically knowable occult qualities. In the seventeenth century, Della Porta’s views became widely known among avant-garde intellectuals. The extraordinary diffusion of Magia naturalis — especially its second edition, published in twenty books in 1589, and translated into English in 1658 — contributed significantly to Della Porta’s fame and influence.  Between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, this work had a notable impact on authors such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Reginald Scot (c. 1538-1599), William Gilbert (1544-1603), John Wilkins (1614-1672) and Isaac Newton (1672-1705).5 Della Porta’s fame did not decline even in the nineteenth century. If the sulphurous magus of London, Francis Barrett (1770/80-1802), made Della Porta one of the noble fathers of natural magic,6 the French astronomer, physicist, and inventor François Arago (1786-1853) significantly considered Della Porta to be “a colleague.”7

Io. Baptistae Portae Neapolitani 'Magiae Naturalis libri Viginti', Rothomagi, 1650. Photo of the edition kept at the Warburg.

Magic had been revived in the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino. Through readings of Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) and his pupil Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Ficino applied his revived Neoplatonism to scholastic teachings on forms and qualities. Della Porta based his reflections on natural magic on these same physics. Della Porta accentuated the empirical and experimental dimension of magic, explicitly linking it to chemistry (thanks to which natural occult virtues could be manipulated and reproduced) and mechanics. Unlike Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), who believed that magic must always be guided by hermetic devotion, Della Porta drastically reduced magic’s religious component. Taking up Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s (1463-1494) idea of ​​magic as the absoluta consumatio of the science of nature, Della Porta freed it from any compromise with theurgy, the high magic that worked through the intermediation of supra-celestial daemons. In his own magical encyclopaedia, Agrippa had connected his own theurgy with the cabalism he learned from Giovanni Pico and Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). In the last years of his life, near the turn of the seventeenth century, Della Porta felt the need to rethink the cabalism of Pico della Mirandola, reinterpreting it in the light of Pythagoreanism and Aristotle. The supernatural power attributed to numbers in Agrippa’s magic was actually quite natural, he argued. Numbers were nothing but the perfect intellectual (mathematical) correspondent of the physical qualities that operated in the sublunar world.8

In Della Porta’s magic, physics and mechanics were part of a single far-reaching cultural project devoted to promoting an experimental approach to the science of nature.9 On one hand, in keeping with the declared mission of his natural magic, Della Porta intended to explain natural magical objects, such as plants and stones with marvellous virtues, through the astrological physics of qualities. This physics, based on the idea that a natural influence of the sky caused the emergence of an occult virtue in an object, lent itself well to the goal of Della Porta’s natural magic, which was to rationalize the seemingly extraordinary properties of the natural magical objects. This physics provided Della Porta with the theoretical basis for his own experimentalism, which aimed at manipulating occult virtues for practical purposes.10

On the other hand, thanks to a new approach to natural magic developed in his Academia secretorum naturae, Della Porta established the foundation upon which, in the seventeenth century, the co-founder of the Royal Society, John Wilkins would build, by transforming Agrippa’s artificial magic, still linked to celestial-cabalistic magic, into a new magic of mechanical wonders. With Agrippa, the physical explanation of artificial magical objects, as in the exemplary case of animated statues of hermetic ancestry, had been enormously expanded with religious elements of cabalistic inspiration, many of which Della Porta perceived as extraneous to his own cultural project. These excesses contributed enormously to the discrediting of astral magic in Della Porta’s time. By setting aside the hermetic theme in explaining the animation of statues, Della Porta firmly supported a purely mechanical explanation of such artificial magical objects; conceived them as mechanical automata, whose marvellous effects were due to the ingenuity of their construction rather than any supernatural power. Della Porta thus marked a crucial moment in the passage from the artificial magic of the first Renaissance magi (inextricably linked to the celestial plane) to the mechanics of wonders of the first experimenters of the Royal Society.11

Arguably the most original element promoted by Della Porta in his Magia naturalis was the relativization of the truths of physics and of ancient and medieval beliefs about magical objects. In his approach, these truths– many of which had been accepted in the texts of Ficino, Agrippa, and other Renaissance authors – had to be considered the best starting point for science, but not its end point. Refinements, improvements, and new understandings would follow from careful observation and experiment. In this way, Della Porta provided a justification for the profession of the natural magician-experimenter and placed his own research in a historical perspective, submitting his discoveries and those of his “friends” at the Academy for the future scrutiny of his successors. Della Porta wrote:

I will set down what both I myself have done in it, and what I have received from other friends: I have performed the best I could, to shew others an opportune way of making better.12

It was precisely this experimental attitude that would guarantee Della Porta respect among the “experimenters of wonders” for centuries to come.13

> Book now for Rethinking Natural Magic: New Perspectives on Giambattista Della Porta



[1]  Daniel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, (London: The Warburg Institute, 1958), 76.

[2] Ib., p. 158.

[3] Frances A.Yates, The Art of Memory, (London: Routledge, 1966), 205-206.

[4] Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition, (London: Routledge, 1964), 380.

[5] On Della Porta, see Donato Verardi, La scienza e i segreti della natura a Napoli nel Rinascimento. La magia naturale di Giovan Battista Della Porta, (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2018); Sergius Kodera, “Giambattista Della Porta’s Histrionic Science,” California Italian Studies, 3 (2012), 1-27; William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 194-233.

[6] Francis Barrett, The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer is a handbook of the occult and ceremonial magic (London: Lackington, Allen, and Co., 1801), 50.

[7] John Tresch, The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 118.

[8] Verardi, La scienza e i segreti della natura a Napoli nel Rinascimento. La magia naturale di Giovan Battista Della Porta.

[9] On Della Porta’s experimental attitudes, see Arianna Borrelli, “Giovan Battista Della Porta’s construction of pneumatic phenomena and his use of recipes as heuristic tools,” Centaurus, Special Issue: The creative power of experimentation: Bacon and Della Porta, ed. Doina-Cristina Rusu and Dana Jalobeanu 62/3 (2020), 406-24; Dana Jalobeanu, “Enacting recipes: Giovani Battista Della Porta and Francis Bacon on technologies, experiments, and processes of nature”, Centaurus, 62/3, 425-446; Rebecca Cypess, “Giovanni Battista Della Porta’s Experiments with Musical Instruments”, Journal of Musicological Research, 35/3 (2016), 159-175;

[10] See Donato Verardi, “Art and Magic of Animated Statues. The secret virtues of Albertus Magnus’ Talking Head in Giambattista Della Porta’s Natural Magick”, in Magical Materials in Renaissance Philosophy, Literature, and Art, ed. R. Compton and D. Verardi (Lugano: Agorà & Co, 2022), 83-106.

[11] Ib., 91.

[12] John Baptista Porta, Natural Magick in Twenty Books, (London, T. Young and S. Speed, 1658), bk. 6, chp. 9, 186; I. B. Portae Magiae Naturalis libri XX. Ab ipso autore espurgati, et superaucti, in quibus scientiarum Naturalium divitiae, et delitiae demostrantur [...] cum privilegio (Neapoli: apud H. Salvianum, 1589), bk. 6, chp. 9, 123.

[13] Verardi, “Art and Magic of Animated Statues”, in Magical Materials in Renaissance Philosophy, Literature, and Art, 106.