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Porta, Giambattista della

1. Dates
Born: Vico Equense, 12 miles south of Naples, 15 Nov. 1535. Early sources have various years for his birth, but Paparelli establishes 1535 beyond doubt.
Died: Naples, 4 Feb. 1615
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 80
2. Father
Occupation: Government Official
The modest fortunes of the Porta family, who belonged to the ancient nobility of Salerno, were improved when his father, Nardo Antonio, entered the service of Emperor Charles V in 1541. Note that the branch of the family to which della Porta belonged was not noble. However, his mother was from the patrician family Spadafora.
Clubb speaks of the father's considerable wealth in land and ships. Vico Equense was the habitat of the wealthy, and the villa there meant wealth.
3. Nationality
Birth: Italian
Career: Italian
Death: Italian
4. Education
Schooling: No University
The nature of his formal education is unknown, but early accounts of his life suggested that he was self-taught. It appears more likely that his uncle (Spadafora) supervised his education. His informal education was the convivial discussion of scientific and pseudoscientific topics with the learned society that frequented his father's house. Only two of his teachers are known: Antonio Pisano, a royal physician in Naples, and Domenico Pizzimenti, a translator of Democritus.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
He was examined by the Inquisition about 1578, and he was forced to disband his Academy dei segreti. In 1592 all further publication of his philosophical works was prohibited. Apparently the ban did not include literary works, but he apparently did need prior permission. This ban was not lifted until 1598.
By 1585 he had become a lay brother of the Jesuits, and his participation in charitable works of both the Jesuits and the Theatines in Naples demonstrates his devotion to the ideals of the Catholic reformation.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Occult Philosophy, Astrology, Alchemy
Subordinate: Optics, Mathematics, Meteorology
Porta was a polymath who dabbled in nearly everything. One could also list Natural Philosophy and Physics as disciplines.
Porta's first book, published in 1585 as Magiae naturalis, constituted the basis of a twenty-book edition of the Magia naturalis published in 1589, which is his best-known work and the basis of his reputation.
His other published works include De furtivis literarum notis (1563), De humana physiognomonia (1586), Physionomonica (1588), De refractione optices (1589) and De distillatione (1610).
He perfected the camera obscura.
He wrote also on squaring the circle and on curved lines, as well as on hydraulic machines.
Della Porta formed a personal museum of natural history which helped to spur the concept of public museums.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Patronage
Della Porta travelled extensively while he was young through Italy, France, and Spain. When he returned to Naples, he shut himself up in his villa and devoted himself to learning. He left a considerable estate. Is is not clear that he ever received a salary, though he did enjoy patronage and undoubtedly received gifts.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Eccesiastic Official, Court Official
Della Porta presented a copy of his book on cryptography, De furtivis literarum, 1563, to Philip II, and he dedicated the third edition of the early version of Magia, 1561, to Philip.
In 1579, Cardinal Luigi d'Este invited della Porta to join his household in Rome. Della Porta accepted, moved to Rome, and supplied his patron with comedies. A bit later he went to the Cardinal's house in Venice and there made optical devices for him, including a parabolic mirror (so the sources claim). Then on to Ferrara. He was back in Naples in 1581, though still something of a client of the cardinal. It appears that the cardinal helped to save him from the Inquisition. Apparently the cardinal saw della Porta as an alchemist and hoped to get the philosophers' stone from him. Della Porta dedicated Physiognomia, 1586, to the cardinal. The cardinal died in 1587.
Della Porta dedicated De distillazione, 1608, as well as De aeris transmutationaibus, 1610, and other late works to his new patron, Federico Cesi.
In the early years of the 17th century, Rudolf II sent his chaplain to Naples to contact della Porta, hoping apparently to get some alchemical secrets from him. Della Porta himself spoke of favors he received from Rudolf and to him he intended to dedicate his Taumatologia.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Agriculture, Hydraulics, Military Engineering, Instruments, Pharmacology
He experimented and published on agriculture.
He published a book in 1606 on raising water by the force of the air.
In 1608 he published on military engineering.
He perfected the camera obscura.
He compiled remedies, some of which were published.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Accademia dei Lincei, 1610-1615
He established the Accademia dei Segreti (or Academia secretorum naturae) some time prior to 1580. It met in his house in Naples, was certainly founded on the model of the earlier literary academies, and was devoted to discussion and study of the secrets of nature. It seems to have closed by order of the Inquisition.
In 1604 Cesi traveled to Naples and often visited Porta. In the same year Porta wrote a compendium of the history of the Cesi family. The documented meeting of Cesi and Porta in 1604 was followed by a respectful correspondence which culminated in the enrollment of Porta among the Lincei on 6 July 1610.
In 1611 he helped to establish the Accademia degli Oziosi, a leading literary academy in Naples.
  1. Gioacchino Paparelli, "La Taumatologia di Giovambattista della Porta," Filologia romanza, 2 (1955), 418-29.
  2. -----, "La data di nascita di G.B. della Porta," ibid., 3 (1956), 87-9.
  3. -----, "Giambattista della Porta: Della Taumatologia e liber medicus," Rivista di storia delle science mediche e naturali, 47 (1956), 1-47. R131.A1R62 Louise George Clubb, Giambattista della Porta, Dramatist, (Princeton, 1965). PQ4630.P6Z53 P.A. Saccardo, "La botanica in Italia," Memorie del Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 26 (1895), 132, and 27 (1901), 87.
  4. Pietro Capparoni, Profili bio-bibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal sec. XV al sec. XVII, 2 vols. (Rome, 1925-28), 2, 57-60. In the copy I have, vol. 1 is from the second ed, (1932) and vol. 2 from the first (1928). I gather that pagination in the two editions is not identical.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. H.G. Duchesne, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de J.B. Porta, (Paris, 1801).
  2. Fr. Colangelo, Vita di G.B. Porta, (Napoli, 1818).
  3. P. Riccardi, Biblioteca matematica italiana, 2, 306.
  4. F. Fiorentino, "Della vita a delle opere di G.B. della Porta," Nuovo Antologia, Ser. 2, 21 (1880), 251-84. The article also published in Fiorentino's volume, Studi e ritratti della rinascimento, (Bari, 1911).
  5. G. Gabrieli, "G.B. della Porta linceo," Giornale critica di filosofia italiana, 8 (1927), 360-96.
  6. Giuseppe Campori, "Gio. Battista della Porta e il Cardinale Luigi d'Este," Atti e memorie della Regia deputazione di storia patria per le provincie Modena e Parma, 6 (1872), 26.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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