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

Luana Rizzo
Référence(s) :

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 (« Premio Tesi di Dottorato », 67), 2018, 200 p.

ISBN : 978-88-6453-788-7

ISSN : 2612-8039 (print)

ISSN : 2612-8020 (online)

Texte intégral

1The history of magic is a complex topic, intersecting with the history of science and with the history of esotericism. This is especially true with regard to the magic of the Renaissance. This book is dedicated to the philosophical and scientific thought of Giambattista Della Porta (1535-1615), a leading figure in the Italian Renaissance and covers important ground on this seminal magician-philosopher. In the first part of this work, the most recent studies on the philosophical thought of Della Porta are discussed. Moreover, the Author reconstructs Neapolitan debates on the status of magic and astrology involving such eminent figures as Giovanni Pontano, Antonio Abioso da Bagnolo, Matteo Tafuri, Antonio Galateo de Ferraris, Francesco Storella, Giovan Camillo Maffei and Cesare Rao. The second part is solely dedicated to Della Porta. Firstly, his natural magic is discussed in relation to the problem of occult qualities and later addresses witchcraft.

2To context Della Porta’s works and understand the genesis of his thought, it is necessary, first of all, to clarify the meaning of Magic in the Renaissance, and its different interpretations. The Mage is an explorer of nature, and Magic, as Agrippa of Nettesheim states, is capable to combine the virtues of things through their mutual application, and to merge the lower and passive things with the upper and celestial things and virtues. Magic, however, can also take on different meanings and involve the theurgic element or, in its most deleterious form, configure itself as witchcraft. As Verardi demonstrates, Della Porta distinguishes the natural magic from the superstition. Not dissimilar with Agrippa, all the « secrets » are rationally explained by the laws of nature. The sublunar world is governed « by the inviolable law of nature », i.e., by precise physical and astrological laws (p. 83-88). However, in distinction from Agrippa, he interprets magic as free from religious and theurgical elements (p. 22-27). The religious element of the magical tradition is therefore considered by Della Porta a mere superstition and his position shows a fundamental point of the problem of magic in the Renaissance : that is, the opportunity to preserve its religious character or not. Della Porta interprets magic as a variant of experimental science.

3One of the most convincing points of the book is the totally natural explanation that Della Porta gives of occult qualities. The theme of occult qualities has been clarified in many respects by leading authors such as Brian P. Copenhaver, Keith Hutchison, John Henry, Nicolas Weill-Parot. Verardi fits fully into the line of research inaugurated by these scholars. He correctly insists on the importance of Albertus Magnuss lesson, demonstrating its role in Della Porta’s reflection on the natural occult punctually and convincingly. In particular, he shows that a fundamental role in the reception of Albertus’s lesson in Della Porta’s work is played both by Agrippa and by Francesco Storella, author of an important commentary on Aristotle’s Secretum secretorum. According to Della Porta, the action of form in the production of a given phenomena cannot be known, but by its effect it is always possible to locate the « particular property » that the effect produces. Such property depends, in turn, on the complexity of the qualities of elements that make up the natural substance, as well as on the « occult » action of form. Although the « occult » is unknown, the action of form comes from the starry sky : interpreted by Della Porta in the physical (Aristotelic) sense, and not as populated by celestial demons as in the neoplatonic-hermetic cosmologies. The stars act upon the things in the world because of their motion and heat. The form allows the celestial influences to be transposed, giving as a remedy its specific, « peculiar property ». How this happens we are not allowed to know, at least according to the canons of Aristotelic rationality (that is, with probable or evident demonstrations). The action of form, despite being « occult », is however an action of physical nature. In fact, as Albertus Magnus teaches, occult qualities are always received in an astrologically determined place. As Verardi shows, this approach circulated in Naples also thanks to the mediation of Storella (p. 104-108).

4The dispute concerning the legitimacy of astrology sees among its protagonists the greatest thinkers of Italian Renaissance, from Ficino to Pico della Mirandola, to Bruno and Campanella, Della Porta and Cardano, and not only Italian thinkers, but also European ones, if we think of Agrippa and Paracelsus. A lively dispute characterised by sharp reactions and replies, both on the part of the religious authorities and of the « professional » astrologists, and well known, like the controversy provoked by the publication of Pico’s Disputationes, after which followed a series of replies, among which that of Pontano, that of the astrologist of Siena, Lucio Bellanti, that of Giovanni Abioso and that of Gaurico. As Verardi demonstrates, many secrets of nature can be explained thanks to the astrological action of the sky on the sublunar world. He insists also on the nuances of Della Portas proposal in the field of astrology, showing how not all the secrets of nature can be explained by astrological laws. The secrets of the technique, for example, are produced by the manipulation of nature by scientists (p. 106-109 ; 147-151).

5In a culture penetrated by the hegemony of Catholicism, with a strong appeal to inward spirituality, sometimes tinged by evident signs of exteriority and « ingenuity », marked by a « religio » constantly threatened by superstition, what is the echo of magic received ? Absolutely negative. It is identified with chirology, philtres, enchantment, exorcism, superstition and sorcery. Whoever promotes and practices it, promotes its spread, and hence is a sorcerer. All the practices of theurgic and magic origin, evocative of demons, were considered nasty and suspected of heresy, considered hazardous for Christian believers. Verardi focuses on the secret of witches’ ointment and on a series of secrets that the from demonologists explain as being produced by the devil. Even in these cases, Della Porta provides a rational explanation of these « mysterious » phenomena. Nature is a machine governed by physical and rational laws. These secrets, although they cannot be explained by the criteria of Aristotle’s rationality, are nevertheless attributed by Della Porta to within the known. They, in fact, are simply the effects of the « particular properties » of things, « buried » by God in the « nature’s womb » (p. 123-145).

6This book stands out for its rigorous historical approach and represents an important contribution to the reconstruction of the debate on magic in the Italian Renaissance. Furthermore, it offers an important and well-informed reconstruction of a crucial moment in the history of natural science in the early modern age. The scholarly community can be grateful to its author for this excellent contribution.

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Luana Rizzo, « Donato Verardi, La scienza e i segreti della natura a Napoli nel Rinascimento. La magia naturale di Giovan Battista Della Porta »Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes [En ligne], Recensions par année de publication, mis en ligne le 23 août 2020, consulté le 27 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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