Giovanni Baptiste della Porta (1543-1615) of Naples, was an aristocrat, philosopher and physician of prodigious talent. When his Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) was first published in 1588 it was a phenomenal success, republished and translated into many languages throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Magiae Naturalis is a compendium of practical information upon aspects of nature which were believed to be ruled by mysterious forces at the time. It offers advice and records practical experiments in gardening and germination, house-keeping, hair-dressing, cosmetics and perfumes, cookery, brewing, fishing and hunting, the altering of metals, magnetism, optics, invisible writing and pneumatic experiments amongst other topics. A full transcription of its pages can be found at Natural Magic. Porta can be seen in the frontispiece to his celebrated work. He states his scientific credentials and justification for investigating nature's properties in 'Natural Magic' thus-
But I think Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of Nature. For, while we consider the heavens, the stars, the Elements, how they are moved, and how they are changed, by this means we find out the hidden secrets of living creatures, of plants, of metals, and of their generation and corruption; so that this whole Science seems merely to depend upon the view of Nature, as later we will see more at large.
By a curious coincidence Porta's 'Natural Magic' was published into English in 1658, the same year as the first publication of Browne's literary diptych, 'Urn-Burial' and The Garden of Cyrus.
It's not so surprising that a Latin copy of Porta's 'Natural Magic' (1644) is recorded as once upon the groaning shelves of the library of Sir Thomas Browne for Porta was a favourite author of Browne's. Several books by the Neapolitan polymath are listed in the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue. These include Villa (1592) Phytognomica (1588) and Colelestis Physiogranonia (1603). But it is the authority of Porta's 'Natural Magic' which is most frequently cited throughout the pages of Browne's own encyclopaedia of European fame, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (five editions from 1646-76).
Incidentally, it was the American scholar Jeremiah Staunton Finch in 1934 who identified large portion's of the opening chapter of Browne's Discourse 'The Garden of Cyrus' as originally belonging to Porta's gardening treatise Villa, which includes a description of the Quincunx pattern in horticulture. J.S.Finch was also the editor of the facsimile edition of the 1711 Auction Catalogue of Browne's Library.
It's worth remembering that the Italian Renaissance which breathed new life into the arts and sciences throughout Europe, also revived and stimulated interest in esoteric topics. Primarily through the Florentine scholar Marsilo Ficino's translation of Plato's Timaeus , the discovery of the Hermetic Corpus, but also through Ficino's successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1493) with his interest in astrology, the Kabbalah and angel-conjuring. In addition to these seminal figures, the writtings of Paracelsus and John Dee also contributed to an enormous revival of study and appreciation of esoteric doctrines throughout the Renaissance period until as late as the 1670's .
Porta's own major contribution to esoterica is Colelestis Physiogranonia (Celestial Physiognomy). Porta justified the validity of physiognomy from a writing on the subject attributed to Aristotle. The study of the human face and apparent discernment of inner qualities from outer characteristics, found particular resonance with Browne the physician, perhaps as a useful diagnostic tool. Browne alludes to Porta's Colelestis Physiogranonia, in his own highly esoteric work, 'The Garden of Cyrus', thus-
that Augustus had native notes on his body and belly, after the order and number in the Starres of Charles wayne, will not seem strange unto astral Physiognomy, which accordingly considereth moles in the body of man, or Physicall Observators, who from the position of moles in the face, reduce them to rule and correspondency in other parts.Browne forms an important link in the history of physiognomy between Giovanni della Porta and one of physiognomy's greatest advocates, the German Lutheran priest and one-time friend of Goethe, Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), and in fact the German polymath Goethe stated of Della Porta, If we could take all of his collected works together, we would see the entire century mirrored in him. Lavater read Browne's Religio Medici (German translation 1748) which contains several physiognomical observations and praised it. Although physiognomy is today derided as a pseudo-science, the judging of the outer appearance of the individual as reflective of inner morals qualities, is a mental activity few people are consciously capable of desisting from, whenever meeting a new person or even when viewing a photo of someone.
Porta's definition of the ideal woman sounds both erotic and modern. She is 'like a panther, both in body and spirit'. Her 'neck is long and slender, her chest formed of small ribs, her back long and her hips and thighs well covered with flesh. On her flanks and her belly she is rather flat, that is her body here does not stick out, nor is it hollow'.
It's salutary to realize that those who elected to study nature and its properties were often isolated individuals. Early scientists such as Giovanni della Porta and later Browne, were often misunderstood or obliged to steer a perilous path of conformity to secure status and reputation; sometimes they were harassed and challenged by powerful authorities such as the Church; nonetheless they held firmly onto the validity of their enquiries, guided by inner lights. In effect these early scientists were the midwives to the scientific revolution, officially sanctioned in England with the establishment of the Royal Society in 1660.