Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2014
Instruments and Arts of Inquiry: Natural History, Natural Magic and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe
The Laboratory as Stage: Giovan Battista della Porta’s Experiments
This article surveys the vast range of different literary genres to which Giovan Battista Della Porta (1535-1615) contributed; it thereby encompasses not merely Porta’s contributions to a specific form of science, his numerous texts on physiognomics and his influential Magia naturalis , but also his no less prolific literary production for the theater, since I argue that his scientific production can best be understood when viewed alongside it. In fact, when read together, these different orientations his work took represent an amazingly coherent form of early modern thought--although one remarkably different from later forms of science in that it constitutes a kind of performative natural philosophy, which I call scienza. This article, therefore, presents Porta less as a forerunner of modern science, instead situating his work for the laboratory as well as for the stage in the context of a peculiar form of theatricality. In short, Porta’s magus emerges as a very peculiar kind of stage director--an expert in the manipulation of appearances and audiences, and a dexterous creator of marvels. His practice echoes the very modes of dissimulation that were characteristic for the social comportment of a courtier in Baroque culture. The following article develops these ideas by pointing to some specific examples, namely Porta’s histrionic use of the magnet as described both in the second edition of the Magia naturalis (1589) and in some of his comedies, and his method of gathering and displaying fragmented parts of the human body for his work on palmistry (written between1599 and 1608).