Giambattista Della Porta, the third of four sons, was born in the fall of 1535 in the municipality of Naples. As his father, Antonio, was a nobleman greatly interested in humanistic learning who surrounded himself with poets, artists, mathematicians, and philosophers, Della Porta was tutored in these disciplines by the most learned doctors Naples could offer. It seems probable that he also attended some of the lectures delivered by the neo-Pythagorean philosopher Girolamo Cardano during Cardano’s brief stay in Naples, for Della Porta’s work reflects traces of Cardano’s teaching of a sort of natural magic in which both doctrine and casuistry played a part.
Although it is not known exactly when Della Porta became interested in theater, he was no doubt stimulated by the frequent dramatic performances given in Naples, not only by numerous professional troupes but also by patrician dilettantes, who often performed the works of contemporary Neapolitan playwrights and poets such as Bernardino Rota, Angelo di Costanzo, and Gianni Domenico di Lega. Yet Della Porta’s initial endeavors, which won for him an early reputation as a scientist and a cryptographer, were mostly in the area of scientific research. His Natural Magick, first published when he was twenty-three years old, though he claimed to have written it when he was fifteen, and De furtivis literarum notis: Vulgo de ziferis (of secret writing), published in 1563, brought him immediate fame. After extensive traveling in Italy, France, and Spain—where he was received by Philip II—Della Porta returned to Naples to publish yet another scientific work, his Arte del ricordare (1566; mnemonic art), which added to his growing reputation. This work was also relevant to the theatrical arts, as Della Porta stressed the importance of cultivating memory through the application of the proper methods, most particularly in the case of actors.
Despite the fact that by 1566 Della Porta had published only these three scientific works, he had already written several dramatic works, and only a few years later one of his contemporaries, Giovanni Matteo Toscano, included him among the most representative living men of letters. Indeed, Della Porta stated that he wrote his first comedy, L’Olimpia (Olympia), “at an early age,” probably in 1550.
Della Porta wrote in a time, however, in which free philosophical and scientific speculation in Italy was crippled by the Counter-Reformation, and as a “naturalist,” Della Porta could not easily have escaped investigation. Further, the character of soothsayer and sorcerer had begun to be ascribed to him via popular lore. Although no record has survived, Della Porta must have been denounced to the Inquisition sometime before 1578, for there remains an entry from 1580 that refers to his reexamination before the Inquisition’s tribunal. The actual trial, which conditionally cleared him, probably had taken place the year before. The judge, perhaps mockingly, perhaps paternally, advised him against writing on illicit subjects and suggested that he limit himself to comedy. Frightened, Della Porta complied, shortly after going to the length of joining a Jesuit lay congregation and taking active part in works of piety and charity.
In November, 1579, Della Porta’s lot improved when Cardinal Luigi D’Este, a famous patron of the arts and learning, issued an invitation to join his household in Rome. Seeing an opportunity to restore his reputation, Della Porta readily accepted the invitation and commenced many literary and scientific projects, inclusive of some theatrical works, which he sent to his patron. Invited by Cardinal D’Este to join him in Venice, Della Porta arrived there in December, 1580, and began immediately to experiment with parabolic mirrors and an “occhiale” (eyeglass), which later led him to contest Galileo’s priority in the invention of the...
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