Although Giambattista Della Porta’s dramatic output was both vast and significant, and although it continued through almost the entire span of his life, the author himself often dismissed it as “youthful trifles.” Indeed, during his lifetime, the Neapolitan’s reputation derived mainly from his esoteric and multifaceted scientific pursuits. His interests in this field ranged widely, from mnemonics, cryptography, and astrology to meteorology, agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and various other forms of conventional and unconventional research. His most celebrated scientific works, such as Magiae naturalis (1558, 1589; Natural Magick, 1658)—a medley of serious scientific research and fanciful probing into the occult and the exotic—and De humana physiognomonia (1586; Of Human Physiognomy, 1829)—a work propounding the idea that certain animal-like features of people’s physical appearance correspond to specific traits of their character, thus making it possible to judge people’s dispositions by their physical appearance—made Della Porta a celebrity and are remembered today. Ironically, however, and despite the fact that some modern scientists see in Della Porta’s scientific work the presage of such scientific inventions as photography (through his rediscovery of the camera obscura) and of criminal anthropology, today Della Porta’s fame rests primarily on the seventeen plays that have survived.
The surviving fourteen comedies and three tragedies of the doubtless more than thirty dramatic works written by Giambattista Della Porta constitute one of the most imposing monuments of sixteenth century Italian theater. In mere numerical terms, these plays place Della Porta among the most significant playwrights of the late Renaissance period. Della Porta’s various other eclectic interests, however, prompted the author himself to dismiss his plays as secondary. Nevertheless, Della Porta’s theater, with its sense of life that is both facetious and sentimental, seems a deliberate and conscious effort to mitigate the popularity of the commedia dell’arte by incorporating some of its elements into the erudite dramatic tradition.
In the light of the fact that the Counter-Reformers often attempted to ban theatrical performances, especially of comedies, with the intention of cleansing drama of immorality and paganism, it is quite remarkable that a man such as Della Porta managed to publish such a large number of plays. Employing complicated plots ending in improbable denouements, Della Porta succeeded in the difficult task of reconciling belief in the Christian God with the pagan concept of fate by converting the latter into Divine Providence. In post-Tridentine Italy, his plight was a common one. Playwrights were confronted with a difficult task: that of not allowing a Peripatetic, providential solution—which would wholly adhere to theatrical tradition and to Aristotelian precepts—to contradict one’s expression of the Christian precept of free will.
Despite their often scurrilous language and ever-present sensual overtones, the general atmosphere in Della Porta’s plays is that of a commedia grave, with all the hyperboles and metaphors peculiar to the serious and sentimental pre-Baroque theater. The earliest and latest of Della Porta’s comedies, however, manage somewhat to escape this evident didactic and moral intent with their at times unwonted licentiousness. Because of their inner balance and well-developed mixture of sentimentalism and pathos, Della Porta’s plays exercised a surprising influence on other playwrights, both Italian and foreign. William Shakespeare himself may well have been influenced by Della Porta’s The Two Rival Brothers while writing Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599); certainly Della Porta’s comedies found other ready imitators in England in a number of early dramatists, such as Walter Hawkesworth, Samuel Brooke, George Ruggle, Thomas Tomkis, and Thomas Middleton. In other countries, especially in France, Della Porta’s works were soon known either directly or through adaptations of the commedia dell’arte, and several of his comedies were imitated or freely translated by such writers as Tristan L’Hermite, Jean de Rotrou, and Molière. In Italy, Della Porta’s influence was widely and immediately felt, and although it was particularly evident in Neapolitan erudite comedy, it also gave rise to a plethora of disciples and imitators all over the peninsula, much later affecting even the work of Carlo Goldoni.
Clubb, Louise George. Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Clubb examines the life and works of Della Porta, paying particular attention to his plays.
Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Eamon’s examination of the scientific side of Della Porta, among others, sheds light on his literary work.
Herrick, Marvin Theodore. Italian Comedy in the Renaissance. 1960. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970. This work on Italian comedies produced during the Renaissance describes how Della Porta’s dramatic works fit into the larger picture.
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