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...
(The entire section is 476 words.)
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.