DELLA PORTA, Giambattista

One of the most versatile scholars of the Italian Renaissance, Giambattista Della Porta was well known in his day as both a scientist and a playwright. Born into a noble family in Naples, Della Porta received a broad education in humanism and the sciences; he was also extremely interested in magic and the occult. Later in his life, he became a member of the scientific Accademia de' Lincei, of which Galileo* was also a member. His early scientific writings were L'arte del ricordare (The art of memory, 1556) and Magiae naturalis (Natural magic, 1558). Later works included treatises on fruit growing, trees, physiog­nomy, hydraulics, chemistry, and alchemy. A particularly important work was De refractione (On Refraction, 1593), a work on optics that contributed to the debate over the invention of the telescope. One of his most famous, if unsuc­cessful, scientific investigations was his relentless pursuit of the philosopher's stone.
Many of his scientific studies were undertaken while he was under the pa­tronage of Cardinal Luigi d'Este in Ferrara. Della Porta emphasized the impor­tance of observation in scientific inquiry and was concerned about practical application; nonetheless, much of his scientific work was considered suspect. In the 1570s he was brought to the attention of the Inquisition for his interest in the occult, but was released with the understanding that he would devote more time to literature and less time to science. In spite of his attempts to appear more orthodox in his research, Della Porta could not abandon his passion for magic and fortune-telling, which led to further accusations of sorcery by French author Jean Bodin*; however, he also attracted the great admiration of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II*, himself an amateur alchemist and astronomer.
Della Porta considered his literary pursuits secondary to his scientific interests, but his dramatic works are what ensured his reputation. Although he had been writing drama since his youth, his first play was not published until 1589; by the time of his death in 1615, he had completed twenty-nine comedies, three tragedies, and a tragicomedy, as well as several translations of the comedies of Plautus. Of his many plays, seventeen are extant: a tragicomedy, a secular trag­edy, a religious tragedy, and fourteen comedies. Of the comedies, La sorella (The Sister, 1589) and Gli duoi fratelli rivali (The Two Rival Brothers, 1601) were especially popular. Other important works include the tragicomedy Penel­ope (1591), the tragedy L'Ulisse (Ulysses, 1614), and the religious play Il Georgio (St. George, 1611). Della Porta's popularity extended beyond Italy; in his lifetime, several of his works were translated for the French and English stage.
L. Clubb, Giambattista Della Porta, 1965.
Jo Eldridge Carney

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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