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The Question:

Do you have information about Giovanni Battista Della Porta? Was he a famous painter, inventor or scientist?

The Answer:

Two out of three, and lots more besides.

Giovanni Battista della Porta, also known as Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615), was an Italian polymath, which is to say that he had interests and skills in many different areas. He was best known for Magiae Naturalis, or Natural Magick, which dealt with alchemy, magic, and natural philosophy. Typically, della Porta sets out what the masters of the past have said on a subject, and gives opinions based on his own testing and observations. The first known edition was published in 1558, but it was revised and greatly expanded in a 1589 edition, growing from four sections to twenty.

Della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segreti, which studied the secrets of nature and might be considered the first modern scientific society. While often overlooked now, he represents an important step in the evolution toward science as we now know it, paving the way for Galileo.

Della Porta popularized an improved camera obscura, and painters used his method to reproduce real-life scenes on canvas. He published books on physiognomy, agriculture, ecology, meteorology, astronomy, astrology, and many more subjects. In addition, he was a dramatist who wrote seventeen plays.

He was not a painter, however. The painter was Fra Bartolomeo, born Baccio della Porta (1475-1517). And neither should be confused with Giacomo della Porta (1537-1602), an important architect.

—The Editors

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