Writers' Workshop for ARCH 531 / McGill University / School of Architecture / Fall 2012

Week Twelve: Natural Magic











Giambattista della Porta’s Magia Naturalis stems from a long tradition of associated “Books of Secrets” that date to the middle ages.  These medieval works in turn learn much from their predecessor, Pliny’s Naturalis Historiæ, which work was clearly grounded in Aristotelian thinking.  The following are the chapters within the 1558 work:

Book 1:                 Of the Causes of Wonderful things
Book 2:                 Of the Generation of Animals
Book 3:                 Of the Production of new Plants
Book 4:                 Of increasing Household-Stuff
Book 5:                 Of changing Metals
Book 6:                 Of counterfeiting Gold
Book 7:                 Of the Wonders of the Load-stone
Book 8:                 Of strange Cures
Book 9:                 Of Beautifying Women
Book 10:               Of Distillation
Book 11:               Of Perfuming
Book 12:               Of Artificial Fires
Book 13:               Of Tempering Steel
Book 14:               Of Cookery
Book 15:               Of Fishing, Fowling, Hunting, etc.
Book 16:               Of Invisible Writing
Book 17:               Of Strange Glasses
Book 18:               Of Statick Experiments
Book 19:               Of Pneumatick Experiments
Book 20:               Of the Chaos

Choose one account that you find of significance to the world of architecture and expound the connection between the description and architecture.  Do you see the observations as speaking to an emerging rational science or partaking in an Aristotelian reality?  As usual, please choose a passage not previously written about.

4 responses

  1. Esiolé

    Even though magic had quite an ambiguous connotation throughout Renaissance, there is some magic that is perceived as good, as opposed to witchcraft and occult arts, which are punishable by death and assimilated to dark magic and demons. Science was not always perceived as a good magic. However, Giambattista della Porta’s encyclopedia on Natural Magic was probably one of the most significant and popular book of the 16th C, thus reclaiming and assessing the importance of a “magical knowledge”. “The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there any thing more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning.” [1]

    Even though we can definitely observe in Natural Magic some early scientific thoughts and thinking, as expressed through the book on glasses and optics, most of della Porta’s work seems to be still anchored in an Aristotelian thinking. “[…] as for example, the air the fire; this is hot and dry, that is hot and moist. Now dry and moist are contraries, and thereby fire and air disagree; but because either of them is hot, thereby they are reconciled. So the Earth is cold and dry, and water cold and moist; so that they disagree, in that the one is moist, and the other dry; but yet are reconciled, in as much as they are both cold; otherwise they could hardly agree.” [2] Indeed, this way of explaining how the Elements are the fundamental forces of the world can be clearly associated to the reflection Aristotle made in antiquity.

    The idea of form, as expressed in Aristotle’s work as different from matter, as connecting with the matter and the Elements in order to make a coherent whole can also be perceived in Giambattista della Porta’s book. “ […] or they find that many things work quite contrary to their qualities; and therefore they have imagined that there is some other matter in it, and that it is the power and properties of essential forms.” [3] Oddly enough, even though della Porta praises science and intellectual thinking, he also states that “[…] knowledge without practice and workmanship, and practice without knowledge, are worth nothing; these are so linked together, that the one without the other is but vain and to no purpose.” [4] This notion of connection between matter and form and between practice and knowledge is quite thought provoking, especially when looking at architecture in Renaissance. Certainly, architecture was perceived as a kind of white magic, that made materials hold together, that created beautiful forms and spaces out of nothing. Therefore, the way the matter and the form hold together could be assimilated to how materials and form, in a building, also hold together, as a deep mise en abîme of the conception of the world. In the same way, this notion of craftsmanship and knowledge fosters an understanding of architectural work, which embodies both in the same discipline, in the same way that a building or an object embody both matter and form. Thus, we can certainly link this fundamental thinking of matter and form not only as fundamental Aristotelian conception of the world, but also as metaphor for craft and knowledge.

    [1] Giambattista della Porta. Natural Magic, Book 1: Chapter II, 1589.
    [2] Giambattista della Porta. Natural Magic, Book 1: Chapter IV, 1589.
    [3] Giambattista della Porta. Natural Magic, Book 1: Chapter V, 1589.
    [4] Giambattista della Porta. Natural Magic, Book 1: Chapter III, 1589.

    November 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

  2. Trebuh

    Giambattista Della Porta wrote in his book ‘Natural Magick’ about tricks and illusions, mostly in relationship with the everyday life. “He enthusiastically described how to produce half-white, half-black figs, gigantic leeks, nuts without shells, sweet lemons, cucumbers shaped like dragons; how to sire multicolored horses, counterfeit gemstones, or make an artificial egg as big as a man’s head.” [1] These themes described by Della Porta are certainly difficult to relate to our modern life, which often involves rational science to prove ideas. Della Porta believed his sayings were accurate since he could explain them with the Aristotelian natural philosophy: “The ignorant philosophers, when they cannot give reasons to these things according to the principles of Aristotle, judge them as superstitions.” [2] Thus, he believed that magic could not be explained using reason or logic, but through observations and beliefs. The theory outlined in Natural Magick is inspired by other theories in addition to those of Aristotle: “Della Porta’s natural philosophy was a blend of Aristotelian physics, Renaissance Neo-Platonism, naturalistic metaphysics in the tradition of Telesio, and a poetic fancy mainly his own.” [3] It is slightly different than Aristotle’s theory, which related mostly to the ‘normal’ and the everyday. Further, it sheds light on the reasons why Della Porta’s view came from such diverse inspirations: “According to Della Porta, natural magic was a science of the extraordinary. In contrast to Aristotelian natural philosophy, whose aim as to explain the normal, everyday aspects of nature, natural magic explained the exceptional, the unusual, and the ‘miraculous’.” [4] The ‘exceptional’ is certainly elaborated on throughout Natural Magick. Many of the themes are difficult to relate to architecture, however some connections can be made. One example is in the ordered nature of architecture: “Nature’s subtlety and “Playfulness” was thought to be an essential part of the world’s architecture. Sometimes nature mimics itself, as in the seahorse or the mandrake, while at other times it contorts itself and exhibits monsters, giants, and dwarfs, or it demonstrates its cunning by creating artful imitations of human artifacts.” [5] Perhaps, nature can be structured and organized, similar to that of architecture. In the sixth book of Magic, Della Porta explains how a fornace can me made:

    “But first, let us describe the Fornace, wherewith it must be done. Therefore let a Fornace be made of Iron plates of a convenient thickness. Let it be a foot in height, as much in the diameter of the length. Let it be covered on the top, with a circular plate. In the center of the roof of it, cut a round hole, a handful in breath. And set another Fornace upon it, of the same length and breadth, and make a hole in that also, which must be set against the other, and join them close together. Make a little door in the lower Fornace, close to the ground. Let it be made with an arch, four fingers wide, and jet out half a foot, like the mouth of an oven, and be joined in the same manner to the great Fornace. Then kindle your coals in another place, until they cease smoking. And with Iron Tongs cast them into the foresaid Fornace. Heat it very well, and let the outward Fornace or mouth of the oven be filled half way with live coals.” [6]

    This passage certainly involves architecture, as it outlines the orderly and structured plans for constructing a furnace. Della Porta explains the making of this enclosed structure by incorporating dimensions and thicknesses, recurrent themes in the field of architecture. Moreover, the selection of material and its format are important to Della Porta to achieve the construction: “ […] while material qualities are prepared by the elements, all occult properties proceed from form. Della Porta likened form to an artisan who carefully selects the materials appropriate to his work, then shapes and molds them according to his specific design.” [7] ‘Natural Magick’ looks at a diversity of themes. Some relates directly to architecture, while others explore the relationship with the everyday life. Overall, the essence of the book can be shown throughout the notion of ‘being as being’, which relates to form and matter, notion anchored in the Aristotle’s thinking as Ésiolé mentioned in her post. Thus, it emphasizes the importance of materials and craftsmanship through Della Porta’s vision of magic as much as in architecture.

    [1] EAMON William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: magic and court culture, http://web.archive.org/web/20080515130453/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html, November 26th 2012

    [2] EAMON William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Magic and Superstition : The Politics of Occult Qualities, http://web.archive.org/web/20080515130453/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html, November 26th 2012

    [3] EAMON William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Magis Naturalis, http://web.archive.org/web/20080515130453/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html, November 26th 2012

    [4] Ibid.

    [5] EAMON William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Magic and Court Culture, http://web.archive.org/web/20080515130453/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html, November 26th 2012

    [6] DELLA PORTA Giambattista, Natural Magick: The Sixth Book of Natural Magick : “Of Counterfeiting Precious Stones », Chapter XII, http://web.archive.org/web/20080516025042/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jportat2.html, November 26th 2012

    [7] EAMON William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Magis Naturalis, http://web.archive.org/web/20080515130453/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html, November 26th 2012

    November 27, 2012 at 12:13 pm

  3. Amalin

    The Fourth Book of Natural Magick: Of increasing Household-Stuff is an insightful text in which Giambattista della Porta presents the limitations of fruit and flowers along with the necessary precautions in order to extend their shelf life. “We will begin with Fruit. And whereas fruit and flowers both may be preserved either upon their own mother tree which bear them, or else being plucked off from it, we will first show, how fruit may be preserved upon their own tree, and first rehearse those things which the Ancients have set down concerning this matter and next, what we ourselves have found by our own experience.” [1]

    For instance, in Chapter IV, he explains: “Garden Peas may be preserved for a whole year if you lay them on drying in the Sun, and when you have fetched out all their moisture, take them out of their shells, and lay them up.” [1] I tend to agree with Ésiolé in saying that della Porta’s work was influenced by an Aristotelian reality – balancing craft and scientific intellect. The decay of fruit presented a genuine challenge for Giambattista della Porta, the same way materials confront the architect. It required much experimentation before a solution was found “When we make something, we engage in a playful challenge to the limits of the material.” [2] Architectural fabrication calls for this constant confrontation. Further, the architectural invention becomes in sort a fabrication or life-giving magic. “Although it has become fashionable today to speak of ‘new’ materials, it is important to look again at material that seem to be already known” [3] It is time for architects to work with what is readily available – celebrate the many weaknesses of the material – and work on making it better through experimentation, similar to the alchemist.

    1 Della Porta, Giambattista, Natural Magick, Book 4 : Of Increasing Household-Stuff, [http://web.archive.org/web/20080515233230/http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jportac4.html], 26 november 2012.

    2 The Algorithms of a Material Practice, Presented at the ACSCA National Conference: Louisvill, Kentucky, 2003, 1.

    3 Kennedy, Sheila, Christopher, Grunenberg, KVA: Material Misuse, AA Publications, London,2001, 20.

    November 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

  4. Esiolé argues well for an understanding of matter-form as related to craft-knowledge. A change in one element would bring about a change in the other. For Trebuh, the furnace becomes analogous to architecture in that it is described through its dimensions and its thickness. Further passages show how this device enabled the magical coloring of metal plates. Amalin refers to the description of how to prolong the life of fruit. This is seen as an alchemical challenge akin to the architect’s confrontation with materiality.

    November 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm