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Giambattista della Porta

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Giambattista della Porta.
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Giambattista della Porta.

Giambattista della Porta (1538-1615). Scholar and polymath who lived in Naples, Italy. A child prodigy, Della Porta was educated at home where scientific discussions occurred. The wealth acquired from the ownership of several estates ensured that he could devote his life to his studies. His most famous work first published in 1558 entitled Natural Magic was expanded into 20 books in 1584 and translated from Latin into several European languages.

Della Porta founded the Ostiosi (Men of Leisure) an early scientific society, a condition of membership being to demonstrate a new discovery in the natural sciences. The Academia Secretorum Naturae was suspected of dabbling in the Occult and Della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V. The Society was closed down by the Inquisition but Della Porta defended and justified his search for truth in nature. He was cautioned and allowed to continue his studies of investigating nature's properties.

In 1586 Della Porta published a work on Physiognomy which later influenced the Swiss Pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). Della Porta wrote extensively upon a wide spectrum of subjects throughout his life - including an agricultural encyclopaedia entitled Villa, as well as works on Meteorology Optics and Astronomy.

His work Phytognomica lists plants according to their geographical location. In a later edition of his Natural Magic, Della Porta described a Camera Obscura with a convex lens; though he wasn't the inventor of this technical refinement, the popularity of his work helped spread knowledge of the device.

In later life Della Porta collected rare specimens from the natural world and grew exotic plants. His private Museum was visited by travellers and was one the earliest examples of Natural History Museuems. It inspired the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher to begin a similar collection in Rome. Della Porta also wrote fourteen prose comedies and two dramatic tragedies which became source material for several 17th century dramatists. Della Porta's works are well-represented in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne by no less than six titles.

Cryptography

In 1563, he published De Furtivis Literarum Notis, a work in cryptography, which described the first known polygraphic substitution cipher, and made advances towards the concept of polyalphabetic substitution. Charles J. Mendelsohn commented, "He was, in my opinion, the outstanding cryptographer of the Renaissance. Some unknown who worked in a hidden room behind closed doors may possibly have surpassed him in general grasp of the subject, but among those whose work can be studied he towers like a giant."

Works

Natural Magic 1558 expanded to 20 books 1589. English translation 1658 Available online at [[1] (http://members.tscnet.com/pages/omard1/jporta3.html)]

De furtivis Literarum Notis (1563) On secret codes and Cryptography

Villa (1583-92) An agricultural encyclopaedia

De humana physiognomia (1586) On Physiognomy

De refractione optices (1589) On Optics

De aeris transmutanionbus (1609) On Meteorology

De distillatione (1610) Della Porta's chemical experiments and observations.

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