PORTA, Giambattista della.

PORTA, Giambattista della. De distillationibus libri IX

Strasbourg, Lazarus Zetzner, 1609


4to, pp. (xvi), 149, (xi). Roman and italic letter, rare Greek. Printer’s device to t-p, woodcut floriated initials, ornated headpiece and tailpiece. Full-page engraved oval portrait of Porta to verso of t-p, within decorated border of animals, plants, putti, faces, scrolls, geometric diagrams, measuring instruments and alembics, signed “Ia: ab Heiden fec.”. 35 quarter to half-page charming woodcuts depicting distillation apparatus. General age yellowing, light age browning to a couple of gatherings, intermittent light waterstains to lower outer margins, horizontal fold to one fol. partly hiding one line. A good copy in contemporary English or Scottish vellum, covers a bit stained in places, ms. title and stamp of Sir James St Clair-Erskine, 2nd Earl of Rosslyn (1762 – 1837, a phoenix raising from the flames, with motto: ‘Rinasce più gloriosa’) to spine. C18 Baroque armorial bookplate of Lord Sinclair with motto ‘fide sed pugna’ to front paste down, ms. cancelled initials below.

A good copy of this beautifully illustrated and fascinating treatise on distillation by Della Porta, in its second edition. The first was published in Rome the year before. The work is dedicated to the important scientist Federigo Cesi (1585-1630), founder of the prestigious ‘Accademia dei Lincei’ in Rome, one of the oldest European scientific institutions.

Often referred to as “professor of secrets”, the Neapolitan Giovan Battista della Porta (1535-1615) was a polymath and playwright. He was at the centre of a wide scholarly network including Galileo and known throughout Europe for his works in a multitude of fields: astrology, magic, natural hilosophy, optics, alchemy, chemistry, cryptography, meteorology. His plays are considered among the best Italian comedies of his age. The splendid engraved portrait depicts Della Porta surrounded by the objects of his studies. “While the left side of his portrait [with illustrations of plants, animals, human faces] alludes to his knowledge of nature, the right side displays the variety of human artifice. Astrology, geometry, optics, military technology, secret ciphers, and the alemnics used in alchemical and chemical experiments encircle this half of Della Porta’s image. […] The 1608 portrait established his control of all forms of knowledge” (Findlen) “in this image, a total representation of the work of the author is realized, a micromuseum of his activities and […] the best discoveries of a lifetime of research” (Rak) It was realised by the Flemish engraver, painter and sculptor Jakob van der Heyden (1573–1645).

Della Porta was a practitioner in the chemical transformation of substances, and his ‘De distillationibus libri IX’, also known as ‘De Distillatione’, is a lengthy treatise on the subject. It represents an expansion of the section on distillation in his earlier ‘Magia Naturalis’, in which he explained that “essences” can be distilled from almost every natural object and contain the characteristic properties of those objects in a very potent form. Book I introduces the practice of distillation, listing all the different methods that can be used, accompanied by images of various contemporary chemical apparatus. The most curious woodcuts are those depicting chemical vessels likened to animals: for example, a matrass is compared to an ostrich, other flasks to a bird, a tortoise, a bear, a pelican and a seven-headed mythological creature. The other eight books are concerned with the substances that can be extracted, such as scented waters, oils, resins and their properties. We find the instructions for the distillation of ‘the colours from flowers’, ‘aqua vitae from wine”, and, in the last chapter, the description of oils extracted from amber and scorpions.

James St. St Clair-Erskine (1762 – 1837) was a was a Scottish soldier, politician, and Acting Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, on behalf of King George IV. Born James Erskine, he succeeded his father as 6th baronet of Erskine at the age of three. After inheriting the Rosslyn estates from his cousin James Patterson St. Clair, in 1789, he added ‘St. Clair’ to his name. In 1805, he succeeded his uncle as 2nd Earl of Rosslyn.

USTC 2137750; VD17 39:120254Q; Graesse V, p. 417; Ferguson p. 215. Not in BM STC, Brunet, this ed not in Bibliotheca Chemico-Mathematica, Kraus. P. Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (1994). M. Rak, L’immagine stampata e la diffusione del sapere scientifico a Napoli tra Cinquecento e Settecento (1987).

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