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Giambattista Della Porta

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1 Nov 1535

Vico Equense (near Naples), Italy

4 Feb 1615

Naples, Italy

Giambattista della Porta was educated at home where discussions on scientific topics frequently took place. His father, from 1541, was in the service of Emperor Charles V and della Porta was well educated by private tutors. Charles V was Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain at this time and his empire extended across Europe to the Netherlands, Austria and the Kingdom of Naples.

Della Porta travelled widely in Italy, France and Spain always returning to his estate near Naples where he was able to study in peace. He never needed to earn a living as the wealth of the family seems to have been sufficient to allow della Porta to devote himself to study.

In 1579 della Porta moved to Rome and entered the service of Luigi, cardinal d'Este, and frequented the court of Duke Alfonso II d'Este at Ferrara. He also lived in Venice while working for the Cardinal. In fact he was one of a number of dramatists who worked for the Cardinal, like Torquato Tasso, the greatest Italian poet of the late Renaissance. Della Porta, however, also undertook scientific work for the Cardinal, making optical instruments for him while in Venice.

Della Porta's work was wide ranging and, having studied refraction in De refractione, optices parte (1593), he claimed to be the inventor of the telescope although he does not appear to have constructed one before Galileo .

Other topics he wrote on include cryptography in De furtivis literarum (1563), mechanics and squaring the circle . He was the first to propose adding a convex lens to the camera obscura. He described a steam engine in De' spiritali (1606) and he was the first to recognise the heating effect of light rays.

Della Porta formed a society, Accademia dei Segreti dedicated to discussing and studying nature, which had regular meetings at his home. This Society was closed down by the Inquisition about 1578 after they examined della Porta. In 1585 he joined the Jesuit Order but his support of the Roman Catholic Church did not prevent the Inquisition from banning publication of his work between 1594 and 1598.

Della Porta's major work is Magia naturalis (1558), in which he examines the natural world claiming it can be manipulated by the natural philosopher through theoretical and practical experiment. The work discusses many subjects including demonology, magnetism and the camera obscura.

Della Porta also published Villae (1583-92), an agricultural encyclopaedia and De distillatione (1609), describing his work in chemistry.

Source:School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland