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De aeris transmutationibus. (Reviews).

Giovan Battista della Porta. De aeris transmutationibus Ed. Alfonso Paolella. (Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Giovan Battista della Porta, 14.) Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2000. xlii + 273 pp. L 48.000. ISBN: 88-8114-941-9.

Among the scienziati enlisted by Prince Federico Cesi into his Accademia dei Lincei surely one of the most prolific and iconoclastic was the Neapolitan polymath Giovan Battista della Porta. Nearly seventy when he became associated with Cesi, he had devoted his career to the study and elucidation of some of the major scientific and pseudo-scientific issues that captivated the later Cinquecento. Like his unfortunate contemporary Giordano Bruno, della Porta was a staunch critic of Aristotle's prevailing influence in natural philosophy, and like Bruno he did not hesitate to explore the avenues of natural magic, the art of memory and alternative cosmologies. His collected works, now being published in an authoritative National Edition, include treatises on such diverse subjects as physiognomy, pneumatics, optics and palmistry. His contribution to the same learned body that was to underwrite the publication of Galileo's early astronomical works serves to remind us how diverse were the interests and connections of philosophers of nature in this period.

The De aeris transmutationibus was the last major work of della Porta to appear in print. He penned the dedication to Cesi in 1609 and the work was published at Rome the following year under Zannetto's imprint. It was reprinted by Mascardo in 1614, the year before della Porta's death. It is a complex and important work. Although its format follows the overall structure of Aristotle's Meteorologica, della Porta's treatise in fact presents a comprehensive alternative to the Aristotelian account of atmospheric and terrestrial phenomena. It thus places its author in the company of such thinkers as Bernardino Telesio, Girolamo Cardano, Francesco Patrizi of Cherso and Bruno who attempted to provide new categories and explanative schemes for the study of the natural world. Della Porta rejects Aristotle's account of comets and the Milky Way as sublunar phenomena and revises the Stagirite's treatment of rainbows by applying principles of optics. He presents and criticizes previous explanations of winds, tides, marine salinity, hot springs and earthquakes, and even provides an analysis of such oddities as bloody rain, showers of frogs and the appearance of a new hill in the Campi Flegrei following the devastating earthquake of 1538. It is, in sum, a wide-ranging work which occupies an important place in the history of both science and philosophy.

Alfonso Paolella has produced an excellent redaction, carefully annotated and edited to an exacting standard, utilizing the autograph manuscript preserved in the Archivio dei Lincei. Charts and diagrams are reproduced as they appeared in the editio princeps. His work represents a major contribution to the new edition of della Porta's writings and makes available to a wide audience a treatise which calls for greater study and analysis than it has hitherto received.
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Author:Purnell, Frederick, Jr.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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