Lesson 1) Gateway to Knowledge
Hello everyone and welcome to your first year of N.E.W.T. level Alchemy! I would first like to congratulate you on completing your O.W.L. exams with a satisfactory grade. Finding seven small keys throughout three different floors of the castle is no easy task, and neither is sitting through a lengthy exam. I am delighted that you decided to continue your studies in the alchemical arts and I will do everything that I can to prepare you for the N.E.W.T.s as well as for when you depart from the castle.
This year we'll be discussing a variety of topics involving the subject of mysticism in alchemy. We will be delving into things such as aether, homunculi, transmutation involving the four aspects, and even the Philosopher’s Stone. While this year will be more discussion and theory-based, Year Seven will be taking on a practical approach and will be lab-based. I hope you are as excited as I am about the many wonders of the alchemical unknown. Without further ado, let’s move on to our first topic of the year.
One of the most puzzling relics in the alchemical field is Porta Alchemica, a gate inside the park or garden area of the Piazza Vittorio district in Rome, Italy. This door was one of five gates in a villa belonging to Marquis Massimiliano Palombara of Pietraforte. The marquis, a squib, was propelled by his desire to learn more about magic through his own minimal knowledge of the wizarding world due to his upbringing. Not only did he delve into fields such as alchemy and Kabbalah, but at some point he deviated into the occult. Porta Alchemica and the other four gates were built between 1678 and 1680, only years before the International Statute of Secrecy was put into place. Today, only Porta Alchemica remains from his villa, and although Palombara was a squib, this door holds various alchemical inscriptions that are said to contain a near-perfect transmutation recipe created by the alchemist Giuseppe Francesco Borri as well as various other secrets inscribed in alchemy symbols. Even more interesting, there are some alchemists that believe the gate itself is a magical doorway and that the instructions to activate it are encrypted in the inscriptions. Ah, I see some of you seem to have some questions about this new information. While I am not an expert on magical doorways in the slightest, I do believe Madame Fox will be happy to address your inquiries if you ask politely.
Before we go into depth about Porta Alchemica itself, let’s discuss Borri and how the legend came to be. Giuseppe Francesco Borri (1627-1695), who was a renowned alchemist, iatrochemist, and healer at the time, led a very thrilling life. He had ties to various figures of the nobility, such as Queen Christina of Sweden, a devoted alchemist herself, who abdicated her throne and moved to Rome. His ties to Marquis Palombara were perhaps even more intriguing. Borri, who was disguised as a Jesuit pilgrim named Stibeum, snuck into the gardens of Villa Palombara overnight and was caught gathering herbs. In particular, he was searching for an herb that he believed could concoct gold. Borri was brought to Marquis Palombara and, knowing that the nobleman had done extensive research in alchemy, he declared that he was an alchemist himself and that he was able to perform transmutations for the marquis. Palombara was highly skeptical of Borri, though he allowed him to show his talents and watched Borri perform various transmutations before his eyes. In return, Borri asked for hospitality in a room connected to the laboratory, keys to the laboratory, and to know Palombara’s own methods of research. He stated that he would explain everything to Palombara only after being allowed to watch him work. After observing Palombara’s work, Borri decided he needed solitude and retreated to his room before Palombara was able to ask him about his transmutation methods. In the morning, Borri was nowhere to be found as he had escaped through a window overnight. However, he left behind an overturned crucible, gold, and papers that had notes and alchemical symbols scribbled on them in the laboratory. Although Palombara knew plenty about alchemy through his own research, he failed to interpret Borri’s notes and ordered the symbols to be carved in several places around the mansion, including Porta Alchemica. The marquis had done this in the hope that someone who would visit the villa in the future would be able to decipher these notes. Since these inscriptions came from Borri’s own notes, the inscriptions of Porta Alchemica can’t be written off by present-day alchemists as the ramblings of a squib.
After the incident that led to Palombara having Porta Alchemica built, a major plague broke out around Naples, which quickly spread to Rome in 1657. Borri quickly fled to Milan, his hometown, and contacted the Milanese Quietist milieu (which was based on the writings of Miguel de Molinos, who we learned about in Alchemy Year Three). Eventually Borri became the figurehead of the Quietist movement in Milan, however, this was short lived as he was prosecuted by the Milanese Inquisition for heresy and alchemical poisoning shortly after. He fled Italy into Switzerland and eventually ended up in Denmark, taking up a position in Frederick III’s court as an alchemist and the king’s most trusted councilor. When Christian V ascended to the Danish throne in 1670, Borri’s monetary funds began to deplete and he decided to travel to Turkey. Unfortunately for him, he was arrested in Moravia and turned over to the Vatican by Emperor Leopold I of Austria. The Pope decreed that Borri was to be imprisoned for life, however, he only stayed in jail until 1678 thanks to his noble friends, who convinced the Church to grant him semi-liberty. Borri was able to furnish his own laboratory, continue to practice alchemy, and visit his noble friends in their mansions for alchemical purposes. His reputation as healer was well-known once again in the Roman courts, until Christina of Sweden died in 1689, that is. Pope Innocent XII revoked Borri’s privileges and the alchemist unfortunately died of ague in prison in 1695 due to his own prescribed treatment (quinquina bark and ashwinder eggs) arriving too late.
Now that we have some background, let’s look at the door itself. To the left is a drawing and transcription of Porta Alchemica. There are some symbols that you may recognize, and if you know Latin you may be able to decipher the phrases. I would also like to mention that the translations in this section are loose, so I apologize in advance if they are not correct word for word. The gate also has two statues of short bearded creatures on both sides, seeming to guard the entryway. Interestingly enough, these statues are not from Villa Palombara at all. In fact, the statues, along with other relics, were found near Quirinal Hill and relocated to other parts of Rome in 1888, including Porta Alchemica. There was an ancient temple dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis located on Quirinal Hill centuries ago, from where these relics are assumed to have originated from. Due to the location and resemblance, the statues are believed to be representations of the ancient Egyptian deity Bes, who was known in imperial Rome as a patron of the home and childbirth.
The emblem at the top of the door is actually on the title page of Aureum Saeculum Redivivum by Adrian von Mynsicht (also known as Henricus Madathanus), which is an allegorical alchemy work that dates back to the early 1620s. However, the emblem that Palombara took was from the posthumous edition that was published in 1677. There are two triangles overlapped (Seal of Solomon), a cross, an inner circle, and an outer circle. The inner circle is inscribed with the phrase, “Centrum in trigono centri,” which translates to, “The center is in the triangle of the center.” The outer circle states, “Tria sunt mirabilia deus et homo mater et virgo trinus et unus,” meaning, “There are three marvels: God and man, mother and virgin, triune and one.” The inner circle is also sometimes considered to look similar to the Eye of Providence, which is commonly found on American Muggle dollar bills, however the symbol itself has been around since 1646 in John Greaves’ book Pyramidographia.
Directly underneath the emblem is the Hebrew phrase “Ruach Elohim” which translates to “Spirit of God.” Although this and the inscription in the outer circle of the emblem may seem very religious, I would like to point out that in Year Three we discussed that Christian terms were often used by alchemists to throw off suspicion from the Catholic Church. The context of “God” here may be closer to a divine truth of sorts or the One Thing which is discussed in Hermeticism. Under the Hebrew phrase on the architrave is the inscription, “Horti magici ingressum hesperius custodit draco et sine alcide colchicas delicias non gustasset Jason,” which is, “A dragon guards the entrance of the magic garden of the Hesperides, and, without Heracles, Jason would not have tasted the delights of Colchis.” Obviously, this is a reference to the Greek myth of Heracles tricking Atlas into retrieving golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides as well as Jason and the Argonauts. I won’t delve too much into the myths as I believe Professor Wessex discussed them in Mythology Year Five, Lesson Two.
The symbols inscribed into the sides of Porta Alchemica are either a reference to a planet or a metal. Looking at the left side of the door, we see the following symbols from top to bottom: Saturn or lead, Mars or iron, and Mercury or quicksilver. The symbols on the right are: Jupiter or tin, Venus or copper, and antimony. Notice how there are subtle differences between the symbols on the door and the symbols that you have been commonly exposed to throughout my course. There are numerous alternate ways to write symbols with the same meaning, however, it’s important to recognize them and what they correlate to, no matter how different they may be drawn. For example, the Saturn symbol will almost always have a sickle or scythe in it as a reference to the Roman god of agriculture and time.
The side inscriptions are translated as such:
- Saturn (lead) - “When in your house black crows give birth to white doves, then will you be called wise.”
- Jupiter (tin) - “The diameter of the sphere, the tau in the circle, and the cross of the globe bring no joy to the blind.”
- Mars (iron) - “He who can burn with water and wash with fire makes a heaven of earth and a precious earth of heaven.”
- Venus (copper) - “If you make the earth fly upside down, with its wings you may convert torrential waters to stone.”
- Mercury (quicksilver) - “When azoth and fire whiten Latona, Diana comes unclothed.”
- Antimony - “Our dead son lives, returns from the fire a king, and enjoys occult conjugation.”
At the base of the door is the symbol for vitriol, which is a highly corrosive form of sulfuric acid infused with iron, but also an acronym for “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem,” or “Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying what you find there, you will discover the hidden stone.” We will be looking at this in further detail in a later lesson. The Porta Alchemica inscription next to the vitriol translates to, “It is an occult work of true wisdom to open the earth, so that it may generate salvation for the people.” The upper surface of the door’s step has “Si sedes non is” etched into it. If read left to right, it says, “if you sit, you do not proceed”; however, reading the phrase right to left says, “if you do not sit, you proceed.”
What does this mean when you combine all of the meanings together? Although I have my own theories, it’s important for you to come up with an interpretation on your own. In fact, you will get a chance to explain your own interpretation in your assignment today. Please do not overthink your explanation for this door. The overall meaning is so intrinsically hidden behind the combination of the language and symbols that even professional alchemists have a hard time deciphering it. Feel free to pull knowledge from previous years to aid you in your pondering.
That being said, how about that for a start to the year? As always, let me or my Head Students know if you have any questions. I look forward to meeting with all of you again next time!