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May022010

Books of Secrets

 One of the most popular genres in early modern science publishing, the collections of recipes known as "books of secrets" began to stream from the presses in the mid-sixteenth century and were printed continuously down to the eighteenth century. These popular works contained hundreds of medical recipes, household hints, and technical recipes on metallurgy, alchemy, dyeing, and the making of perfume, oil, incense, and cosmetics. The books of secrets supplied a great deal of practical information to an emerging new middle-class readership, leading some historians to link them with the emerging secularist values of the early modern period and to see them as contributing to the making of an "age of how-to."

However, the books of secrets were not merely "how-to" books. They were also intended as serious contributions to the study of natural philosophy, as science was then called. Underlying the books of secrets was the premise that nature was a repository of hidden forces that might be discovered and manipulated by using the right techniques. Unlike the recondite contemporary treatises on magic and the occult arts, the books of secrets were grounded upon concrete, experimental trials. At the same time, the books of secrets popularized the emerging experimental method and attitudes to the lay public.

The most famous sixteenth-century book of secrets was a work attributed to Alessio Piemontese, I Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio Piemontese (1555; The secrets of Alessio). Alessio's Secreti went through more than a hundred editions and was still being reprinted in the 1790s. The humanist Girolamo Ruscelli (1500–1566), the real author of the Secreti, reported that the work contained the experimental results of an "Academy of Secrets" that he and a group of humanists and noblemen founded in Naples in the 1540s. Ruscelli's academy is the first recorded example of an experimental scientific society. The academy was later imitated by Giambattista Della Porta, who founded an Accademia dei Secreti in Naples in the 1560s.

Alessio Piemontese was the prototypical "professor of secrets." The description of Alessio's hunt for secrets in the preface to the Secreti gave rise to a legend of the wandering empiric in search of technological and scientific secrets. Its enormous popularity made the work play a key role in the emergence of the conception of science as a hunt for the secrets of nature. The concept of science as a hunt pervaded experimental science during the scientific revolution.

In the books of secrets, experimental science shaded into natural magic. Giambattista Della Porta's famous Magia Naturalis (1558; Natural magic) deployed practical recipes in an effort to demonstrate the principles of natural magic. Other books of secrets, such as Isabella Cortese's Secreti (1564), a compilation of alchemical recipes, disseminated experimental techniques and practical information to a wide readership. Recent research has suggested that the books of secrets played an important role in the emergence of early modern experimental science, acting as intermediaries between the private and esoteric "secrets" of medieval alchemists and magi and the public Baconian "experiments" that characterized the research programs of the Royal Society of London and other seventeenth-century experimental academies.

Bibliography

Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, 1994.

Ferguson, John K. Bibliographical Notes on Histories of Inventions and Books of Secrets. 2 vols. London, 1959.

—WILLIAM EAMON

 

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