Mysteries of Rome, volume 2: The Alchemical Door and the lost Villa Palombara

Rome is the city in the word that mostly evokes ancient glories and extraordinary historical events. Moving along the stone pavement leading to the Colosseum until the Circus Maximus, or moving across the Imperial Fora and the triumphal arches of the city, we perceived a fascinating and peerless atmosphere. Nonetheless, Rome has a hidden soul. It is that of esotericism and ancient cults, whose memory was lost along the time. Vestiges of this forgotten and mysterious past are spread all over the city. The Alchemical Door is one of them. It is the manifesto of the esoteric knowledge of the city during the XVII century.

The Alchemical Door represents, without doubts, one of the most mysterious monuments of the world. It is composed by a stone structure, whose jambs show esoteric and initiatory engravings. One of them is a Latin writing whose meaning is variably interpretable, and a rich alchemical symbolism.

 

Palombara
Piazza Vittorio gardens and the Alchemical Door.

 

 

The Alchemical Door of Villa Palombara

The Alchemical Door is located in the Gardens of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Its location goes back to the 1888, when it was leaned against an old wall of the external perimeter of the Church of Saint Eusebio. Laterally two stone statues representing the Egyptian god Bes were added to it. Still today, these statues ideally watch over the door, although originally they were in the gardens of the Palazzo del Quirinale.

 

However, it is supposed the Alchemical Door was not so far from the present location. It was the main entrance of a famous villa located in the Esquiline Hill, near the gardens of the Piazza Vittorio. The building took its name, Villa Palombara, by its owner, the Marquis of Pietraforte: Massimiliano Savelli Palombara. An inscription located on a lost arch of the villa allows to identify the dating (1680).

 

La Porta Alchemica di Villa Palombara
The Alchemical Door of the Villa Palombara.

 

Villa Palombara

Villa Palombara would have been a bizarre building. The marquis of Pietraforte was a passionate of esoteric sciences; the construction of the building followed specified initiatory criteria. Massimiliano Savelli Palombara wanted the edification of five doors and next to each of them he asked the engraving of strange symbols. Unfortunately, the Villa Palombara was lost in 1883, when it was completely demolished to construct the new Esquiline district. What we know now about the enigmatic structure is due to the literary work of Francesco Girolamo Cancellieri, who transcripted the text of some lost engravings.

 

The lost inscriptions of the Villa Palombara

Instead, Giambattista Visconti and Filippo Waqvier de LaBarthe, refer of a singular Statue of Discobolus inside the Villa Palombara. The sculpture should appear as like a focal center of the building, a kind of hermetic personification of the place where it was located. Additionally, it is possible the sculpture was, in a certain way, linked to the enigmatic engravings of the villa.

One of them was located near one of the boundary walls, and it appeared such bizarre: 

“Hoc in Rure, Coeli Rore, fusis Aequis, Physis Aquis, Solum fractum, reddit fructum, dumcum Sale Nitri, Ac Sole, surgunt Fumi sparsi fimi. Istud Nemus, parvus Numus tenet forma sempre firma, dum sunt ortae sine arte Vites, pyra, et Poma pura. Habens Lacum, prope Lucum, ubi Lupus non, sed Lepus saepe ludit; dum non laedit mites Oves, atqua Aves; Canis Custos inter castos agnos Feras mittit foras, et est aegri huius Agri Aer solus vera salus, replens herbis vias Urbis. Sulci sati dant pro siti Scyphos Vini.

Intro veni, Vir non vanus. Extra Venus. Vobis, Fures claudo Fores Labe lotus, bibas laetus Meri Mare, Bacchi more.Inter Uvas, si vis, ovas, et quod cupis, gratis capis. Tibi paro, corde puro, quicquid putas, a me petas. Dant hic Apes claras opes dulcis mellis. semper mollis. Hic in Sylvae umbra salve Tu,qui luges. Nunc si leges notas istas, stans hic Aestas, vere mista; fronte moesta nunquamfleres, inter flores si maneres, nec manares inter fletus, dum hic platus aure spirant, undesperant mestae mentes inter Montes, inter Colles, inter Calles et in Valle huius Villae, ubi Vallus Claudit Vellus Bonum Omen; sempre Amen. Etiam Petrae dum a putre surgunt Patre, ita notas hic vix natus, in hac Porta, Luto parta, tempus ridet, brevi rodet”. [Annotazioni, Francesco Cancellieri].

 

The translation

In this villa, dew of the sky, from the plowed fields and the flowing waters, the unearthed earth bears fruit, while for the saltpetre and the sun rises the smoke of the scattered manure. This immutable, unchanging forest always retains its appearance, while vines, pears and fruit are born spontaneously. And there is a lake, near the wood, where not the wolf, but the hare plays often; and does not harm the mild sheep and the birds; the guardian dog among the innocent lambs makes the beasts run away, and only the air of this campaign is a means of healing for the sick, and fills the streets of the city with vegetables. The cultivated furrows give cups of wine.

Come in, sincere man. Out of Venus. I close the doors to you, thieves. Drink a sincere, profuse, sincere wine, according to the custom of Bacchus. Among the grapes, if you want, rejoice, and freely take whatever you want. I prepare you whatever you want to ask me. Here the clear bees provide plenty of sweet honey, always soft. Hail to you, who weep here in the shadow of the forest.

If you read these signs now, staying here in the summer mixed with spring; you would never cry with a sad forehead, if you remained among the flowers, nor would you pour tears, while here the breezes blow, whence the melancholy souls hope in the mountains, among the hills, between the paths, and in the valley of this villa, where a palisade encloses the sheep. I wish you well, so be it forever. But you, as soon as you can, write here, on this door, generated by the mud –  the stones are born from putrefaction – that time smiles, but in a short time it destroys everything“.

 

The esoteric meaning of the inscription

Hence, Villa Palombara (here the dew of the sky) is a big representation of the Alchemical Opera. The Magnum Opus represented the path of initiation towards the Philosopher’s Stone. There was a conception according to which, thanks to various alchemical processes, it was possible to transform each metal into golden (the transmutation), to obtain immortality and to discern good from evil in any moment (the omniscience). Therefore, the access to the villa was allowed only to people who wanted to start the initiatic path with pure heart and clear mind. Contrariwise, layman had to stay far from it, since they were blinded by the lust of power and material goods.

 

 

Representation of the three phases of the Magnum Opus, Georges Aurach – Pretiosissimum Donum Dei (1415)

 

Further inscriptions of the Villa Palombara

Villae ianuam tranando recludens iason obtinet locuples vellus  medeae. 1680 Going beyond the door of this villa, the discoverer Jason obtains Medea’s fleece. 1680.
 

Aqua a qua horti irrigantur non est aqua a qua hort aluntur.

The water from which the gardens are irrigated is not the water from which they are fed.
Cum solo sale et sole sile.  

Keep calm with just the salt and the sun.

Sophorum lapis non datur lupis. The Philosopher’s Stone is not given to wolves.
Qui potenti naturae arcana revelat mortem quaerit. The one who reveals the arcana of nature to the great desires death.
Hodie pecunia emitur spuria nobiltas sed non legitima sapientia. Today with money you can buy an illegitimate nobility, but not legitimate wisdom.

 

[Epistolary dissertations of G. B. V. e F. Waquier de la Barthe over the statue of the Discobolus].

 

 The marquis of Palombara and the legend of the occurred transmutation.

 The report of the context in which Villa Palombara is embedded and its perennial dissertations about this don’t represent a simple style exercise. Contrariwise, they allow to delineate the sense framework in which the Alchemical Door embeds and is born, in order to have a wide understanding. Before studying the enigmatic symbolism of the monument, it is necessary to describe its old owner, as well as the event that allowed its construction.

According to a widespread legend, the magic door would have been constructed to celebrate the occurred transmutation at the laboratory in Palazzo Riario. This was an ancient Roman palace, location of an academy attended by people fascinated by alchemy. Among them, there were the esoteric doctor Borri, the alchemist Santinelli and the marquis Palombara. According to the legend, a “pilgrim”, who was the doctor Borri, was hosted in the Villa Palombara for a night. He went into the gardens of the villa to look for a grass able to produce golden. The following morning, Borri was seen moving away through the entrance of the villa,  leaving behind gold specks, the result of a successful alchemical transmutation! Moreover, the doctor left some strange papers as a gift. They appeared full of enigmas and magic symbols, that would contain the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone.

 

The possible connections with the Voynich manuscript

Following this event, the marquis Palombara would have decided to have engraved the signs and enigmas left by Borri in each of the five doors of the villa, with the hope someone, one day, could decode them. 

According to some conjectures, the papers would be part of the famous Voynich manuscript. It is an illustrated code of the XV century, known for the oddness of its content. Even today it has not been decoded. Inside the manuscript, composed by 204 pages, there is a long series of enigmatic representations, interspersed with an encrypted writing system. Particularly, the volume is composed by four sections that deal with botany, astronomy, biology and pharmacology respectively. Whilst in the first chapters representations are limited to unknown plants and vegetables, in the remaining part of the manuscript there are disturbing figures of strange humanoids without clothes. This contributed to consider the book as the “most mysterious of the World”, as pointed out by the teacher of medieval philosophy, Robert Brumbaugh.

 

Two pages of the mysterious Voynich manuscript.

 

The origins of the Voynich manuscript and Athanasius Kircher

The name of the manuscript was given by Wilfrid Voynich, who found it in the Jesuit college of Villa Mondragone, in Frascati. Inside the volume a letter by the rector of the Prague University, Johannes Marcus Marci, addressed to his friend Athanasius Kircher, was found. The academic sent the manuscript to Kircher to be decoded. Nevertheless, he was not only a great polygraph of the time, but he was passionate with esotericism and alchemical sciences. Not surprisingly, Kircher himself was the master of the alchemist Giuseppe Francesco Borri, precisely the one who more than any other is inextricably linked to the Alchemical Door of Rome.

Is it possible, then, that Athanasius Kircher bequeathed the precious Voynich manuscript to his most trusted disciple Francesco Borri? And if so, why? What secrets does the indecipherable volume contain? Secrets that would have allowed Borri to transmute metal into gold at Villa Palombara, just a few years later.

 

The symbolism of the Alchemical Door

This representation resembles, in particular, the pyramid with the pointed tip that can be found on the title page of the allegorical/alchemical text Aureum Seculum Redivivum by Henricus Madatanus (pseudonym of Adrian von Mynsicht, 1603-1638). Moreover, it brings to mind the same symbology on the US dollar bill, suggesting a common historiographical matrix. In particular, it is known that the pyramid with the sharp point (or Eye of Providence) was the symbol of a famous secret society in the Germany of the 8th century : the Illuminati.

The jambs of the Alchemical Door host a vast allegory of alchemical symbols. Particularly, the sequence of planets associated with the corresponding metals (Saturn-lead; Jupiter-tin; Mars-iron; Venus-copper; Moon-silver; Mercury-mercury). The arrangement is quite random, and follows the inspiration from the Hebrew motto רוח אלהים, Ruach Elohim (Nothing can be accomplished without his help). The door must therefore be interpreted as the key to understanding a radical change. It ideally represents the threshold that man must cross to reach enlightenment, gnosis, the spiritual transformation that elevates him to a higher stage of consciousness.

 

 

Palombara
Upper portion of the Alchemical Door [1].

Epigraphs on the Alchemical Door

The following inscription is engraved on the circular frame of the seal:

 

 

Tria sunt mirabilia deus et homo mater et virgo trinus et unus.

 

Three are the wonderful things: God and man, Mother and virgin, triune and one.

 

On the underside of the seal:

Centrum in trigoni centri The center is in the central triangle.

 

On the lintel:

Horti magici ingressum Hesperius custodit draco et sine Alcide colchicas delicias non gustasset Iason. The Esperio dragon guards the entrance to the magical garden and, without Hercules, Jason could not taste the delights of Colchis.

 

On the threshold of the door:

 

Est opus occultum veri sophi aperire terram ut germinet salutem pro populo

It is the occult work of the true wise person to open the earth, so that it may let to sprout salvation for the people.
Si sedes non is “If you sit don’t go” or “If you don’t sit go” reversing the palindrome direction of reading.

 

On the jambs:

Si feceris volare terram super caput tuum eius pennis aquas torrentium convertes in petram.  If you have made the earth fly over your head with its feathers you will turn the waters of the streams into stone.
Quando in tua domo nigri corvi parturient albas columbas tunic vocaberis sapiens. When in your house black crows will give birth to white doves, then you will be called wise.
Filius noster mortuus vivit rex ab igne redit et coniugio gaudet occulto. Our son, dead and alive, returns as a king from the fire and enjoys of the occult marriage.
Diameter spherae thau circuli crux orbis non orbis prosunt The diameter of the sphere, the tau of the circle, the cross of the globe do not help blind people.
Qui scit comburere aqua et lavare igne facit de terra caelum et de caelo terram pretiosam Whoever knows how to burn with water and wash with fire, makes earth the sky and the sky a precious earth.

 

And finally:

Azot et Ignis dealbando latonam veniet sine veste diana Nitrogen and Fire: bleaching Latona, Diana will come without a dress

 

Conclusions

The Alchemical Door of Rome is, as can be seen from the symbolism and epigraphs engraved on it, a glaring allegory of the basic principle “solve et coagula”, so dear to the 17th century hermeticists. This was the founding logos of the spiritual transformation of man, explained through the passages between the different stages of matter (lead, silver, mercury etc.). “Dissolving and reuniting” lead in the noblest gold means to eliminate the old man to access the true essence of himself. It is a difficult path, reserved for the initiated  only (it is the occult work of the true wise person) and not suitable for the profane ([…] the cross of the globe does not help blind people).

The Alchemical Door is the threshold that the initiate must cross to access the path, it is the representation of the inner will that drives him to perfection (If you sit do not go). This inner transmutation is expressed by the solve of the most elementary matter (also called salt) and, as the impurities are eliminated, ends with the attainment of the highest purity stage, the Philosopher’s Stone. This is the stage of the deepest knowledge, of the one who died, lives, returns as king from the fire and enjoys of the occult marriage.

 

 

Samuele Corrente Naso e Daniela Campus

 

NOTE

 

[1] Photo by Sailko – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=869923