The Enigmatic Alchemical Gate in Rome

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Alchemists of Palazzo Riario and the Mysteries Behind the Gate.

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The Alchemical Gate, known as the Magic Gate or Hermetic Gate, stands as a monument constructed between 1655 and 1681 by Massimiliano Savelli Palombara, the Marquis of Pietraforte (1614-1685), within Villa Palombara. Situated in the eastern countryside of Rome on the Esquiline Hill, it now resides within the picturesque gardens of present-day Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Once part of the elaborate architecture of Villa Palombara, the Alchemical Gate is the sole surviving gate among the original five. While the arch of the lost gate features an inscription indicating a date of 1680, four other inscriptions within the villa have regrettably been lost to time.

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Palazzo Corsini (Palazzo Riario)
Palazzo Corsini (Palazzo Riario). During the seventeenth century, the palace was inhabited by Christina of Sweden, who reportedly hosted the early gatherings of what would later become the Arcadia Academy in the garden (currently located in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica in Piazza di Sant’Agostino). Image source

The Marquis Savelli Palombara’s fascination with alchemy can be traced back to his association with the Roman court of Queen Christina of Sweden at Palazzo Riario (now Palazzo Corsini) on the slopes of Janiculum Hill. This palace, now home to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, witnessed the convergence of distinguished figures in the seventeenth century. Christina, who embraced alchemy and science with ardor, having been tutored by Descartes, maintained an advanced laboratory under the guidance of alchemist Pietro Antonio Bandiera. Noteworthy personalities like the esoteric physician Giuseppe Francesco Borri, the astronomer Giovanni Cassini, the alchemist Francesco Maria Santinelli, and the scholar Athanasius Kircher were affiliated with the academy established at Palazzo Riario.

The renowned legend, relayed by the esteemed scholar Francesco Girolamo Cancellieri in 1802, recounts the tale of a pilgrim known as “stibeum” (derived from the Latin word for antimony) who found lodging in the villa for a night. This traveler, believed to be the alchemist Francesco Giuseppe Borri, spent the evening scouring the villa gardens in search of a mysterious herb capable of transmuting base metals into gold. At daybreak, he vanished through the gate, leaving behind flakes of gold resulting from a successful alchemical transmutation. Additionally, an enigmatic manuscript filled with cryptic symbols and magical imagery, purportedly containing the secrets of the philosopher’s stone, remained as evidence of his endeavor.

The marquis tirelessly attempted to decipher the manuscript’s symbols and enigmas but eventually chose to publicize it by engraving the contents on the five gates of Villa Palombara and its mansion walls. His hope was that someday, an astute individual would unlock its meaning. Intriguingly, due to historical and geographical connections, speculation suggests that this enigmatic manuscript may be linked to the renowned Voynich manuscript. The latter formed part of King Rudolf II of Bohemia’s alchemical texts collection, later bestowed upon her bookseller Isaac Vossius by Christina of Sweden, ultimately finding its way into the hands of the erudite Athanasius Kircher, who had been one of Borri’s instructors at the Jesuit school.

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The Voynich manuscript is an hand-written document, believed to date back to the early 15th century (1404-1438), presents a linguistic puzzle that has yet to be unraveled. Stylistic analysis offers clues that point towards its possible origin in Italy during the time of the Italian Renaissance. However, despite extensive research, the manuscript’s origins, authorship, and purpose remain shrouded in uncertainty, sparking intense debate among experts. Various intriguing hypotheses have emerged, proposing that the script could represent either a natural language or a carefully constructed linguistic system. Alternatively, it is speculated that the text may conceal an unreadable code, cipher, or other cryptographic form, adding another layer of intrigue to its enigmatic nature. Alternatively, some argue that the manuscript could be an elaborate and intricate hoax, devoid of any discernible meaning. The quest to unlock the secrets held within the Voynich manuscript continues to challenge researchers and scholars alike, fueling ongoing fascination and speculation surrounding this remarkable historical artifact.

Giuseppe Francesco Borri, accused of heresy and sorcery by the Holy Inquisition in 1659, embarked on an adventurous life after escaping, practicing medicine across various European cities. Eventually, he faced arrest and imprisonment in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo from 1671 to 1677. Upon being granted semi-liberty in 1678, he reunited with his longtime friend Massimiliano Palombara, who generously hosted him in his villa until his passing in 1685. It was during this period, between 1678 and 1680, that Borri and Palombara etched the enigmatic inscriptions. Notably, at least one inscription within the villa, above the arch of the gate on Via Merulana, can be confidently attributed to the year 1680.

The Palombara villa, now destroyed, is depicted in a 19th-century fresco: on the right, the Magic Gate, next to the building

Borri’s subsequent imprisonment in Castel Sant’Angelo from 1691 until his presumed death in 1695 coincided curiously with the emergence of one of the eighteenth century’s most enigmatic figures: the Count of Saint Germain. This legendary alchemist purportedly discovered the secret of the elixir of long life. Intriguingly, his existence partly overlaps with that of the occultist, adventurer, swindler, alchemist, and esotericist Cagliostro.

Giuseppe Francesco Borri, source

The symbols engraved on the Alchemical Gate find their origins in seventeenth-century alchemical and esoteric philosophy books. Notably, the design adorning the gate’s pediment, featuring two intersecting triangles and Latin inscriptions, was first encountered in Michael Maier’s Viatorum (Oppenheim, 1618). A similar symbol can also be found on the frontispiece of Henricus Madatanus’ allegorical/alchemical book, Aureum Seculum Redivivum. The specific design that inspired Palombara’s version appeared in the posthumous edition of 1677. The gate’s pediment showcases the Seal of David enclosed within a patacca, circumscribed by a Latin inscription-laden circle. An upper cross connects to an inner circle, while the lower point of the hexagram bears an oculus, symbolizing the alchemical sun and gold.

The triangle with the oculus bears a remarkable resemblance to a corresponding symbol—an eye-topped pyramid—found on the United States one-dollar bill. This symbol is accompanied by the Latin phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” akin to the inscription on Aureum Seculum Redivivum’s frontispiece.

One of two statues of the Egyptian god Bes

The alchemical symbols adorning the door jambs of the gate loosely align with the sequence of planets associated with corresponding metals. This sequence, possibly derived from Commentatio de Pharmaco Catholico in Chymica Vannus (1666), progresses as follows: Saturn-lead, Jupiter-tin, Mars-iron, Venus-copper, Moon-silver, Mercury-mercury. Each planet is linked to a hermetic motto, proceeding from bottom to top on the right side and descending from top to bottom on the left side, as guided by the Hebrew motto “Ruach Elohim.” The Alchemical Gate serves as a testament to the historical shift from the inversion of esoteric Christian symbols toward the emerging spiritual paradigm of the seventeenth century.

Porta Magica in Rome, engraving from Henry Carrington Bolton, The Porta Magica, Rome

During the 1980s, vandals defaced the right door jamb (from the viewer’s perspective) by removing the cabalistic symbol of Venus. However, subsequent restoration efforts have reinstated its original form.

The Alchemical Gate, now situated in the northern corner of the gardens within Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, has undergone a relocation. Initially positioned approximately fifty meters from the intersection of Via Carlo Alberto and Via di San Vito, it once lined a perimeter wall that faced Strada Felice. Villa Palombara, nestled between the ancient Strada Felice and Strada Gregoriana (now Via Merulana), occupied this historical context. Strada Felice, a straight thoroughfare commissioned by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, originated from Trinità dei Monti, passed through Santa Maria Maggiore, and culminated at Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

In 1873, the Magic Gate underwent disassembly, with subsequent reconstruction occurring in 1888 within the gardens of Piazza Vittorio. The gate found its new home on an old perimeter wall of the Church of Sant’Eusebio. Accompanying the gate are two statues of the god Bes, originally sourced from the gardens of the Quirinal Palace.

Beyond its historical significance, the Alchemical Gate has made appearances in popular culture. Notably, the early stages of the Tomb Raider: Chronicles – The Legend of Lara Croft video game feature protagonist Lara Croft embarking on a quest in Rome, wherein she seeks the Philosopher’s Stone and attempts to unlock the secrets of the Magic Gate.

Inscriptions

Lost inscriptions

«VILLAE IANVAM TRANANDO RECLVDENS IÀSON OBTINET LOCVPLES VELLVS MEDEAE. 1680» “By crossing the gate of this villa, the discoverer Jason [meaning the alchemist pilgrim] obtains plenty of Medea’s fleece [gold]. 1680”

«AQVA A QVA HORTI IRRIGANTVR NON EST AQVA A QVA HORTI ALVNTVR» “The water with which the gardens are irrigated is not the water from which the gardens are nourished.”

«CVM SOLO SALE ET SOLE SILE» “Be content with only salt [knowledge] and with the sun [reason].”

«SOPHORVM LAPIS NON DATVR LVPIS» “The philosopher’s stone is not given to wolves.”

«QVI POTENTI NATVRAE ARCANA REVELAT MORTEM QVAERIT» “Whoever reveals the secrets of nature to the powerful desires death.”

«HODIE PECVNIA EMITVR SPVRIA NOBILITAS SED NON LEGITIMA SAPIENTIA» “Today money can buy a false nobility but not legitimate wisdom.”

«HOC IN RVRE, CAELI RORE, FVSIS AEQUIS, PHYSIS AQVIS, SOLVM FRACTVM, REDDIT FRVCTVM, DVM CVM SALE NITRI, AC SOLE, SVRGVNT FVMI SPARSI FIMI. ISTVD NEMVS, PARVVS NVMVS, TENET FORMA SEMPER FIRMA, DVM SVNT ORTAE SINE ARTE VITES, PYRA, ET POMA PVRA. HABENS LACVM, PROPE, LVCVM, VBI LVPVS NON, SED LVPVS SAEPE LVDIT; DVM NON LAEDIT MITES OVES, ATQVE AVES; CANIS CVSTOS INTER CASTOS AGNOS FERAS MITTIT FORAS, ET EST AEGRI HVJVS AGRI AER SOLVS VERA SALVS, REPLENS HERBIS VIAS URBIS. SVLCI SATI DANT PRO SITI SCYPHOS VINI. [2] INTROVENI, VIR NON VANVS. EXTRA VENVS. VOBIS, FURES, CLANDO FORES. LABE LOTUS, BIBAS LAETUS MERI MARE, BACCHI MORE. INTER VVAS, Sl VIS, OVAS, ET QVOD CVPIS, GRATIS CAPIS. TIBI PARO, CORDE PVRO, QVICQVID PVTAS, A ME PETAS. DANT HIC APES CLARAS OPES DVLCIS MELLIS, SEMPER MOLLIS. HIC IN SILVAE VMBRA SALVE TV, QVI LVGES, NVNC SI LEGES NOTAS ISTAS, STANS HIC AESTAS, VERA MISTA; FRONTE MOESTA NVNQVAM FLERES, INTER FLORES SI MANERES, NEC MANARES INTER FLETVS, DVM HIC FLATVS AVRAE SPIRANT, VNDE SPERANT MESTAE MENTES INTER MONTES, INTER COLLES, INTER GALLES, ET IN VALLE HVJVS VILLAE, VBI VALLVS CLAVDIT VELLVS. [3] BONVM OMEN, SEMPER AMEN ETIAM PETRAE DVM A PVTRE SVRGVNT PATRE, ITA NOTAS, HIC VIX NATVS, IN HAC PORTA, LVTO PARTA, TEMPVS RIDET, BREVI RODET.» “In this villa, the plowed plains, irrigated by the dew of heaven and equal streams, yield fruit; while, in saltpeter and through the sun, smoke rises from scattered manure. This small forest preserves its unchanging form, while spontaneously grown vines, pears, and pure apples are present. Near the lake, a small grove exists where not the wolf, but the hare often frolics; it plays without harming the gentle sheep and birds. The guardian dog among chaste lambs drives away wild beasts and is the true remedy of this sickly land, filling the city streets with herbs. The cultivated furrows provide wine cups to quench your thirst. Enter, modest man! Venus stays away. To you, thieves, I close the doors secretly. Drink joyfully, with abundance, the pure wine, as Bacchus would. Rejoice among the vineyards and freely take whatever you desire. I prepare for you sincerely whatever you seek. Here, bees produce abundant sweet honey, always gentle. Hail to you who weeps in the shadow of the forest! Now, if you understand these well-known rules, here summer stands, mixed with truth; you would never weep with a mournful face if you stayed among the flowers, nor shed tears while the breezes of this air blow, from which the melancholic minds hope among the mountains, hills, valleys, and in the valley of this villa, where the fence encloses the fleece. A good omen, always amen, even when stones rise from putrefaction, the father so notes, here hardly born, on this door, created from light, time laughs, and quickly decays.”

Inscriptions on the rosette

«TRIA SVNT MIRABILIA DEVS ET HOMO MATER ET VIRGO TRINVS ET VNVS» “There are three wonders: God and man, Mother and Virgin, trine and one.”

«CENTRVM IN TRIGONO CENTRI» “The center is in the triangle of the center.”

Inscriptions on the architrave

«RUACH ELOHIM» “Divine Spirit.”

«HORTI MAGICI INGRESSVM HESPERIVS CVSTODIT DRACO ET SINE ALCIDE COLCHICAS DELICIAS NON GVSTASSET IASON» “The western dragon guards the entrance of the magic garden, and without Hercules, Jason couldn’t taste the delights of Colchis.” [Colchis is an ancient region on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Georgia, notable in Greek mythology as the destination of the Argonauts, a band of heroes in Greek mythology, including the leaders Jason and Hercules, who set out on a quest for the Golden Fleece. In the myth, Jason and the Argonauts travel to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece, a symbol of kingship and authority, which is guarded by a dragon. Hercules, known for his strength and heroism, was among those who accompanied Jason on his quest. The “magic garden” in your context likely refers to the grove in which the Golden Fleece was kept, guarded by the dragon. “The delights of Colchis” probably refer to the successful retrieval of the Golden Fleece and the resultant glory and honor it conferred upon Jason and his crew.]

Inscriptions on the threshold

«SI SEDES NON IS» The motto is twofold, meaning it can be read from left to right in two different ways: “If you sit, you don’t go” and vice versa, “If you don’t sit, you go.”

«EST OPVS OCCVLTVM VERI SOPHI APERIRE TERRAM VT GERMINET SALVTEM PRO POPVLO» “It is the hidden work of the true sage to open the earth so that it may bring forth salvation for the people.”

Inscriptions on the door jamb

«FILIVS NOSTER MORTVVS VIVIT REX AB IGNE REDIT ET CONIVGIO GAVDET OCCVLTO» “Our son, dead, lives; the king returns from the fire and rejoices in secret marriage.”

«SI FECERIS VOLARE TERRAM SUPER CAPVT TVVM EIVS PENNIS AQVAS TORRENTIVM CONVERTES IN PETRAM» “If you make the earth fly over your head, with its wings, you will turn the waters of the torrents into stone.”

«DIAMETER SPHERAE THAV CIRCVLI CRVX ORBIS NON ORBIS PROSVNT» “The diameter of the sphere, the tau of the circle, the cross of the globe are of no use to blind people.”

«QVANDO IN TVA DOMO NIGRI CORVI PARTVRIENT ALBAS COLVMBAS TVNC VOCABERIS SAPIENS» “When black crows give birth to white doves in your home, then you will be called wise.”

«AZOT ET IGNIS DEALBANDO LATONAM VENIET SINE VESTE DIANA» “Mercury and sulfur: by whitening Latona, Diana will come without clothes.”

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