January 30, 2011

Raimondo di Sangro, The Prince of Alchemists

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero
By Niccolò Graffio
“All scientific men were formerly accused of practicing magic. And no wonder, for each said to himself: ‘I have carried human intelligence as far as it will go, and yet So-and-so has gone further than I. Ergo, he has taken to Sorcery.’” – C.L. de Montesquieu: Persian Letters, CXLV, 1721
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic play Faust, the protagonist, Heinrich Faust, sells his soul to the Devil (Mephistopheles) in exchange for infinite knowledge and worldly pleasures. Faust, a scholar who was a member of the aristocracy, made the infernal deal due to his despairing belief in the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning.

Goethe’s character was fictional, though many believe he was an aggregate of several historical personages. The play, considered to be one of the greatest works of German literature, is taken by many to be an allegory for man’s insatiable and never ending quest for knowledge.

Faust-like characters permeate the history of the world, and their endeavors in the arts and sciences have brought us, for better or for worse, to where we are as a species today. Their knowledge-at-all-costs attitude often brought them fame and fortune, but just as often brought them ruin and disrepute. Even our people, the children of i Due Sicilie, have produced some. This article is dedicated to one of them.

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, was born on January 30th, 1710 in the town of Torremaggiore in the Kingdom of Naples. The main source of knowledge concerning his life is to be found in the second volume of Istoria dello Studio di Napoli by Giangiuseppe Origlia. His father, Antonio, Duke of Torremaggiore, claimed descent from Charlemagne. His mother, Cecilia Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona (daughter of the Princess Aurora San Severino), died shortly after giving birth to him.

Growing up, Raimondo di Sangro would seldom see his father who was often called away from Italy for long periods of time for personal reasons. Instead, he was left to the care of his grandfather, Paolo, sixth Prince of Sansevero and Knight of the Golden Fleece. Through the unfortunate early deaths of his two brothers he inherited the title of Prince of Sansevero at the age of 16 (upon the death of his grandfather), making him head of one of the more powerful families in that part of the Italian peninsula. His father, Antonio, had refused the title and withdrew to a monastery for the rest of his life, never having fully recovered from the death of his wife.

At an early age Raimondo di Sangro showed clear signs of the remarkable intellect that would characterize his life. By the age of 10 he had already been enrolled in the Jesuit College in Rome, one of the most prestigious schools of its time. Under the tutelage of some of the most learned scholars in Europe, he excelled in his studies of philosophy and linguistics. By the time he graduated, he is known to have mastered at least eight languages (including Arabic and Hebrew).

In addition to philosophy and linguistics, di Sangro also studied the natural sciences as well as hydrostatics, pyrotechnics and military architecture. Though an accomplished polyglot, his real interests were in the natural sciences, mechanics and the pseudoscience of alchemy.

He first came to notice in 1729 with his creation (for a theatrical performance) of a folding stage; a feat which impressed even Nicola Michetti, Royal Engineer of Czar Peter the Great of Russia. A year later he returned to Naples where he befriended Carlo Bourbon, who became King of Naples in 1734. As a gift for his new friend, Prince Raimondo created a waterproof cape, which delighted the future monarch.

A prolific inventor, among his many creations were colored fireworks, a printing press that could print in different colors in a single impression and a hydraulic device that could pump water to any height.

As one might imagine, Prince Raimondo’s friendship with the King greatly enhanced his prestige. When he married his cousin Carlotta Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona, the great philosopher Giambattista Vico of Naples wrote a sonnet in honor of the couple.

A mind as great as that of di Sangro’s bores easily and often wanders to a variety of subjects to keep it engaged. In addition to the aforementioned subjects, Prince Raimondo developed a keen interest in Freemasonry. This however, did not sit well with the Roman Catholic Church, still a formidable power in the Italy of the early 18th century. He translated a number of works of Freemasonry and eventually became Grand Master of the Orient Lodge in Naples (1750).

His work in propagating the “scandalous ideas” of the Freemasons resulted in his excommunication from the Church, an act which gained for him the undying enmity of Cardinal Giuseppe Spinelli of Naples. As a precondition for him to return to the ‘good graces’ of the Church (and avoid the dreaded “Holy Office” of the Inquisition), di Sangro was forced to recant his Masonic activities…and to proffer the names of all his Masonic cohorts in Naples! Given the fact the ranks of Freemasons by this time included many members of the nobility in Europe, di Sangro’s testimony implicated some of the best and brightest of Neapolitan society.

Prior to this, and seeing the proverbial ‘handwriting on the wall,’ Prince Raimondo turned over to King Carlo Bourbon a list of all Neapolitan Freemasons in the Kingdom as well as all documents related to Masonic operations. He then wrote a letter to the Pope confessing all and putting himself under his protection. The King, not wanting to see half his court imprisoned (or worse), merely issued what amounted to a slap on the wrist. In doing this, di Sangro saved himself and many others from the redoubtable Cardinal Spinelli!

Nevertheless, he betrayed Masonic secrets. For this reason Raimondo di Sangro was loudly denounced in Masonic lodges across Europe, and his name remains a term of reproach among many of them to this day.

It is believed by historians that di Sangro himself was able to escape the horrors of the Inquisition due to the prominence of his family and his erstwhile friendship with the King. His excommunication was eventually revoked by Pope Benedict XIV.

Embittered by his experiences, Prince Raimondo afterwards withdrew from society at large and devoted himself passionately to the ‘study of Experimental Physics’. These studies were carried on in his castle in Largo San Domenico Maggiore, which became a focus on the Grand Tour for academics and travelers anxious to see his inventions and discoveries.

In addition to his scientific and engineering pursuits, di Sangro also probed the mysteries of alchemy (albeit in secret). That someone so intelligent and learned would find interest in a subject already coming into disrepute in European society is certainly strange but not unremarkable for the times. It was only several decades earlier in England that alchemy tickled the fancy of no less a personage than Isaac Newton!

Desirous of leaving something to posterity to extol his genius, Prince Raimondo spent the last years of his life redecorating the Capella Sansevero in Naples with marble works from some of the greatest artists of his time. Statues from notable sculptors such as Antonio Corradini, Giuseppe Sanmartino and Francesco Queirolo, as well as anatomical models by di Sangro himself, adorn the chapel.

Visitors to the chapel describe being in awe at the sight of marble statues covered with veils and nets made of marble as well. The best of these is undoubtedly The Veiled Christ by Neapolitan sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino. A number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain how the veiled and netted effects were created, but to date none have been shown to be correct. Many believe (probably correctly) that Prince Raimondo di Sangro’s genius had a hand in their creation.

He died on March 22nd, 1771 in Naples. Many believe his premature death was hastened by the numerous chemicals to which he was exposed in his scientific and alchemical pursuits. Until the day of his death he remained under a cloud of suspicion by the Church. Sadly, shortly before his death he destroyed his large scientific archive, no doubt to protect his family. After his death, his family, under threat of excommunication due to di Sangro’s earlier involvement with Freemasonry and alchemy, destroyed what was left of his writings and laboratory equipment. Thus, almost all we know of him and his discoveries is from second-hand accounts.

His legacy can best be described as mixed. Many legends, good and bad, some utterly fantastic, have grown up around him since his death. Pious (and superstitious) Neapolitans are said to this day to make the sign of the cross at the mere mention of his name. As mentioned earlier, many Freemasons have nothing good to say about him. Yet from his time down to this day he still has his fans.

For example, the noted Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg named the plant genus Sansevieria in honor of him.

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