Cesare Ripa’s iconology of the Ouroboros world machine fits our alchemical main tools: hot and frozen. The real dichotomy. The real Father and Mother.
The title “Cavaliere”, Knight, in Italy, has undergone to many changes . From the sublime devoted to some services during middle ages to the ridiculous thieves of nowadays. In renaissance and seventeenth century the same title was often unofficially reserved to those erudite in “horse”, or cabal in neolatin languages, who seemed to have “served” in some unofficial accademia or, as we have already see for Aldus Manutius, private learned coterie. Cesare Ripa is indeed presented as cavaliere, that’s to say an expert in the secret hermetic symbolism. So secret, and consequently cryptic, that every time his Iconology was republished, always found an high inquisitor prelate willing to certify the absolute harmless of this book. The tome which this engraving has been taken from, published in Perugia in 1766, was approved by the “ Inquisitor Generalis S. Officii Perugia”, or the chief inquisitor of Perugia. But, bingo, dedicated to Raimondo di Sangro prince of San Severo, the same famed neapolitan alchemist. While the edition published in Venice in 1645 was dedicated to a Contarini family gentleman. Strange enough the most Alchemy publicly involved family in Venice. Their main branch was extinguished since the beginning of nineteenth century, so nobody can complaint.
Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, which has much to Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, implicit use should be for painters to choose the right symbolism in their works. But this official utilization seems to have been largely unattented, since very hardly we can see an italian painting with those too much sophisticated allegories.
The most distinguished feature of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia is its astonishingly being unique, in fact it seems to be more similar to those books of “wonders” so popular in seventeenth century, than to an hermetic work. The written part accompanying the engravings not always is so essential in helping us to better discover particulars.
It’s time to read the Cesare Ripa’s engraving description now. My translation from italian.
THE WORLD MACHINE: “Woman, whose head is wounded by the seven planets swivels; and in place of hair there will be flames of fire”.
It should be obvious for this woman to be Alchemy in the flesh and her flaming hair our Secret Fire. As a matter of fact the situation is here a little bit more sophisticated. Indeed she represents the alchemical machine or the four elements mechanism. Which can be chemical and alchemical changes of state (1). Since our Secret Fire does need material supports to be handled by humans as well as nature. Alchemists believe the same Secret Fire tends to appear in the boundaries between elements. The seven planets stand for the Scala Transmutationibus or phases or fire regimes. That’s to say: Saturn is the black putrefaction, Moon the first white or achievement of Mercurius. Venus the second white after the second putrefaction. Jupiter the grey phase, Mars the orange between white and red. Sun the final Red. Mercurius is to be said when we will see deeper inside these phases. Of course not all alchemists did accepted this colors list, since hermetic language has never been neither unique nor homologue.
Cesare Ripa:“Her clothing will be portioned up in three parts, and in three colors. The first one, which covers the breast and part of the body, will be light blue, with clouds. The second one indigo, with water waves. The third one, up to feet, will be green with mounts, towns and castles”.
We might say the woman’s clothing partitioning being nothing more than the world areas in which we can find our Secret Fire. But alchemists loved to be more complicated. That reveals to us of the enormous importance they gave to the four elements, which certainly must appear as a miracle to an ancient chemist. To their eyes only incredible mechanisms could turn an earth to an air. Nowadays we are not so fascinated by what we simply call changes of state, since we called sublimation the aforementioned operation.
Cesare Ripa: “She will hold a serpent revolved in circle, which keeps its tail in mouth”.
Here Alchemy is showing her working mechanism: the serpent with its tail in its mouth, the Ouroboros. Pay attention, we have already encountered Ouroboros and its countless meanings. But this time Cesare Ripa is pointing at one specific feature: just the real piece of the whole alchemical machinery. Our very simple Solve et Coagula. Or unify and separate. Or hot conditions alternating to frozen conditions (2). Alchemy has no other method to achieve Magnetization or Analysis to free its Secret Fire. Just continuous changes of state. Fixed-volatile, still-mobile, contraction-expansion. Natural and counter natural fire. This is exactly what happens in our Macrocosm or Universe, as well as in our Microcosm or alchemical vessel. Cesare Ripa here talks of the never ending serpent, not devouring its tail, as fixed uses to with volatile, but touching it. The mouth is the hot, while the tail is the frozen. The hot-frozen, construction-destruction, aggregation-disaggregation machine is never ending and everywhere working. In Ripa’s iconology the hermetic rule of three, by which an allegory may serves at least three different concepts, cannot be applied. For a unique time, we can be quite sure of a single meaning.
Cesare Ripa: “It means that the World on its own, and feeds for itself, and in its own and in itself revolves to, always in a balanced and neat way; and the beginning runs after the end, and the end returns to its same principle: For this reason there still be the seven planets painted in. The fire, that she has in her head, and her garment color, stand for the four elements, which are the minor part of the huge universal Machine”.
Fire, air, water, earth are the mysterious way the ancient people can detect the chemical changes of state. Of course they are just the minor part, or the visible one, of the hot frozen real effects. Which is the extraction of Secret Fire. The woman’s flames and fire are our alchemical Secret Fire within the matter. Our Alpha and Omega, our start and end. Our purpose, tool and final achievement. And, probably, what makes the world going, as Cesare Ripa seems to believe.
Alchemy is the science and art of molecular destruction and construction, over and over again. Al Jabair wrote on the one thousand distillations the same matter should be undergone. Since a single disaggregation cannot affect the entire electronic cloud of an atom. And its memory, if you are a poet believing that alchemists do extract time, or life, from electrons.