Cesare Ripa’s iconology of the Ouroboros world machine fits our main alchemical tools: hot and frozen. The real dichotomy. The real Father and Mother.
The title “Cavaliere”, Knight, in Italy, has undergone many changes. From the sublime devoted to some services during the 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 Neo-Latin languages, who seemed to have “served” in some unofficial Accademia or, as we have already seen for Aldus Manutius, private learned coterie. Cesare Ripa is indeed presented as cavaliere, that’s to say, an expert in secret hermetic symbolism. So secret, and consequently cryptic, that every time his Iconology was republished, always found a high inquisitor prelate willing to certify the absolute harmless of this book. The tome from which this engraving was taken, 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, most Alchemy publicly involved family in Venice. Their main branch was extinguished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so nobody could complain.
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 mainly been unattended since very hard we can see an Italian painting with those too much-sophisticated allegories.
The most distinguished feature of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia is it is astonishingly unique; in fact, it seems to be more similar to those books of “wonders” so popular in the seventeenth century than to a hermetic work. The written part accompanying the engravings is not always so essential in helping us to discover particulars better.
It’s time to read Cesare Ripa’s engraving description now. My translation is from Italian.
THE WORLD MACHINE: “A woman who has the turns of the seven planets around her head; and instead of hair, there will be flames of fire”.
It should be evident for this woman to be Alchemy in the flesh and her flaming hair our Secret Fire. 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 needs material support to be handled by humans and 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, and Moon is Mercurius’s first white or achievement. Venus is the second white after the second putrefaction. Jupiter is in the grey phase, and 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 accepted this color list since hermetic language has never been unique or homolog.
Cesare Ripa: “Her clothing will be portioned up in three parts and three colors. The first one, which covers the breast and part of the body, will be light blue, with clouds. The second one is 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 is nothing more than the world areas where we can find our Secret Fire. But alchemists loved to be more complicated. That reveals their enormous importance to the four elements, which must appear as a miracle to an ancient chemist. To their eyes, only incredible mechanisms could turn the earth into the air. Nowadays, we are not so fascinated by state changes since we call sublimation the aforementioned operation.
Cesare Ripa: “She will hold a serpent revolved in a circle, which keeps its tail in the mouth”.
Here Alchemy shows 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 points at one specific feature: the real piece of the whole alchemical machinery. Our very simple Solve et Coagula. Or unify and separate. Or hot conditions alternating with 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 precisely what happens in our Macrocosm or Universe and 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 hot, while the tail is frozen. The hot-frozen, construction-destruction, aggregation-disaggregation machine is never ending and working everywhere. In Ripa’s iconology, the hermetic rule of three, by which an allegory may serve at least three different concepts, cannot be applied. We can be pretty sure of a single meaning for a unique time.
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 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, and earth are the mysterious way ancient people can detect chemical changes of state. Of course, they are just the minor or the visible part 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 that the same matter should be undergone on the one thousand distillations since a single disaggregation cannot entirely affect the raw matter; today, we would talk of the electronic cloud of an atom. And its memory, if you are a poet believing that alchemists do extract time, or life, from electrons.
I want to conclude by quoting Homer (l., XVI, 201, 246, 342), who wants Okeanos as the “origin of everything” and “origin of the gods”: with its incessant flowing in circular form on the edge of the world, it means that with its uninterrupted flowing “boundaries”, and speaks of his “powerful force” that holds the world together while flowing in itself with a calm and slow flow. The image is that of a slow rotation, of a regular circular movement “genesis” of all the gods and everything, which wants the creative act to be perpetually renewed and never concluded. For these attributes, it has been compared to a snake that bites its own tail, thus developing archaic Orphic and proto-Hellenic symbols that saw the snake as the symbol of time. We thus find ourselves having a symbol that simultaneously includes the macrocosm and the microcosm from a timeless perspective.