Disciple of Bernardino Telesio, Antonio Persio, in his treatise published in Venice by Manutius sons in 1576, develops the concept of genius as Spiritus/Mercurius.

Trattato intorno all’Ingegno dell’Huomo, or treaty on the human genius, is a pretty ignored sixteenth century pamphlet written in Italian language by Antonio Persio (1543 – 1612), although so courtly and convoluted to make reading difficult even for an Italian native speaker, like me. So it is not surprising the book has not known a wider eco, and frankly I doubt it will ever find a complete translation into a more global language. As typical for the sixteenth century, the form of the work is disguised in a mix of purely philosophical dissertations, common sense ethics and health standards recommendations, as duty of every earnest parson, as the priest Persio was. On the other hand a book written in vulgar language, and not in Latin, was addressed to the vulgar indeed, or at least not to a scholars audience. If in fact the books in Latin were subjected to Sant’Uffizio, books in vulgar were much less, but had to be very cautious. After Telesio’s death, Persio had already ordered his teacher’s ideas in Varii de rebus naturalibus libelli, or pamphlet on various natural things, in which it can be found some parts as Quod animal, De somno, and De Natura, which would have been posthumously banned by Sant’Uffizio and inserted in the Index of prohibited books published by Clement VIII in 1596.

Trattato intorno all’Ingegno dell’Huomo is entirely Persio’s work. The article presents only a selection of the most interesting parts which were originally  hidden,  dissolved and scattered here and there all along the 129 pages. I have fully transcribed, and translated them conserving the original wording. What I have left out are the parts the author uses to dilute his thought, masquerading it as a pamphlet on moral philosophy.

It has been mistakenly thought that Trattato intorno all’Ingegno dell’Huomo only regains the sense of Bernardino Telesio on astronomical sun or sunlight, but in fact it takes up and amplifies the particular whole issue of inner central sun of all being. And we’ll see how the concept of ‘genius‘ symbolically, and clearly, brings instead to Mercurius and how many issues in the book can be recognized as typically alchemical, in a unexpected sense that can embraces both the so-called inner and lab Alchemy. In fact the reader with a minimum hint of Alchemy can immediately understand ‘genius‘ as perfectly standing for Spiritus, spirit/Mercurius. And for Mercurius, I mean the mercurial substance, i.e. the ineffable matter of alchemists, in fact the features Persio gives to genius are recognizably peculiar characteristics of alchemical Mercurius. To an extent that if the reader would dare to mentally replace the term genius/Sun/God with Mercurius, a totally new vision might appear before their eyes.

In this way we will definitely acknowledge the alchemical symbolism as alchemists are accustomed to recognize, and many obscure symbols can find a way out and a meaning. We will find classic alchemical symbols like inner central Sun, fishing nets, rivers, oceans. And intriguing as well, as a quite unexpected explication for motion and sound as Spirit/genius accelerators. And memory with its doubling and retaining property. As well as an express explication for potable gold, with its effects and uses. To end up with the sleep of great initiates and the making of gods.

The italian word Persio specifically utilizes for genius is ingegno, which could be more appropriately translated in English as ingenuity but, as most of English speaking academic scholars in Italian renaissance prefer to translate as genius, I decided to keep this English academic expression too, just to create a continuity with their work. Even if they often seem to reel in the symbolic sea of the Renaissance Italian literature without grasping the alchemical significance that can not be ignored instead, however much it was well known by the authors of the time. A typical example of this incomplete interpretation is the book by Noel L. Brann, The Debate Over The Origin Of The Genius during The Italian Renaissance, the theories of supernatural frenzy and natural melancholy in accord and in conflict on the threshold of the scientific revolution, 2002, in which the author is able to grasp the importance of the Platonic and Aristotelian theories in the Italian Renaissance, as well interpreting the meaning of genius as spirit, but misses the hidden sense of spirit as alchemical mercury (which is instead a fundamental Plato’s feature ). The result is that in Brann’s analysis, the spirit does not go beyond the ambit of the definition of mere intellectual faculties.

Some notes on Bernardino Telesio ( 1509 – 1588 ): Italian philosopher and naturalist, he was the initiator of the new philosophy of nature during the Renaissance. Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon and Thomas Campanella drew many concepts from his teaching, just to cite some who were said to border on Alchemy. It was in the University of Padua, that Telesio began by participating in the contrasts between Averroist and Alexandrian on the interpretation of Aristotle, and during these disputes he elaborated his critique of Aristotelian physics developing that interest in the study of nature to which he devoted all his future works.

Telesio first put forward the idea that knowledge of nature must be based on the study of natural principles (iuxta propria principia) abandoning any metaphysical consideration, but at the same time taking the pantheistic and vitalistic conception of the pre-Socratic and Plato, which survived in the Neoplatonist Renaissance circles and magical beliefs of the time. Contrary to Aristotle who argued that “quidquid movetur ab alio movetur“, that is that everything in motion is moved by another body in motion, Telesio believes that the movement is a principle inherent in the heat. So he developed as first acting force the warm, expanding; as second force, the cold, condensing; and a body substrate, the material. As the erudite reader may discern, these are but the alchemical forces that allow the Solve et Coagula, or the world machine.

Persio sets the introductory part of Trattato intorno all’Ingegno dell’Huomo  in Venice and starts it with an eulogy and dedication to nobleman Pietro Contarini, whose family name was allegedly associated with Alchemy at that time. The author thanks Contarini for allowing him into the Venice State Institute of Printing and Minting. Persio describes gold assay, how to do it by dissolving the metal into strong water, then moves to silver cupel delineation, talking of all that as man’s brainchild, which he defines genius. But what is this man’s genius? With these considerations, which could have been found as incipit in a lab Alchemy treatise, he starts to analyze the origin of human genius. Nostrum opus exasceatum sit, or our opus has been drawn up:

Genius as Spiritus/Mercurius.

Accordingly, Genius is a synonym for spiritus, which not only invents things but refines those already invented. And the spiritus creates and refines the already created, as Mercurius, of which is synonym. Persio makes examples of inanimate objects, such as statues or paintings, revealing they acquire life, through genius. Semina flammae abstrusa in venis silicis, seeds of flame hidden in rock veins – Virgil, Eclogues.

Genius as Memory/Mnemosyne.

Genius can be defined a ray of divine wisdom, but it is surprising what Persio will intend as divine wisdom. The author here cites Plato when saying that our soul had abode in heaven before entering the body and, once down in the body, it will be provided with genius/Mercurius, which for Plato other was than the faculty of remembering, so a memory exercise [Mind, memory, not the mental exercise that can be defined so marginal in modern psychology, but the aptitude so important in Alchemy and in ancient mythology instead, Mnemosyne. Something that will require a doubling].

Etymology of the Latin term ‘ inginio’ or to seed.

Seek the etymology of the word genius, that’s all latin. Inginio, from ingenero or do as a seed and generate planting inside a thing [ Totally alchemical concept of the seed of metals, the seed of all things, Mercurius]. The genius does not dwell only into animate things but also in what is thought to be soulless  [like the places, known as ingenium loci, today known as ‘genius loci’, instead].

Genius as source of waters.

Lucretius defines it as source of waters, waves, sea. Unde mare ingenui fontes externaque longe flumina suppeditant?, or where the native and external sources rivers supply from afar the sea? – Lucretius – They are called geniuses, as they run to the sea because of their natural habit and are not confined or imprisoned because of any artifice of man will, for instance tanks or other closed places. So for Lucretius, the genius is a natural and inherent power engendered to us. An idea closed to the concept of Mercurius, often represented by the serpent precisely because of its darting. Indeed, it is not said, the gods are those that flow?

Genius as fishing net.

A very consonant definition is the ancient Greek word ‘sagena‘ σαγήνη (sagḗnē, “dragnet”) or fishing net, marine netting. In fact another symbolic representation of the spirit or alchemical Mercurius is the fishing net.

Genius as nature of air.

The spirit of animals as well as ours are within the entire body, but as far as Persio knows, it tend to lean to “ ventricelli del cielebro“ [ the latin form for cerebrum is indeed the same cerebrum and not cielebrum, which may instead appears as a mix of cielum [sky] and celeber-celebra [ celebrate], but fourteenth century poets as Cecco d’Ascoli and Boccaccio cite celebrum instead of cerebrum, and concerning ventricelli there can hardy find an established meaning, but ventricelli is used in some central Italian dialects as rolls and rolled shapes at large, so one can argue that ” ventricelli del cielebro” may stand for convolutions of the brain], but further on Persio says its nature is warm and soft, and resembling air.


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