Porta Alchemica

August 1, 2012 — If you’ve got something called an Alchemy Gate, I’m going to want to walk through it. Unfortunately, the only one I’ve ever found was behind iron bars and guarded by hordes of feral cats. Gotta protect those mystical secrets of the universe, I guess, even when they’re in a public park in the middle of a big city.

Also called the Porta Magica and translated variously as “Alchemy Gate” and “Magic Gate,” Rome’s Porta Alchemica dates back to the 1600s. It’s the last remnant of the residence of Massimilano Palombara, who was an Italian marquis, a Rosicrucian, and, like anybody who wanted to be cool back in the day, an alchemist.

Alchemy, of course, was an attempt by proto-chemists and proto-physicists at probing and exploiting the secrets of the universe before we had a good system for doing all that. And by secrets of the universe I mean turning stuff into gold and living forever. It was unequal parts superstition and systematic inquiry.

Palombara was part of a superhero team/bridge club of alchemists that included Queen Christina of Sweden, and he would often host visiting alchemists at his villa. The Porta Alchemica has survived to this day because of a story around it that involved one of those guests.

It goes that a traveler, named in most accounts as Giustiniani Bono, was on the threshold of an alchemical breakthrough when he stayed at Palombara’s. But then he disappeared, and was last seen going through the gate that wouldn’t get its own name for a couple of centuries. The only clues to Bono’s disappearance were a bit of gold and a document covered in cryptic symbols.

Polambara was fascinated by Bono’s apparent success at transmutation, but bummed that the recipe was undecipherable. So he had the contents of the document carved into his villa, including the gate where Bono disappeared, so that he could study it and show it to other alchemists.

Alexander Severus' nymphaeum
The formula was never decoded, though, and alchemy, as far as we know, never produced easy gold and immortality, instead eventually giving way to the majesties of science. In the 1800s, Polambara’s villa was torn down to make way for the growing development of Italy’s capitol city.

However, the one part that wasn’t reduced to rubble was this gate, one of five that were part of the residence. In fact, it was barely moved and still resides to this day in the same approximate location in what’s now the Piazza Vitorrio…right in the middle of a wild cat colony and adjacent to the ruins of a large, 2,000-year-old nymphaeum built by Emperor Alexander Severus.

The doorway is madeof white marble, and is sealed and set into a section of rock wall. The portal is topped by a large symbol composed of two overlapping triangles, a cross, and a circlet. Down each side and along the top are a range of planetary symbols and Latin and Hebrew text that I assume says something along the lines of “Speak, friend, and enter.” Actually, the text itself is translatable, but says loopy things that aren’t even close to “Here’s how to make gold from lead.”

As I mentioned, the gate is literally barred from close scrutiny by the public and I didn’t have a zoom lens on me at the time, so I couldn’t get close enough to take pics of the symbols. You can see an illustration of them in detail here, though, with translations here.

Flanking the door are two squat white statues (called “monstrous dwarves" in the nearby informational placard) of the Egyptian deity Bes, protector of mothers and children. As cool as they look guarding the portal, they’re apocryphal, not having been part of the original structure. They were dug up elsewhere in Rome in 1888 during one of its never-ceasing archeological digs and just stuck there, I guess because someone liked the way they looked together. I don’t disagree.

Of course, all this adds up to quite the mystery. I mean, a 400-year-old door inscribed with inscrutable alchemical symbols survives the destruction of the rest of the structure and is then randomly sealed and assigned Egyptian deities to guard it? Get Nic Cage on the phone. It’s time to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice 2: Alchemy in Italy.