“Stupendous and Marvelous Secrets”: Secret No More (Part I)

September 10th, 2018

Stupendi et maraviogliosi secreti. Duveen Collection, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some of the smallest treasures of the Duveen Collection of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, cataloged under the collective title of “Miscellaneous pamphlets in Italian on occult sciences,” have now been fully digitized and made available through UW Digital Collections, thanks to our colleagues in the UW Digital Collections Center. The two small boxes in which they reside are labeled “books of secrets”; but William Eamon, who drew attention to them in Science and the secrets of nature: Books of secrets in medieval and early modern culture (Princeton University Press, 1994), instead calls them “Italian booklets of secrets” in view of their size, format, and distribution method. As Eamon explains, “Sold in the piazzas of the major cities by ciarlatani and popular healers, and by peddlers in the countryside, they represent the books-of-secrets tradition at its commonest level” (p. 360). Despite their small size (at most 16 cm tall and 16 pages long), each contained somewhere between twenty to a hundred “recipes” for craft processes — of broader scope than our present understanding of recipes as generally culinary. Indeed, by recipe was meant, according to Eamon, “a prescription for an experiment“ (p. 131), allowing a reader to learn a new craft skill without guild membership or apprenticeship.

Title page of Tesoro di varii secreti.

Note the reference to experiment.

Volume 1 [i.e., box 1] of our set (call number Duveen D 245) contains 18 titles :

Title page of Secreti novamente.

Title page of I maravigliosi et occulti secreti.

Title page of Della nobilta [etc.]

The decorative devices on the title page are reminiscent of many editions of Sacrobosco’s treatise on the sphere.

Title page of Primo giardino.

A second blog post will contain the booklets comprising volume 2 of this set (more secrets reveal’d!)

— Robin Rider