From The "Venitian Roots" Of The Fama To The Mysterious Case of Federico Gualdi: A Quest For Sociopolitical Changes And Esoteric Knowledge
Pascal H. Gregoire, 2021
Christian Hermeticism offers a complex and wide open field of research, even more as a lot of the writings can be related to apocryphal literature, to the lubidrium1 or to a more contentious way of writing history. Which does not mean that they are not usually very interesting for the serious historians as for the philosophers and genuine researchers keen to spiritual hermeneutics2, wisdom literature and philosophical texts.
I. The Manifestos
As we know, between 1614 and 1616, two anonymous manifestos were published and spread, first in Germany3 in the protestant city of Cassel (part of Württemberg) and later throughout Europe.
Written in German, they were the Fama Fraternitatis of the Meritorious Order of the Rosy Cross (The Fame of the Brotherhood of the RC) published in 1614 by Wilhelm Wessel (printer for Prince Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse) – which narrates the legend of a man, Christian Rosenkreuz (CRC) said to have lived from 1378 to 1484, thus till the canonic age of 106 years old - and the Confessio Fraternitatis (The Confession of the Brotherhood of RC) in 1616 whereas the doctrines and notions expressed in it are not simply those of the Fama, but have something more and of a totally different tone, dilating upon a very harsh condemnation of Roman Catholicism and the pope, being considered as anti-Christ (note: Islam was not spared either by the way). The tone is definitely Lutheran as experts tell us.
The first one - the Fama - with its thirty pages was also a part of a 147 pages work/volume named the “Universal and General Reformation of Whole Wide World” which was therefore quite different from the original “General Reformation” as it indeed included as an appendix the first appearance in print of the anonymous “Fama pamphlet”.
This little pamphlet alone was about to trigger tremendous responses for the decades to come and well beyond…
However, the Rosicrucian epic actually might have begun in 1610 since a reply to the Fama had already been printed in 1612 by Adam Haselmayer4 who might have seen a manuscript copy of the Fama in Tyrol in 1610 about four years before the Fama being published. So enthusiastic was Haselmayer with the Rosicrucians ideas, that indeed his open letter with the title “Answer to the Laudable Fraternity of Rosicrucian Theosophists" (published in 1612) was published at the end of the first Rosicrucian Manifesto.
Another 'Fama connected incident' also occurred in 1612. In that year, "De Ragguagli di Parnasso” [“News from Parnassus”] was published in Venice by the Italian anti-Habsburg writer Traiano Boccalini, an architect by profession and a satirist in heart.
II. Context of the Times
In these few years flourished the Rosicrucian movement with its promise of a general reformation of mankind, with its perspectives of enlightenment, of understanding the world and nature, all things which could not but announce a better future, happiness and freedom of thought. All that was wiped out by the horrors of war.
Let’s not forget that in the years 1610’s, Europe was at a cross-road between (i) a period of intellectual and spiritual turmoil, which had brought about the greatest revolution since the introduction of Christianity 16 centuries earlier, and (ii) the beginning of a war which would be a disaster for the whole continent, comparable to the black death which had slaughtered 60% of the population in the 14th century. At that time (early XVIIth century) “everyone in Europe” was aspiring for a “New Reformation”. This is in such a context that the Rosicrucian Messages were sent out into the wide/wild world, proposing new approaches to restore harmony and peace and in particular pushing forward Hermeticism as a possible way forward.
A few years after the publication of the pamphlet, the most devastating conflict that Europe had ever experienced started in 1618. The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) was a series of wars principally fought in Central Europe, involving most of the continent, from France to Sweden. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, and one of the longest continuous wars in modern history.
Religion was the main motivation for war as Protestant and Catholic states battled it out even though they all were inside the Holy Roman Empire. A major consequence of the Thirty Years' War was the devastation of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies. Famine and disease significantly decreased the population of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries, and Italy; most of the fighting powers were bankrupted.
Interestingly enough, the preface Allgemeine Reformation turned out to be nothing else that a German translation - possibly by Besold5 - of the 77th chapter of the Ragguagli di Parnaso by the Italian writer Traiano Boccalini, published in Venice in 1612, shortly before the author’s death.
Boccalini was an anti-catholic political author and satirist, born near Ancona in 1556, but thought it prudent to move to Venice later on because of his political views, which had caused Spanish resentment towards him and his works. He anyway died in Venice in 1613, apparently strangled in his bed by hired assassins.
Titled, "Generale Riforma dell' Universo (“General Reformation of the Whole World"), this 77th chapter is conceived as an imaginary news sheet from the kingdom of Parnasso, which actually mirrors the reality of Boccalini’s contemporary world and preoccupations. This satire was in fact partly targeting as well the second Council of Trent6 and its chaotic attempt to reform Catholicism.
It described an assize or court held on mount Parnassus by the god Apollo to find a remedy for the problem of the increasing rate of suicide among humans. After Thales, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen and others were unable to suggest a remedy it was decided 'The Age' itself should be summoned before the court for examination. When 'The Age' was called before them, however, and the deceptive gay jacket was stripped off its body, they found the rotten carcass plastered with appearance four inches thick all over. And when the reformers tried to scrape them away with their razors they found them so far eaten into the bone that in all that huge colossus they could not find one ounce of good live flesh. Therefore they covered 'The Age' back up and resolved that until such time as a universal reformation could be brought about, philosophers must be content with “restricting themselves to regulating the price of cabbages”…
To be pointed out: Boccalini does not offer any “remedy” as such but indicates that a great reformation (“reset”) is necessary before the divine secrets of nature can be entrusted to the keeping of mortal beings. No doubt, this still sounds quite familiar as well, isn’t?
In any case, it can be said that the pessimist tone of this text - despairing of seeing peace restored in Europe - contrasted with the more optimistic views of the Rosicrucian Manifestos.
III. Federico Gualdi. The Building of a Legend
On April 21 1676, more than sixty years after the publication of Boccalini’s work and the Rosicrucian Manifestos, a merchant, Francesco Giusto, steps into the Venetian offices of the feared “Sant’Uffizio” - the Holy Office - namely the Inquisition to provide a declaration supposed to trigger a trial against a peculiar individual.
The beginning of the confession states Giusto’s intentions quite clearly: “to denounce a dangerous necromancian operating in Venitia of the name of Federico Gualdi”.
This declaration was worth of notice for the Inquisition officials as it didn’t speak only of an individual, but of a whole group, a seemingly organized sect lead by a “necromancer” thus.
Even more interesting was the identity of this leader. The phantasmagorical and real one(s).
What we know?
Federico Gualdi was without any doubt a high-profile character of Venice’s life.
Possibly born around 1600, he was an Italian alchemist, engineer, trader and much more. Regarding the date of his death, no historical trace has been found to date.
He declared himself of German origin but the information is not certain as it is not documented. A portrait of Gualdi is frontispiece of “La critica della morte”, a work published in 1690 by Sebastiano Casizzi.
It is undeniable that Gualdi staid in Venice between 1660 and 1678, but we do not know much more about his life until 1660.
In 1660 and in 1663, Gualdi submitted to the Republic of Venice two proposals to remedy the recurring floods causing the Acqua alta. To do so, it used a specific right in Venice known as "Raccordo", which is a "request for any citizen to present to the Council of Ten or another magistracy a subject of great importance to the State". The drawings of the two Gualdi projects have been published and can be found via the Internet. These projects remained unfulfilled but it made Gualdi famous in the City.
Gualdi also held a know-how in the mining field. In this capacity, from 1663 to 1666, he was either a mining operator or an ore miner at the service of the wealthy Crotta family, who owned deposits in Val Imperina (Belluno province). He experimented with a new process of "dry" and "wet" ore smelting that increases copper production. This discovery allowed as much its personal enrichment as the one of the family Crotta.
The lifestyle of Gualdi during his stay in Venice must also have created many jealousies which probably did not fail to lead to a denunciation to the court of the Inquisition for alchemical activities and belonging to the hermetic-alchemical movement of the "Aurea Croce".
In this respect, among the disciples of this "Aurea Croce" were prominent characters such as the Marquis and Poet Francesco Maria Santinelli (close to Queen Christina of Sweden).
Interestingly enough, the Inquisition, after questioning some people who have been around Gualdi in his daily life, will not summon him. The trial will never take place, which might suggest that Gualdi had very well placed relations with representatives of the power of the Serenissima.
Another interesting piece of the “Gualdi’s enigma” is his alchemical text written in German and in Latin: “De lapide philosophorum” (The Philosopher's Stone).
“De Lapide philosophorum” is a text divided into 55 paragraphs where one can read the sweet dream of the alchemist who aspires to turn lead - a toxic metal for the human body since it causes kidney failure - into gold.
Gualdi synthesized this quest in a charade: "In the man is a kidney, which consists of six letters (lumbus), to which, if you add a P (plumbus), you know how to turn the S into M (plumbum), - Hush! such will be our bronze, it is also the philosopher's stone. Solution: philosopher's lead, or antimony, but by the fixed route ".
Note that this charade paid tribute to the darling of the treaties of alchemy: the antimony which, since the beginning of the XVIIth century, was very popular in the process of creating the philosopher's stone. Let us also note that the number of letters of lumbus might evoke the six days of labor of creation, and that of plumbum the last day when the divine work was accomplished.
By composing his De Lapide philosophorum, Gualdi projected on the human being more than the empirically perceptible phenomenon, thinking the symbolic and the real as if they both formed one.
Thanks to this prominent role in trade Gualdi, came to know many wealthy entrepreneurs, among which was Francesco Giusto. Hearing of Giusto’s interest for the “natural sciences”, he asked to meet him and introduced him to his circle of “disciples”, among which important figures as the marquis Francesco Maria Santinelli, the physician Vincenzo Pezzi, the Knight of Malta Rubensi and Michelangelo Salomoni, the Republic’s expert on biological and chemical warfare.
As he frequented Gualdi’s circle, Giusto grew increasingly alarmed by the heterodox practices he saw performed there, among which figured “diabolical evocations” and magical work with familiar spirits.
Giusto reported that: the members of the sect were 85, divided into two orders: an inner order of 12 disciples (including Gualdi himself; another notable member was Santinelli) and an outer one of 72. Secrecy was highly regarded (on penalty of death), and on their initiation the members had to leave a lock of hair. Federico Gualdi only could decide to whom teach the secrets that were held in the higher circle. Another particularity was the oath that each member had to undertake, namely to never pursue any magical activities with the purpose of gaining wealth or other material goals. Another important feat was the scrupulous annotation of all members’ data in a register.
At one point during his declarations for the trial on June 16,1676, Giusto stated that a certain Pietro Agnese, who had been seen in the circles surrounding Gualdi, had declared to be “one of the 4 Knights of the Golden and Rosy Cross”. This expression held a certain significance in Italy in the second half of the 17th century, as it mentioned a mysterious but precise group, whose obscure genealogy need to be addressed if we want to unveil the possible nature of Gualdi's esoteric circle.
Already in 1656 and in his work “La Bugia” (The Little Candlestick), the marquis Massimiliano Palombara had mentioned this organization: “I continuously hear and read people talking about the existence in the world of a group of the “Golden or Rosy Cross". Another reference to the «Rosea Croce» appears in a poem by the mentioned Francesco Maria Santinelli (a prominent member of Gualdi’s sect), at one time favorite of Queen Christina of Sweden, entitled "Charles V".
As we will remember it, the official statute of the so-called Brotherhood of the Golden and Rosy Cross wouldn’t appear before 1710, authored by Samuel Richter7 (Sincerus Renatus). But it has been proved in the meantime that Richter’s documents were of Italian origins (De Dànann 2006; Gilly-Van Heertum, 2002).
Futhermore and as a 1678 manuscript - “Osservazioni inviolabili da osservarsi delli fratelli dell Aurea Croce etc” (Rules of The Order) - kept at Naples’ Biblioteca Nazionale shows, Richter’s was just a slightly modified translation of a text written in Italian and already circulating in the 60’s and 70’s of the 17th century.
Even if it’s not possible to establish a direct link between Gualdi’s group and the Golden and Rosy Cross, it’s on the other hand undeniable that Gualdi himself, exactly in those years, was in epistolary communication with several Neapolitan disciples seeking advice from him, as they considered him an undisputed authority on alchemy (La critica della morte, 1694, cfr. the “epistole” in the appendix).
If one looks at Naples’ document and puts it in comparison on the known fact concerning the Venetian group, there are several similarities (Barbierato-Malena, 2010).
Osservazioni inviolabili were divided into 47 points. Point no. 4 mentions the obligation of keeping the name, status, zodiacal sign etc. of member in a specifically designed register (De Dànann, 2006); point no. 27 states that members should change name, surname and identity every now and then, to preserve secrecy”. Richter’s version adds that one could even intervene on one’s biological age thanks to the “stone”, which brings to mind Gualdi’s quest for the “universal medicine” and immortality. And an even more interesting detail, in point no. 46 of Richter’s 1710 document, there is the description of the initiation ceremony of a new Brother, where it is described the cutting of seven locks of hair to be kept by the initiator.
The Italian origins of the Golden and Rosy Cross and Gualdi’s possible affiliation to the movement would also explain why in the Osservazioni there is no mention to Christian Rosenkreutz nor to the original brotherhood of the Fama and the Confessio, but rather alchemical collections such as 1625’s Musaeum Hermeticum.
It’s also true that if Gualdi’s doctrines were directly linked to those of Rosicrucianism, it was a bizarre one indeed: there was no abiding to Christianism, that was altogether shunned and scorned; there were clear references to the practical use of the black arts in general and demonology in particular; they shunned profit, but actively pursued the defeat of the limitations of biological life and the renovation of the body. Gualdi’s Rosicrucianism was such in certain forms; in practice his was more alike a certain form of “libertine esotericism”. (Barbierato Malena, 2010), but that in Rosicrucianism it would find some sort of 'intellectual horizon', a collocation.
Gualdi established a group with one foot in the mythical past of the Rosy Cross and another in a proto-masonic society of esoteric teachings and mutual assistance, a forerunner of the type of the charismatic leader and a genuinely mysterious character, present in politics, trade and esotericism alike.
IV. To (Temporarily) Close Gualdi’s File
Boccalini and Gualdi: two different fates and events, yet linked by the Rosicrucian trait d’union. Ironically, their destinies, at the opposite ends of the 17th century, would also be radically different as we saw it.
A mythical figure already among his contemporaries, Federico Gualdi was considered to be highly skilled in the mysteries of alchemy, which had allowed him to reach the age of 400; some said he was of Polish origins, some others that he came from Germany. He was a charming man, well versed in the most secret political plots and owned a limitless education; as an alchemist he pursued the research of an “universal medicine” and immortality (note: quite successfully it seems considering his age!): this is at least the description that his friends gave of him, and an aura of fascination surrounded him long after he mysteriously left Venice, probably in 1682 which further strengthen (his) legend…
In the XVIIth century, several people claimed as Federico Gualdi, including a quack doctor, Enlightenment German, Melech Augustus Hultazob. Joseph Balsamo also wanted to appear for him and the Comte de Saint-Germain said he knew him.
In 1988, Umberto Eco, fond of medieval history and occultism, alludes to the character in his “Foucault's Pendulum” even creating for the needs of the cause a 'new street' in Milan: "Via Marchese Gualdi", which is supposed to house the publishing house Manunzio specialized in esoteric publications.
In any case, one can assert that Gualdi was definitively part of the 'microhistory' of this key period when science started to distance itself from philosophy and religion.
Mines exploiter, he experimented with new ways to melt metals. Talented engineer and visionary, he designed practical solutions to protect Venice’s and his inhabitants from the strong attacks of the waters. He left behind him a unique and singular opus « De lapide philosophorum » which is a refreshing meditation to say the least. Protection by Venice’s ruling class allowed him and his companions to escape from any kind of possible major troubles. The trial was immediately interrupted and the accused were cleared. By then, Federico Gualdi had long since left Venice without leaving any trace.
Much was still to be told though about his later exploits abroad. But this is another story…