Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
The Playthings of Philosophers
By Isaac Disraeli (1766–1848)
 
From Curiosities of Literature

THE MUSEUMS, the cabinets, and the inventions of our early virtuosi were the baby-houses of philosophers. Baptista Porta, Bishop Wilkins, and old Ashmole, were they now living, had been enrolled among the quiet members of the Society of Arts, instead of flying in the air, collecting “A wing of the phœnix, as tradition goes”: or catching the disjointed syllables of an old doting astrologer. But these early dilettanti had not derived the same pleasure from the useful inventions of the aforesaid Society of Arts, as they received from what Cornelius Agrippa, in a fit of spleen, calls “things vain and superfluous,” invented to no other end but for pomp and idle pleasures. Baptista Porta was more skilful in the mysteries of art and nature than any man in his day. Having founded the Academia degli Oziosi, he held an inferior association in his own house called Di Segreti, where none was admitted but those elect who had communicated some secret; for, in the early period of modern art and science, the slightest novelty became a secret not to be confided to the uninitiated. Porta was unquestionably a fine genius, as his works still show; but it was his misfortune that he attributed his own penetrating sagacity to his skill in the art of divination. He considered himself a prognosticator; and, what was more unfortunate, some eminent persons really thought he was. Predictions and secrets are harmless, provided they are not believed; but His Holiness finding Porta’s were, warned him that magical sciences were great hindrances to the study of the Bible, and paid him the compliment to forbid his prophesying. Porta’s genius was now limited, to astonish, and sometimes to terrify, the more ingenious part of I Segreti. On entering his cabinet, some phantom of an attendant was sure to be hovering in the air, moving as he who entered moved; or he observed in some mirror that his face was twisted on the wrong side of his shoulders, and did not quite think that all was right when he clapped his hand on it; or passing through a darkened apartment a magical landscape burst on him, with human beings in motion, the boughs of trees bending, and the very clouds passing over the sun; or sometimes banquets, battles, and hunting parties, were in the same apartment. “All these spectacles my friends have witnessed!” exclaimed the self-delighted Baptista Porta. When his friends drank wine out of the same cup which he had used, they were mortified with wonder; for he drank wine, and they only water! or on a summer’s day, when all complained of the sirocco, he would freeze his guests with cold air in the room; or, on a sudden, let off a flying dragon to sail along with a cracker in its tail, and a cat tied on its back; shrill was the sound, and awful the concussion; so that it required strong nerves, in an age of apparitions and devils, to meet this great philosopher when in his best humour. Albertus Magnus entertained the Earl of Holland, as that Earl passed through Cologne, in a severe winter, with a warm summer scene, luxuriant in fruits and flowers…. Bishop Wilkin’s museum was visited by Evelyn, who describes the sort of curiosities which occupied and amused the children of science. “Here, too, there was a hollow statue, which gave a voice, and uttered words by a long concealed pipe that went to its mouth, whilst one speaks through it at a good distance”: a circumstance which, perhaps, they were not then aware revealed the whole mystery of the ancient oracles, which they attributed to demons rather than to tubes, pulleys, and wheels. The learned Charles Patin, in his scientific travels, records, among other valuable productions of art, a cherry stone on which were engraved about a dozen and a half of portraits! Even the greatest of human geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci, to attract the royal patronage, created a lion which ran before the French monarch, dropping fleurs de lis from its shaggy breast. And another philosopher who had a spinet which played and stopped at command, might have made a revolution in the arts and sciences, had the half-stifled child that was concealed in it not been forced, unluckily, to crawl into daylight, and thus it was proved that a philosopher might be an impostor!
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  The arts, as well as the sciences, at the first institution of the Royal Society were of the most amusing class. The famous Sir Samuel Moreland had turned his house into an enchanted palace. Everything was full of devices, which showed art and mechanism in perfection: his coach carried a travelling kitchen; for it had a fireplace and grate, with which he could make a soup, broil cutlets and roast an egg; and he dressed his meat by clockwork. Another of these virtuosi, who is described as “a gentleman of superior order,” and whose house was a knick-knackatory, valued himself on his multifarious inventions, but most in “sowing salads in the morning, to be cut for dinner.” The house of Winstanley, who afterwards raised the first Eddystone lighthouse, must have been the wonder of the age. If you kicked aside an old slipper, purposely lying in your way, up started a ghost before you; or if you sat down in a certain chair, a couple of gigantic arms would immediately clasp you in. There was an arbour in the garden, by the side of a canal; you had scarcely seated yourself when you were sent out afloat to the middle of the canal—from whence you could not escape till this man of art and science wound you up to the arbour. What was passing at the Royal Society was also occurring at the Académie des Sciences at Paris. A great and gouty member of that philosophical body, on the departure of a stranger, would point to his legs to show the impossibility of conducting him to the door; yet the astonished visitor never failed finding the virtuoso waiting for him on the outside, to make his final bow! While the visitor was going downstairs, this inventive genius was descending with great velocity in a machine from the window: so that he proved, that if a man of science cannot force Nature to walk downstairs, he may drive her out at the window!  2
 
 
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