Renaissance Hieroglyphs of Nature (2011)

The Hieroglyphs of Nature and the Primacy of Vision in the Renaissance

This paper was presented at the ISSRNC Conference on Religion, Nature, and Art held at the Vatican Museums in October 2011.

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I’d like us to take a step back in time to an enchanted, but also troubled period in history. Europe in the sixteenth century was not so much divided, as fragmented, and the brilliance and humanism of the Renaissance continued to reverberate alongside religious strife, bloodshed and monumental sociopolitical changes on many levels. Unparalleled artistic and architectural feats were evolving alongside the reevaluation of fundamental institutions and a widespread sense of insecurity and disorientation.

All of these events unfolded in a world where visual imagery and symbolic language were the prevalent mode of communication. Described as an enchanted worldview, far from perceiving nature as an inanimate set of forces to be subjugated and controlled, as occurred after the dawning of the Age of Reason, humanist philosophers saw Nature as the supreme guide to knowledge and the manifestation of the divine on the material plane. In turn, this led to a nostalgic reimagining of the world through what Antoine Faivre has called ‘the imagination that allows the use of […] intermediaries, symbols, and images to develop a gnosis, to penetrate the hieroglyphs of Nature, to put the theory of correspondences into active practice and to uncover, to see and to know the mediating entities between Nature and the divine world.’1
Visual language” was the norm, and it was considered natural to see correspondences and moral significance in the juxtaposition of images and objects. The (historical) Renaissance, is defined as ‘the beginning of the civilization of the image,’
i when painting and poetry were considered to be almost the same thing; and the concept that ‘poetry is mute painting and painting is speaking poetry,’ii was repeatedly echoed in art theory, and was central to what has been called the “emblematic worldview” prevalent at that time. The Renaissance revival and celebration of antique imagery and symbols culminated in works of art and architecture embodying grandiloquent visions about ‘human and cosmic time, the order of the universe, the soul’s destiny.’iii Architecture came to be perceived as being an art-form standing ‘midway between the microcosm of the human being and the macrocosm of the natural universe.’ Man began to be represented as ‘the iconographic center of the mesocosm,’2 making man and his actions a source of symbolism in his own right, both as part of Nature and on his own terms. Through this contemplation and emulation of a ‘pagan state of mind’ together with the beauty of the cosmos and creation, it was believed that the human mind would be able to know and emulate God.3

The magnificent artwork produced during the Renaissance was the product of far more than artistic inspiration derived from a longing for the glory of antiquity. This was the time when the West was rediscovering ancient wisdom that had for centuries been buried in obscurity, when the Florentine Marcilio Ficino was translating Plato, When the Jews were fleeing Spain, and brought Kabbalistic knowledge with them. When the practice of natural magic, studied and developed by Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno, inspired the realization – originally put forward by Plato – that the universe and the world of man were so closely interconnected, that action on the human plane could affect events on a universal scale. Demonstrated through symbols, this concept can lead to what St. Thomas Aquinas called ‘an initiatory experience through a process of understanding that connects an outward revelation to a deeply intuitive sense of knowing.’iv

These ideas developed into what was seen as a path to a prisca sapientia; the sacred language in which God was believed to have spoken to Adam. It was thought that(1) true knowledge was a contemplation of Platonic ideas in visual form; 4 Plotinus – translated by Ficino – wrote that: ‘when the Egyptian sages desired to represent things through wisdom [Sophia] they did not use letters descriptive of words and sentences […] but drew pictures.’5 thus visual art took on ‘an almost mystical importance’6 in the Florentine circle. The Renaissance search for a prisca sapientia, or primordial wisdom underlying the world’s wisdom traditions and religions was central to this emphasis on visual ‘language,’ regarding which ‘there must exist a grammar of thought independent of language,’7 key to understanding ‘the Renaissance Eros, the Art of Memory, theoretical magic, alchemy, and practical magic.’8

The multivalent influences embedded within this way of thinking, found their way into numerous alchemical works, characterised by an emphasis on mythology as an allegorical key to the alchemical Art. Alchemy comprises of the triptych of practical, spiritual and theoretical alchemies, further subdivided into layers of triadic components corresponding on all three levels. These three facets can and have in the past been discussed in isolation, but this seems to have proved to be a flawed approachv towards a seminal current of the Western esoteric tradition which as articulated by Antoine Faivre and echoed by Voss, also represents ‘both a way of life and an exercise of vision’,viThe purpose of alchemical work was to act as a series of steps in order to create a multi-levelled bridge between material and divine planes, between body and spirit by virtue of the soul, composed of intermediaries in a variety of forms. This was understood through this intellectual function of the imagination, informed and expressed through concepts and motifs drawn from antiquity and viewed through a lens of Renaissance synthesis and syncretism.

In turning to explore the work of Count Michael Maier, a unique synthesis of art, alchemy and esoteric thought, it is important to keep this background in mind, as the influences of Renaissance philosophy together with the ancient mystery traditions and Pythagorean thought, all appear in his deeply engaging alchemical emblems and writings. Broadly speaking, Maier’s Renaissance philosophy can be summarized in the four main tenets of a brand of Neo-Platonism denoting the separation between Creator and creation; the belief in correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm whereby the latter can be affected through the former; and the idea of Mystical Ascent: whereby within his material incarnation, man could refine his consciousness and spirit to the degree where reconnection with the Divine could occur during one’s physical lifetime.9

So who was Michael Maier? Count Michael Maier was an archetypal Renaissance man. Royal Physician to King Rudolf II, he was a melancholic author, a diplomat, and an alchemist with a deep interest in the mystery tradtions of antiquity and Pythagorean thought – who was not afraid to get his hands dirty in the alchemical laboratory. Maier produced a variety of works dedicated to a combination of his interests in healing, alchemy, and esoteric philosophy. Two of these were highly intricate emblematic works: the Arcana Arcanissima (1614) and the Atalanta Fugiens (1617). The latter has been described as the world’s first multimedia production, an emblematic work consisting of fifty elaborate emblems, complete with legends, fugues designed to be sung or heard while studying the book, and detailed discourse giving dense theoretical and historical background on the content of the emblem.

Maier was convinced that classical myth, with its abundance of allegorical riches, was a vehicle for alchemical learning. Allegorical tales of transformation and transmutation had abounded since antiquity, from the hieroglyphic tradition attributed to the Pythagoreans by Iamblichus and rooted in the Egyptian mysteries,10 to resurface with the discovery of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica in 1419 and its explosive effect on Renaissance art and the emblematic tradition. The connection between alchemical allegory and mythology dates from late antiquity, as recorded by Olympiodorus in the fifth century CE: ‘All the ancients concealed the alchemical art under the multiplicity of discourses.’ ‘The alchemists came to include every classical myth, every ancient fable, and every conceivable allegorical figure, emblem, symbol – or hieroglyph’ – in a complex system of multiple correspondences’vii

I have already touched on the Renaissance understanding of the imagination as bridge between the various levels of microcosm and macrocosm, according to which (and here I quote Ioan Couliano) ‘all is reduced to a question of communication: body and soul speak two languages […] which are […] inaudible to each other. The inner sense alone is able to hear and comprehend them both.’ Therefore, ‘the phantasm has absolute primacy over the word, that it precedes both utterance and understanding of every linguistic message. Whence two separate and distinct grammars: […] of the spoken [and] of the phantasmic language.’11 Regarding specifically alchemical language it has been noted that The alchemists themselves were aware of the infinite number of discourses, metaphors and analogies that alchemy could appropriate,’viiiand appropriate them they did. The complex and inconsistent use of words to mean many different things at once, ‘double meanings, natural analogies and hermetick interpretations of classical mythology’ixwas and remains a central attribute of alchemical discourse, on the surface at least.

If Maier’s ‘multimedia’ work is examined through this lens, some very curious revelations begin to emerge. They were designed to draw the physical senses, the intellect, and the soul into simultaneous interplay; thereby constituting a three-fold intermediary to simultaneously develop and refine body, soul, and spirit.

Of the Atalanta fugiens, it has been noted that it is ‘of a tuitional […] character,’ and that ‘Maier intends the emblems for the senses as well as for the mind.’12 In his own words:

Let these emblems manifest themselves to your ears and to your eyes,

But after that let your reason examine the secret meaning of them:

I have brought these things to the attention of your senses,

That your mind may take from these decoy-birds,

What treasures are hidden in them.13

Those decoy birds are basically the images and symbols themselves… and in typical alchemical fashion Maier utilized a vast array of symbolism drawn from syncretic versions of Greek mythology and Egyptian hieroglyphics to elucidate – or obfuscate – the messages he wished to convey – but the viewer would have to work quite hard in order to uncover their layers of meaning. If deciphered, we are told they will yield up the most remarkable revelations, simultaneously effecting transmutation in the viewer – a kind of initiation.

It appears that Maier’s intention was to create an initiatory handbook through which the reader/observer of the Atalanta would be initiated into his true potentiality; that is, into himself. Thus he would join those ‘invisible philosophers’ toiling for the rectification of nature, following the Renaissance notion that Man possesses all of the necessary faculties to achieve microcosmic and macrocosmic unity, and the Paracelsian concept that Man’s art begins where Nature’s ends.

The title page of the Atalanta fugiens summarises the central myth of Atalanta fleeing Hippomenes in the garden of the Hesperides.14 According to the myth, the proud Atalanta, faithful to Artemis, had declared that she would never marry. When her father, king Schoneus, insisted that she take a husband, she agreed that she would marry the man who could outrun her in a footrace, but those who lost would be put to death. Her father agreed, and many suitors perished in pursuit of Atalanta. Hippomenes was one such suitor, but before the race he prayed to Aphrodite for help. She gave him three golden apples from the tree of the Hesperides to slow Atalanta down. Since the apples had a magical property making them irresistible, during the race Atalanta chased them, falling back in the race, and eventually Hippomenes won both the race, and her hand in marriage.

The narrative plays out in the mythical garden of the Hesperides, the nymphs who tend the golden apple tree of Hera, whose fruits offer immortality. Arduous passages to beautiful (rose) gardens which turn out to be repositories of wisdom or transmutation appear in a number of mythical initiatory journeys;15 and in this depiction of the myth, the way to the Garden of the Hesperides is fraught with trials, a secret impossible to discover without Divine guidance.16

In this tableau, the dragon and presence of Hercules denote that labour and danger lie along the way, and the complex nature warns that it will not be a simple matter. Maier offers a lyrical description and a set of fugues to go with the tableau, and warns the reader of the following:

One voice remains simple and delaying, and represents the apple

But the other voice is fleeing, and the third follows in the right way

Let these emblems manifest themselves to your ears and to your eyes,

But after that let your reason examine the secret meaning of them.’17

Thus he makes it quite clear that the Atalanta is simultaneously aimed at the physical senses, the intellect, as well as the soul. The senses (closest to matter) are ‘simple and delaying’ at first, attracted by ‘decoy-birds’ – where Hippomenes’ apples are also decoys for Atalanta’s vanity. The soul to which music and image may be speaking through phantasmic language is ethereal and hard to pin down or unify with matter. Reason, however, may bridge the two. So with these enigmatic instructions, Maier is inviting readers to allow their senses to be attracted by the ‘decoy’ of visual and musical beauty, so that the soul may slow down to be ‘caught’ through the symbolic language in which he is communicating, and through the intermediary of the allegories, reason can begin to see and know the soul.

The Atalanta Fugiens contains fifty emblems depicting stages in the alchemical process. However, close examination reveals that the emblems have not been placed in the right order. The alchemical stages have been numbered from anywhere between four and fourteen, and can be subdivided into the fourfold motif of thesis-antithesis-synthesis-new thesis also summarized in the most central alchemical axiom: solve et coagula, dissolve and coagulate; a process of separation and reunification of opposites to achieve rebirth, or the Philosopher’s Stone. In alchemy this was perceived both as a material substance that could be produced through alchemical processes, as well as a transcendent ontological state that could take the alchemist beyond the finite and corruptible material state of neverending dualities.

Maier begins by presenting the reader with theory, and the accompanying emblems appear to be straightforward:

Emblem I: The wind carried him in his belly Emblem II: His nurse is the earth

Alongside Emblem 1, Maier says: ‘He, whose father is the Sun, and whose mother is the moon, will be carried, before he is born, by wind and vapour. […] In chemical respect it is the sulphur which is carried in mercury.’18 Mercury is an intermediary god,19 and air the lightest element, (‘a homologue of blood’)20 the only one which can really move, which transmits music and is identified with the higher part of the soul, not easy to fix to matter. The emblem also corresponds to the prima causa; or ‘Stoic notion of logos spermatikos borne by the air or ether.’21 In the case of a hypothetical initiate, this emblem may speak on two levels beyond the practical: firstly to emphasise the interconnectedness of matter and spirit – as above so below – and the necessity for an intermediary (Mercury) preemptively denoting a separation. Before the work is even begun, the potentiality for unity is present in this introduction of the elements, the relationships between them, and their correspondences.

Emblem II completes the introduction: ‘Not the separate element earth is meant, but the whole Earth, in which all the elements are present. It is the nurse of Heaven.’22 Maier notes that ‘food changes into the substance of the one who is nourished.’23 Practically it is an instruction to follow nature in the alchemical process, and it also denotes that this ‘philosophical child,’ or ‘cosmic soul,’ which can be fixed but needs an intermediary, is also of the earth, and must be fully congealed into matter so that ‘all that is imperfect can be brought to perfection.’24 In following Nature, the nascent spirit must be nourished through the senses like an infant, for it to ‘coagulate, fasten and colour’ it, and vivify and empower it by ‘changing it into sap and blood;’25 in a ‘coniunctio oppositorium which constitutes an act of creation.’26

The next few emblems appear to follow the correct alchemical sequence, but there are also discrepancies, and close inspection reveals that the sequence of the emblems as they continue does not directly follow the basic alchemical progression, nor is there a clear circular pattern even though repetitions of themes are evident. There are musical and mathematical clues that point to to Pythagoras, while it might be conceivable that the Atalanta is constructed along a Pythagorean pattern, following a set of repetitions of the alchemical progression, several attempts to rearrange the images in such a pattern result in a forced matching on several counts, and the danger of bending the facts to match the theory became all too real. Following several efforts to rearrange the emblems in a logical order, with the alchemical sequence as a guide, three things became evident:

Firstly, that Maier chose his symbolism carefully, leaving the discerning reader a breadcrumb trail, secondly that to decipher the patterns one would not only have to pay very close attention to the imagery, but also have to become very closely acquainted with the many referential frameworks Maier used to create the Atalanta, and finally, that all of the components of the book – that is, the emblems, the legends, the discourses and the music – were necessary in order to make full sense of it.

The following spiral layout is proposed in order to better view and trace internal patterns within the Atalanta such as those discussed above. I cannot claim that this was Maier’s intended use of the images, for to make such a claim one would need to take into account questions such as whether he actually intended readers to slice the pictures out of the book. That said, the indications already discussed, in addition to the numerous encodings and cryptographic techniques used by countless alchemical writers allow us to entertain the notion that it is a legitimate possibility, especially given the ease with which the alchemical pattern – to be repeated ad infinitum, emerges from such an arrangement. The central image is Emblem 26, also central within the book, and as discussed, the one which indicates the necessity of recourse to human wisdom to complete the Work. It is followed by Emblems XLII and XXI respectively. This order has been selected because the motto to XLII places Nature first as the guide, with Reason and Exercise/Experience following her, and XXI seems to embody those two faculties, in the form of the elderly sage and his instruction through Geometry. The anticlockwise direction was selected as it reflects the tableaux in some of the more complex emblems such as XXXIX (fig. 26), follows the direction in which Nature is pointing in Emblem XLII, and is also suggestive of the reverse passage through the signs and therefore time – necessary to reach the highest possible degree of initiation,27 a reflection of a Gnostic concept of the escape of spirit from matter.

The choice to rearrange the sequence of emblems stems from the two evident discrepancies of (a) the lack of continuity according to the alchemical progression, and (b) the increasing complexity of the emblems on numerous levels: both in the cases where several chemical/spiritual processes are depicted simultaneously, and in the cases where the layering of symbolism through overt syncretism draws on centuries of mythology and alchemical discourse. An unsuspecting reader would not necessarily be able to approach the work as a whole without first going through some of the simpler steps, while an ‘initiate’ would immediately recognise the order of the steps to be taken. As a corollary to this, the thematic groupings using specific symbols in order to seek patterns, such as mortal figures, royalty, or dragons – all frequently repeated in some emblems but not others – do not follow a sensible order either. Sadly time does not allow for a full description of the spiral progression, but suffice it to say that the further one proceeds in analysing the relationships between the images, the more the theory appears to hold.

So it is less a case of Maier engineering the alchemical process into a possible initiatory progression, as of his assumption that the initiatory mystery traditions of antiquity were initiations into the deepest secrets of alchemy: namely the ability to refine and resurrect Nature and the Soul simultaneously. In typical Renaissance syncretic fashion, he combined these diverse myths to this effect: it doesn’t matter which myth is used – the Ceres-Triptolemus myth, those of Isis and Osiris or Venus and Adonis, Sol and Luna, or scriptural figures: to Maier they are proof that Alchemy is the supreme universal initiatory path expressed through these diverse myths and legends.

Maier seems to have wished to create a palimpsestic handbook that would demonstrate the philosophia perennis while providing a path for the truly ‘worthy’ to discover alchemical wisdom for themselves. Given the prerequisites of will necessary to undertake even the first steps of the process – the Scopus Artus – the ‘secrets’ were well enough protected from the profane, while the exertion necessary to penetrate the enigmas of the book readily constitutes a set of initiatory trials.

The prima materia is the ‘candidate’ himself, who would need to tease out the meanings within the layers of symbolism in order to comprehend Maier’s meaning. If this is the case what becomes immediately obvious is that the point of commencement is not the practical process, but the spiritual, and this because for a ‘true’ – in Maier’s terms – alchemist to perform the praxis, he would first need a solid grounding in theoria. To acquire this he would need to study since understanding each emblem requires a vast amount of referential knowledge. This could only be undertaken by someone with the will to do so, and certainly not by someone only seeking to make gold. The learning process together with the requisite cognitive shifts is by itself a kind of ontological initiation, particularly where the observer begins to realise that the process is a form of theurgy on multiple levels. To enter into practice, having understood this, the candidate can then begin to follow Maier’s admonition to ‘follow Nature,’ and begin to ‘tear up the books.’28 Once again this requires a conscious act of will, for which the candidate must be aware of the implications of what he is undertaking: a simultaneous rectification of himself, of nature, and the creation of a bridge between the material and divine realms – with himself in between.

This precisely reflects Faivre’s explanation that: ‘[Transmutation] consists in allowing no separation between knowledge (gnosis) and inner experience, or intellectual activity and active imagination,’29 this being the only way that an initiatory approach to Maier’s work could be effected. Such an approach agrees with Maier’s use of intellectual, as well as symbolic and aesthetic stimuli, confirming that he intended to offer the tools with which to effect such an esoteric and exoteric transmutation, leaving no space for duality or human faculty untapped.

In these respects Maier’s work represents a particularly rich source where the spiritual – and as far as he was concerned, practical, value of Art, Religion, and Nature, culminated in a sublime and sacred process for redeeming both man, and nature herself.

1Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (New York: SUNY, 1994), p. 12

2Godwin, Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, pp. 7; 37; 51; 65

3Roelof van den Broek, ‘Gnosticism I: Gnostic Religion,’ DGWE, pp. 403-416 (p. 413)

4Boas, ‘Introduction,’ Hieroglyphica, p. 9

5Plotinus, Enneads, I:6, V8

6Boas, ‘Introduction,’ Hieroglyphica, p. 10

7van der Doel & Hanegraaff, ‘Imagination,’ p. 607

8Couliano, Eros and Magic, p. 6

9W. Kirk MacNulty, ‘Freemasonry as an instrument of Initiation,’ The Canonbury Papers: Seeking the Light, Freemasonry and Initiatic Traditions, Vol 4, (Surrey: Lewis Masonic, 2005), pp. 1-11 (p. 4)

10The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, George Boas trans. (New York: Bollingen, 1950; Princeton: Mythos, 1993), p. 23

11Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 8

12de Jong, MMAF, pp. 18; 320

13Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, (Epigram to frontispiece)

14After Ovid, Metamorphoses, x.560, in Klossowski da Rola, Golden Game, p. 97, n. 27

The tradition linking this myth to alchemy has been traced back to Suidas and Eustathius – de Jong, MMAF, p. 317

15cf Lucius Apuleius, the Golden Ass; The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz; a vision of one Jodocus Greverus mentioned by Maier,cited in: de Jong, MMAF, pp. 321-9

16Klossowski da Rola, Golden Game, p. 97, n. 27

17Maier, Atalanta fugiens, epigram to title page in: de Jong, MMAF, p. 316

cf. ‘Atalanta fleeing: that is: new chymical emblems of the secrets of nature; fitted partly to eyes and to intellect […] and partly to the ears and recreation of the soul.’

Maier, Atalanta fugiens, frontispiece text, in Klossowski da Rola, Golden Game, p. 68

18Maier, Discourse to Emblem I, Atalanta Fugiens, in de Jong, MMAF, p. 55

19de Jong, MMAF, p. 60

20Tilton, Quest for the Phoenix, p. 72

21Tilton, Quest for the Phoenix, p. 73

22Maier, Discourse to Emblem II, Atalanta Fugiens, in de Jong, MMAF, p. 65

23ibid., p. 64

24de Jong, MMAF, p. 66

This echoes theosophical thinking regarding the necessity of incarnation, after Boehme: Via a lived process of “a path of individual transmutation God must become man, man must become God.”

– Arthur Versluis, Wisdom’s Book: The Sophia Anthology, (St Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 2000), p. 21 citing Jacob Boehme, Signatura Rerum, (1621) X.53

25Maier, Discourse to Emblem II, Atalanta Fugiens, in de Jong, MMAF, p. 65

26Tilton, Quest for the Phoenix, p. 73

27This is based on a speculative correlation with the Neo-Pythagorean work of Fabre d’Olivet, writing nearly two centuries after Maier, and cannot be entered into in any further detail here. Nonetheless several indications seem to justify such a speculation.

cf. Edouard Schuré, The Great Initiates, B. Skleros trans., (Paris, 1891; Athens:Dafnos, 1959), p. 48

28Michael Maier, Atalanta Fugiens, Motto to Emblem XI

29Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, pp. 12-3

iGiulio Carlo Argan, The Europe of the Capitals, 1600-1700 (Geneva, 1964), p. 14

in Gerard G. LeCoat, ‘Comparative Aspects of the Theory of expression in the Baroque Age,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2. (Winter, 1971-2), pp. 207-233 (p. 208)

iiCharles du Fresnoy, De Arte Graphica (Paris 1667)

Cf Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de più eccellenti architetti, pittori, e scultori, Gaston du C. de Vere trans. (London, 1912), IV, 83

iiiJoscelyn Godwin, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance’ (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), p. 39

ivSt Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (1265-1274), 10, in Angela Voss, HPSM 152: Alexandrian Hermetism, Neo-Platonism, and Astrology: The Rebirth of Esoteric Knowledge, (Exeter: EXESESO, 2005), p.3

vAs discussed by Voss in ‘Spiritual Alchemy’, pp. 148-9

viAntoine Faivre, ‘Esotericism’, in Hidden Truths: Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult, ed. Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York, 1987), 41 cited in Voss, ‘Spiritual Alchemy’, see above, (p.147)

viiAs summarised by Klossowski de Rola following his exposition of Bracesco’s dialogues featuring Geber on classical mythology.

-La Espositione de Geber Philosopho di misser Giovanni Bracesho da iorci novi, nella quale si dichiarano molti nobilissimi secreti della natura. Con Privilegio del Sommo Pontefice Paulo III et dello illustriss. Senato Veneto per anni diece. In Vinetia Appresso Gabriel Giolito de Ferrarii. MDXLIIII

as cited and discussed in

  • Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game, pp. 16-7
  • Cf. Gareth Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy, pp. 71-7

viiiGareth Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy, p. 66

ixKlossowski de Rola, The Golden Game, p. 8