A puzzling text
by Doug Skinner
[ strangeness - march 03 ]
I seem to be the first poor soul to have translated Giovanni Battista Nazari's Three Dreams on Metallic Transmutation. My version is, by design and steely self-control, a clear English text with a minimum of notes; so I'm happy to take the opportunity to comment on this peculiar and elusive work.
Nazari published his first draft in 1564, in Brescia, as Il metamorfosi metallico et humano (Metallic and Human Metamorphosis). Other editions followed in 1572 and 1599, under the title Tre sogni della tramutatione metallica (Three Dreams on Metallic Transmutation). I used this last version, thanks to a facsimile published by Phoenix in Genoa, in 1978.
As far as I know, this is its first translation into English. Even in Italy, it's not particularly well known. Alchemy specialists, to be sure, have been aware of it; Jung mentions it a couple of times. In recent years, the illustrations have become popular, and are often reprinted in books on hermeticism. But the text itself has been locked tight in its Tuscan.
About Nazari himself I know, alas, almost nothing. He lived approximately from 1533 to sometime later; he was a native of Brescia; he worked as a notary. Bibliographies yield other Nazari nuggets published in the 1560s and '70s: a biography of Angela Merici, a Discourse on the Future Victory, a work on the Lateran Basilica - if, indeed, these are all the same Nazari. A certain Arturo Comincini (from, naturally, Brescia) wrote a monograph in 1997, which I haven't been able to find.
And the Three Dreams? Well, it's an odd piece of work. It consists of three fantastic and discursive dream visions, in which our narrator wanders through forests, caves, mountains, meadows, and villages; following nymphs, escaping monsters, pondering allegorical structures, spelling out inscriptions, and listening to lectures - all in pursuit of the elusive secrets of alchemy. His oddly random adventures are interrupted by digressions into botany, cryptography, music, and other subjects; and studded with verses, bibliographies, lists, and classical references. It's many things at once: allegory, textbook, satire, encyclopedia, fantasy. It's fairly concise, though: less than 200 pages.
It's also somewhat of a scrapbook - much of it is swiped from other sources. One of these is the Book on the Natural History of Metals by Bernard Trévisan (or, if you prefer, Bernardo di Treviso), most of which he incorporated verbatim. Each dream ends with our wanderer sitting at the feet of the venerable Bernardo, who reels off long passages from his work.
Nazari is also indebted to that wildest and most mysterious of Renaissance works, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream), published in 1499, and usually credited to Francesco Colonna, thanks to the acrostic in the chapter initials. This bulky and preposterous volume, written in weird Latinate Italian, with forays into Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, and stuffed with exquisite woodcuts, takes its hero Poliphilo through enigmatic allegorical and erotic exploits in his courtship of his beloved, Polia - only to have her vanish (I hope it's okay to give away the ending). Nazari took from Colonna a similar literary use of the dream, a penchant for minute descriptions of architectural fantasies, a fascination with emblems and hieroglyphics, and a bevy of nymphs. He also lifted passages outright, some paraphrased, some verbatim - which can be jarring, since he had a different style. Colonna is polished and artificial, with a large and neologistic vocabulary; Nazari is rougher, more improvisational, with a taste for repetition and pleonasm. (I've only browsed through the Hypnerotomachia, so I can't cite all the parallels; for the sake of specificity, I offer two: Nazari quotes Colonna's opening passage in the first chapters of Dreams One and Two, and the obelisk from Colonna's Chapter 10 reappears in Nazari's Third Dream, Third Chapter.)
I have a suspicion, however, that someone more marinated in the literature could find more borrowings from other sources; that Nazari is, in fact, dreaming of all the books he has read.
This doesn't make his work any less interesting; in fact, it may make it even more perplexing. He identifies Bernardo by name, but never acknowledges Colonna - not even including him in his bibliographies. And amid his long lists and transcriptions, he adds personal touches: evocations of Brescian landmarks, a paean to a local shopkeeper's trained starling.
As the title so clearly states, there are three dreams - a sort of alchemical Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. They defy synopsis, but I'll bravely sketch a few outlines.
The First Dream, "On the Transmutation of Metals called Sophistical," showers us with images of futility and delusion. Our narrator falls asleep after his studies. He meets a lovely damsel, only to lose her in a crowd. He sees two doors, and follows the majority through the left one, where he finds the Fountain of Midas. He encounters the damsel's deceptive twin sister, a mutilated statue of Mercury (bearing verses in a simple substitution cipher), and a gigantic golden ass ringed by dancing monkeys. He passes through caves and villages filled with crazed alchemists, who rip apart their own bodies in their lust for gold; then emerges atop a mountain, where Bernardo recounts his long years of fruitless experimentation. He is attacked by a bear, and awakes.
The Second Dream, "On the Transmutation of Metals called Royal Ordinary," turns to the practical techniques of metallurgy. Again, the narrator falls asleep; he sees an exquisite globe, then a monstrous personification of Sloth, followed by a retinue of grotesques. He rejoins the damsel, who reveals that her name is Royal Ordinary, and who summarizes her family history before again vanishing. He describes a wonderful arch, then meets Pan and Silvanus singing verses about perseverance. After crossing a river on a sumptuous boat, he meets a nymph; she outlines the properties of numerous rivers, lists eighteen useful alloys, and tells him where to mine various metals. He copies a long list of classical writers, then relaxes in a garden, where a group of nymphs treats him to a concert. Each of the eighteen alloys is then described in allegory, usually as the violent abuse of some mythological figure. Once again, he ends on a mountaintop, where Bernardo teaches him about the first matter and the properties of philosophical mercury and sulfur.
The Third Dream, "On the Metamorphosis of Metals," veers into odder allegorical realms. Our Author again falls asleep; he again approaches the two doors, but this time chooses the right one. He escapes from a hydra, and enters a cave, where he sees a wonderful pyramid and an altar to Hermes. He meets a sphinx, whose riddles he answers with evasions. He enters a labyrinth; a damsel explains a marvelous tree in its center. She shows him an elaborate arch, and explains an even more complicated genealogical chart. He crosses a dangerous bridge, and describes a variety of emblematic statues and pedestals. He visits a cloister, where he copies out a lengthy alchemical bibliography. Another damsel takes him to a three-headed dragon, then to a glass vessel holding two nursing mothers. He ends up again before Bernardo, who tells him a parable about a king and his fountain. This is interrupted by a violent storm, and he awakes.
There's a clear progression from dream to dream: the narrator works his way up from sophistry to science to philosophy. The narrative within each, though, seems a curious hodge-podge, with surprising shifts between narrative, catalogues, hallucinatory images, and scientific exposition. Perhaps because of its patchwork provenance, there's little unity of tone or action. As in much alchemical literature, we're struck by startling and evocative images, but don't quite know why. Even when we figure out the symbolism, we're still baffled; little seems to be gained by depicting seven metals as seven courtiers. Some of this is explained by the neo-platonic penchant for finding parallels and correspondences on each rung of the big hierarchical ladder of creation; some to the classical art of memory, which encoded information in striking images; some to the literary conventions of the genre, which included a few dollops of mystification and obfuscation. Some is not.
Jung cites Three Dreams as one of the more extended specimens of the alchemical dream vision. Perhaps its very expansiveness allowed it to become one of the wilder and more willful. Then, too, like most writers, alchemical or otherwise, Nazari may have simply wanted to put everything in his book, because there was so much to say about the world, so many books to read, so many flowers and trees to name, so many things that he loved. Perhaps he meant his book to be as rich and all-inclusive as that first matter that all alchemists pined for. In the last dream, that elusive yet omnipresent stuff is personified as a three-headed dragon, a nurturing yet poisonous hermaphrodite who is all contradictions combined. It's only fitting to let it have the last word: "It is in the high mountains that I find my rest and repose, yet it is in the plains and valleys of the earth, and in the dunghills, that I reside; it is in the vaporous water that I am conceived, yet it is in the air and fire that I find my food... My father and my mother conceived me, but I first conceived them. I am father and son; I am mother, father, and son; I am invisible when I fly, and impalpable when I flee through the air, but visible and palpable to the touch..."