~ Curious And Unusual ~
- 12 -

The Magic Door

And The Alchemic Circle Of Villa Palombara

Piazza Vittorio Emanuele (simply piazza Vittorio for the locals) is one of Rome's largest and busiest squares, located in the heart of Esquilino district. It was built and arranged in its present shape in the late 1880s, and it is enclosed on all four sides by huge buildings in the typical late 19th century style, with a continuous series of arcades at ground level, crowded with shops, many of which run by members of the numerous Chinese community.
In its centre is a large garden, at whose northern end stand the imposing yet decadent remains of the nymphaeum of Alexander Severus (3rd century), popularly known as Mario's Trophies, also mentioned in Fountains, part I page 1); this relic reminds us of the ancient history of the district, inhabited since the 7th century BC, where during the imperial age several wealthy Romans owned rich suburban estates, which benefitted of the net of water ducts that entered Rome flowing along the course of the nearby city walls.

the garden of piazza Vittorio, with Mario's Trophies at the back

Villa Palombara, highlighted in yellow, in a map of 1676;
the blue arrow indicates the present location of the Magic Door,
while the blue dots show the extension of the modern piazza Vittorio;
the blueish area on the left is Villa Montalto, owned by Sixtus V
Very little of the ancient splendour survived the Middle Ages. But when the acqueducts were restored, from the late Renaissance to the Baroque age, the Esquiline district became once again a favourite site where to build large villas, such as Villa Montalto, the enormous property privately owned by pope Sixtus V, lavishly decorated with fountains carved by famous artists (see Fountains, part III page 6).
During the mid 1600s, next to the aforesaid estate stood Villa Palombara, much smaller in size, whose location almost matched the area of the present piazza Vittorio; it belonged to Massimiliano Palombara, marquis of Pietraforte (1614-1680).
As several other members of a small well-cultured élite, also the marquis was fascinated by hesoteric sciences, some of which he actively practised. His wealth and social position enabled him to act as a patron to a number of alchemists. In his villa he also held meetings, attended by other important personages who shared his interests, such as the Swedish queen Christina, who lived in Rome after having abdicated, the distinguished astronomer Domenico Cassini, the renowned scholar Father Athanasius Kircher, and others.

Massimiliano Palombara was a member of the Rosicrucians; this was a famous hesoteric order, whose symbol was the Rose Cross. It was first founded in 1407 by a German occultist named Christian Rosenkreuz (he might have never really existed), who completed his studies in the Holy Land. The order had died out in the 1500s, but it had been refounded in the early 17th century.
the Magic Door, the only extant trace left of Villa Palombara →

Rosicrucian symbol
of the Rose Cross
The Rosicrucian doctrine covered several scientific fields. Its practises, though, were always tinged with mysticism, and were based on the idea that only initiated adepts could achieve the secrets of such knowledge, in this being the forerunner of modern freemasonry.
Therefore, Villa Palombara had a small detached outbuilding, probably a laboratory, where the meetings and the alchemic experiments were secretly held, almost as part of a ritual.

A young doctor and alchemist from Milan named Giuseppe Borri, who had been expelled from the Jesuit college where he studied due to his great interest for occultism, came to Rome and joined the circle of Villa Palombara.

A legend says that Borri, sponsored by the marquis, carried out several experiments, trying at his best to find the mythical philosopher's stone, that would have enabled him to turn matter into gold. But one night he suddenly fled - this really happened, after being stalked by the pope's Inquisition - and left behind a number of papers inscribed with complicated formulae that nobody was able to interpret. So Massimiliano Palombara had them inscribed on the doorway of his laboratory (or, according to a different version, the same Borri inscribed them, before leaving).

Once Rome became the capitol of the kingdom of Italy, the urban development plan of 1883 unfortunately caused Villa Palombara to be completely taken down, for the making of the new Esquilino district.

the disc above the door

the Magic Door was the entrance of the villa's alchemic laboratory
The only small part spared was the very doorway of the detached outbuilding, what today is known as the Magic Door of piazza Vittorio, although Alchemic Door would have been a more appropriate name.
During the 20th century it was slightly moved from its original location, and set at the back of the huge nymphaeum's remains, enclosed by an iron railing. It consists of a small doorway, now walled up, surrounded by a white stone frame covered with alchemic symbols, and flanked by two weird-looking statues.

Above the door hangs a large disc ([1] in the picture on the right) featuring a double triangle in the shape of the six-pointed star of king Salomon, encircled by the motto [2] TRI SVNT MIRABILIA DEVS ET HOMO MATER ET VIRGO TRINVS ET VNVS, "three are the wonders: God and man, mother and virgin, the one and three". A circle topped by a cross [3] overlaps the star, and bears a further motto CENTRVM IN TRIGONO CENTRI ("the centre is in the triangle of the centre").
On the top part of the frame, a writing in Hebrew script [4] reads RUAH ELOHIM, "Holy Spirit"; immediately below [5] is a mythological reference to Jason: HORTI MAGICI INGRESSVM HESPERIVS CVSTODIT DRACO ET SINE ALCIDE COLCHICAS DELICIAS NON GVSTASSET IASON ("the dragon of the Hesperides watches over the entrance of the magic garden, and without Hercules Jason would have not tasted the pleasures of Colchis"). In fact, alchemists identified the Golden Fleece that Jason sought for in the ancient myth of the Argonauts with the philosopher's stone, the ultimate goal of their studies.

the invocation of the Holy Spirit

the Magic Door
(19th century engraving)

The vertical parts of the frame, [6] and [7], bear symbols of the planets (each of which corresponded both to a god and to a metal), and mottos in alternate order, from the top to the bottom, reading as follows:

(Saturn = lead)

(Jupiter = tin)


"when in your house black crows
will give birth to white doves,
then you will be called a sage"


"the sphere's diameter,
the circle's tau,
the globe's cross,
are of no use to the blind"

(Mars = iron)

(Venus = copper)


"who knows how to burn with water
and to wash with fire,
can turn the earth into the sky,
and the sky into precious earth"


"if you make the earth
fly over your head,
with its vapours you will turn
the streaming water into stone"

(Mercury = mercury)

(Sun = Apollo = gold)


"as Latona will be whitened
by mercury and by fire,
Diana will come undressed"


"our dead son lives, he returns
from fire as a king, and rejoices
over the conceiled mating"

All the mottos refer to the achievement of alchemic knowledge, and to the need of being initiated in order to discern (otherwise "is of no use to the blind"). Some of them use highly symbolic allegories and figures of speech, such as the last two, whose meanings are: "as matter (Latona) will be purified by mercury and fire, silver (Diana) will reveal itself", and "by being born again from their own ashes (the dead son that lives, returning from fire as a phoenix), spirit and matter come together as one, as a result of an alchemic wedding, i.e. the coming together of a natural principle and its opposite (the conceiled mating)".

The lower part of the frame [8] bears the symbol of the monad, the ultimate unit of being, and a further text:



"it is the secret deed of the true sage to open the earth,
so to make salvation germinate for the people"

The upper surface of the same part, i.e. the doorway's step [9], is inscribed with the interesting motto SI SEDES NON IS, which can be read from left to right, "if you sit, you do not proceed", but also from right to left (SI NON SEDES IS), with the opposite meaning: "if you do not sit, you proceed"; in either direction, this principle carries the precept to persist in one's progress.
The inscription suggests that besides giving physically access to the special nook, the Magic Door may have also represented an ideal threshold that the adepts symbolically crossed, in order to reach the highest degree of purity of their own souls, a condition that, according to the Rosicrucian principles, was an absolute requirement in order to fathom the alchemic secrets.

symbol of the monad, on the lower part of the frame

The standing figures on both sides of the door feature a grotesque bearded face, a short neck, and short stout legs.

above: god Bes, by the Magic Door;
right: the same god in the shape of
reliefs, statuines and amulets
In ancient Egypt, this deformed creature was a divinity, or semi-divinity, called Bes, who was considered a patron of the home, of childbirth and of infants. Bes was also known in imperial Rome, where in pre-Christian age several people followed the Egyptian cults.

However, originally the two statues did not belong to Villa Palombara. They were found somewhere near the Quirinal Hill, where in ancient times stood a large temple dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis; century after century, many of its rich decorations, reliefs, small obelisks, were unearthed, and were relocated in different parts of the city.
During the works for the opening of piazza Vittorio, in 1888, these two statues were set by the Magic Door, on whose sides they have stood ever since, almost acting as watchmen of this curious ruin.