Investigating the Mysteries of the Alchemical Gate

Michael O. Varhola

During my recent visit to Rome, while exploring an old and overgrown park in an obscure quarter of the city, I was pleased and excited to stumble across a bit of nearly forgotten esoterica, the Porta Alchemica, or Alchemical Gate.

This magical portal was created by alchemist Massimiliano Palombara, marquis of Pietraforte, at his villa on the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. It is one of five that he built at the site and the only one that still exists. Today, it can be found at the northern corner of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuel II.

Upon discovering this strange artifact I was, naturally, moved to begin researching its history, symbology, and possible purposes and, in the course of doing so, stumbled across a story that was even darker and more convoluted than I could have expected.

In 1656, Palombara developed a passion for alchemy after visiting the alchemical laboratory in the Corsini Palace in Rome, which was patronized by the exiled queen Christina of Sweden, supervised by a Pietro Antonio Bandiera, and visited by various prominent alchemists.

Reportedly, the marquis commissioned alchemists Athanasius Kircher, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Giuseppe Francesco Borri to design and build the Alchemical Gate between 1678 and 1680 to commemorate a successful alchemical transmutation that occurred at the palace laboratory. It was supposedly used as the entryway to Palombara’s own laboratory but, whether unlike today it was at that point open, or whether some occult means of ingress was employed, remains unclear.

Palombara, however, was not long able to enjoy the fruits of craft, and soon succumbed terribly to whatever dark forces he had unleashed with it. On November 28, 1680, Palombara, Bernini, and Kircher were all assassinated, quite probably by Borri and possibly in retribution for revealing secret formulae through the inscriptions on the gate.

Seven occult symbols and associated smaller Latin inscriptions can be found engraved on the frame of the door, and these contain at least part of the alchemical formulae that cost three prominent men their lives. They include six celestial bodies and the metals affiliated with each (on the jambs), plus one alchemical substance and an enigmatic quasi-palindrome (on the base), and a Hebrew inscription (on the pediment/top). A round device with inscriptions in both Latin and Hebrew is located above the door.

Pediment: רוח אלוהים/RUAH ELOHIM (“Spirit of God”) and 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").

Saturn (Lead): QVANDO IN TVA DOMO NIGRI CORVI PARTVRIENT ALBAS COLVMBAS TVNC VOCABERIS SAPIENS (“When in your house black crows give birth to white doves, then will you be called wise”).

Jupiter (Tin): DIAMETER SPHAERAE THAV CIRCVLI CRVX ORBIS NON ORBIS PROSVNT (“The diameter of the sphere, the tau in the circle, and the cross of the globe bring no joy to the blind”).

Mars (Iron): QUI SCIT COMBVRERE AQVA ET LAVARE IGNE FACIT DE TERRA CAELVM ET DE CAELO TERRAM PRETIOSAM (“He who can burn with water and wash with fire makes a heaven of earth and a precious earth of heaven”).

Venus (Copper): SI FECERIS VOLARE TERRAM SVPER CAPVT TVVM EIVS PENNIS AQVAS TORRENTVM CONVERTES IN PETRAM (“If you make the earth fly upside down, with its wings you may convert torrential waters to stone”).

Mercury (Mercury): AZOT ET IGNIS DEALBANDO LATONAM VENIET SINE VESTE DIANA “When azoth and fire whiten Latona, Diana comes unclothed.”

Sun (Gold): FILIUS NOSTER MORTVVS VIVIT REX AB IGNE REDIT ET CONIVGIO GAVDET OCCVLTO (“Our dead son lives, returns from the fire a king, and enjoys occult conjugation”).

Vitriol: EST OPVS OCCVLTVM VERI SOPHI APERIRE TERRAM VT GERMINET SALVTEM PRO POPVLO (“It is an occult work of true wisdom to open the earth, so that it may generate salvation for the people”).

Base: SI SEDES NON IS (“If you sit, you do not proceed” [forward]/ “If you do not sit, you proceed” [backward]).

Inside the disk above the door is a six-sided star formed by two overlapped triangles and, imposed over them, are a circle and a cross. Around the disk is an inscription in Latin, TRI SVNT MIRABILIA DEVS ET HOMO MATER ET VIRGO TRINVS ET VNVS (“There are three marvels: God and man, mother and virgin, triune and one”), and around the small circle there is another, CENTRVM IN TRIGONO CENTRI (“The center is in the triangle of the center”). This particular symbol is known to have also appeared in a number of printed works during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as on the bookmark of Bérenger Saunière, a French rogue priest of the 19th century.

Interestingly, the statues of bearded Dwarves currently standing on either side of the Alchemical Gate were not originally associated with it! They are, however, thematically appropriate, and are idols of the Egyptian god Bes, patron of the home, childbirth and infants. They were reportedly found in 1888 in the ruins of a large temple located on nearby Quirinal Hill that was dedicated to the Egyptians deities Isis and Serapis, who had a cult following in Rome, and thereafter attached to the Alchemical Gate.

That is all, suffice it to say, that I was able to learn in my first fevered investigation of this device, and uncovering of its deeper mysteries will have to wait until I have more time and resources at my disposal — and, perhaps, until I am able to return to this Eternal City and employ the formulae that will allow me to directly reveal the secrets of the Alchemical Gate.