The alchemical door and the statues of Bes
The alchemical door is one of my favorite hidden gems in Rome, as recently I am becoming very interested about symbolism, hermeticism, alchemy, and the culture of ancient Egypt.
This mysterious monument, sometimes simply called "magic door", is placed in a corner of the gardens in piazza Vittorio. This is the piazza that today is the reference point for the chinese community of Rome. The area is very busy and animated during the day, but this mysterious item remains almost unnoticed by a lot of people.
The top part of the door, with the Solomon seal above the frame
The alchemical door is the only remainder of the villa of Massimiliano Palombara, marquis of Pietraforte, who lived here between 1614 and 1680. The villa was destroyed, as many other villas in this area, during the construction of the Esquilino quarter. But the door was saved, probably beacuse of the mystery that surrounds its meaning.
In fact, the legends suggest that the alchemical door is not a simple door... but a portal. And it can be crossed only by those who are able to dechiper all the symbols and arcane formulas that are inscribed on its frame, on the step, and even above it.
At the sides of the door there are two statues of "monstruous" dwarves that represent the ancient demigod Bes, who had apotropaic, oracular and demonic significance, and whose cult was widesread in the Roman world. The two statues were not part of the original door, but they were found in the Quirinal hill and later positioned here, as they are very appropriate guards for the door.
A painting of villa Palombara from Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne
Palombara was a great expert of esoteric sciences and a frequentor of the coterie of Christine of Sweden, with whom he shared an interest in alchemy. He belonged to a restricted cultural elite, and he was also a member of a famous secret society, the Rosacrucians. In his villa Palombara held meetings with alchemists and sages who shared his interests, among them were the famous astronomer Domenico Cassini and Athanasius Kircher.
The alchemical laboratory was a separated dependance of the villa where the meetings, the experiments and the rituals happened. The Rosacrucians covered several sciences and disciplines, but their practices were always impregnated of mysticism, and were based on the concept that only the adepts could access their knowledge. In this, they preceeded the modern freemasonry.
On the step is one of the most interesting inscriptions, which can be read both ways: si non sedes is "if you don't sit, you go", si sedes non is "if you sit, you don't go".
According to the myth, the marquis Palombara and his friends were conducting experiments in the laboratory trying to find the legendary philosopher's stone, that would allow them to turn base metals into gold. One day, a pilgrim arrived at Palombara's villa searching for shelter. Palombara hosted him, but the pilgrim disappeared overnight: he was seen passing through the door. As a proof, the day after some gold dust was found near the door, and a paper full of mysterious formulas and symbols.
Palombara was convinced that the pilgrim had found the philosopher stone, and that he revealed how to do so on those papers, but with a series of enigmas. No one could solve them, so Palombara decided to inscribe them around the frame of the door. Since then, the door keeps its secret. The enigmas suggest a mysterious way for the adepts to achieve the alchemical transmutation, and therefore to pass through the door.
Symbol scheme of the gate
The Tropheus of Marius, in the same archaelogical site.
How much truth is there in the legend? The real story, probably, is that this legend was spread by Palombara itself to distract the attenction from the real meaning of the meetings that were happening in his palace. The historians identify the "pilgrim" as Giuseppe Francesco Borri,
The real alchemical transmutation refers not to a phisical stone, as the common belief suggests, but to the transformation of the human soul from the unconsciousness (base metals) to higher levels of consciousness (corresponding to silver and gold).
In 1890 the gate was situated to the right of the Trophies of Marius, within which it has been it had been placed after the demolition of the villa, thus becoming an antique "ornament" of piazza Vittorio, to create a picturesque corner against the block of earth and tuff rock left to show the level of the terrain prior to the excavation work carried out to create the garden.
The epigraphs and mottos carved on it were done by Palombara himself, who thus left evidence of his membership in the esoteric movement of the Rosicrucians. Indeed, the writings are a sort of exposition of alchemical formulas, complete with warnings to those who would undertake the difficult symbolic path of purification.
The gate thus becomes the emblematic representation of the passing over the "threshold", which must be crossed during the procedure of transmutating base metals into gold, corrisponding phylosophically to the attainment of the highest level of perfection of the human soul.
The mysterious nature of it all is accentuated by the "monstruous dwarves" at the sides of the gate, which have recently been identified as two images of Bes, an ancient Egyptian demigod of apotropaic, oracular, and demonic significance, whose cult was widespread in the Roman world.
The Bes stautes were found in 1888 during the major digging work that took place on the Quirinal hill, where the residences of the most important Renaissance art and antiquity collectors, to whom they probably originally belonged, were situated.
The present day arrangement of the garden, completed in 1994, was conceived to suggest an interpretation of the site in its historic stratifications, as well as to repropose in spirit and design the 19th century intention as a meeting place for the quarter.
The repeated acts of vandalism and despoliation perpetrated on the gate down through the centuries also made necessary its restoration to recover the peculiar epigraphic nature of the monument, while taking into account the transformations and alterations suffered as compared to its original placement. The two statues of Bes underwent a similar restoration operation.