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Vico's "New Science"A Philosophical Commentary$

Donald Phillip Verene

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781501700163

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501700163.001.0001

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Structure of the Frontispiece

Structure of the Frontispiece

(p.40) Chapter 5 Structure of the Frontispiece
Vico's "New Science"

Donald Phillip Verene

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how the frontispiece or dipintura provides the reader with a conception of the New Science before reading it and an aid to recalling it after it is read. The first two-thirds of Giambattista Vico’s Idea of the Work is an inventory. The last third, beginning with his declaration that “this New Science” and “metaphysic” are synonymous, is a description of the central concepts of the science and their interconnections. The central figure of the dipintura is metaphysic, standing atop the globe. According to Paolo Rossi, the source of this image is a composite of the figures of metaphysic and mathematic in Cesare Ripa’s Iconology (1593). This chapter considers Vico’s conception of the donna Metafisica as well as the substantive source of the figure, its idea. In particular, it discusses the female figure of philosophy, or Lady Philosophy, that appears to Boethius in prison in his Consolation of Philosophy. It also explores Vico’s inventory of the objects in the dipintura as well as his explanation of its contents.

Keywords:   frontispiece, dipintura, Giambattista Vico, New Science, metaphysic, Cesare Ripa, donna Metafisica, philosophy, Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

The genesis of the frontispiece or dipintura and Vico’s claim that it is modeled on the Tablet of Cebes does not answer the question of how it provides the reader with a conception of the work before reading it and an aid to recalling it after it is read. The first two-thirds of Vico’s Idea of the Work is an inventory (2–30). The last third, beginning with his declaration that “this New Science” and “metaphysic” are synonymous, is a description of the central concepts of the science and their interconnections (31–42).

The central figure of the dipintura is metaphysic, standing atop the globe. Paolo Rossi conjectures that the source of this image is a composite of the figures of metaphysic and mathematic in the Iconology (1593) of Cesare Ripa, which functioned as a widely used manual for later artists and engravers for depicting myths, allegories, and concepts and was published in many editions. Ripa’s representation of metaphysic is a female figure with a globe. His representation of mathematic is a female figure with wings on her head. Ripa comments: “She is depicted with wings because there is no science where the intellect cannot raise itself to the contemplation of things.”1 This certainly accords with Vico’s conception of the donna Metafisica as both reflecting and directing vision toward the divine eye. Ripa’s representations, however, are quite static, lacking the agility of the figure of the dipintura. They are truly emblems in the Baconian sense of graphic presentations of concepts, whereas Vico’s figure activates a whole intellectual narrative.

(p.41) If Ripa’s emblem book provides the pattern from which Vaccaro began his drawing of the donna Metafisica, the question remains as to the substantive source of the figure, its idea. One precedent comes immediately to mind—the most famous personification of philosophy in the history of philosophy—the female figure of philosophy, or Lady Philosophy, that appears to Boethius in prison in his Consolation of Philosophy, and which accompanies him and guides him in his meditation. As the figure of metaphysic brings the light of the divine eye into the world of things civil by reflecting it onto the statue of Homer, the Lady Philosophy of Boethius brings the divine light, expelling the false poetry of the Muses and replacing them with her own sources of inspiration (1.1.26–41).

In discussing the Latin language in his Institutes, Vico calls Boethius “Latino Platone.”2 In a letter congratulating Niccolò Gaetani, Duke of Laurenzano, on a work he had published on the moderation of the passions, Vico compares its language with that of the verses of Boethius, “il Platon Cristiano,” in the Consolation of Philosophy.3 Boethius’s work is a prosimetrum, a work in prose interspersed with verse, which encompasses the dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy.

The Consolation is a masterpiece that became one of the several books of universal appeal throughout the Middle Ages. (In late Latin, consolatio meant “aid” or “support” rather than “consolation” or “comfort.”) It omits explicit reference to Christianity, yet it treats Christian themes such as God as the highest good and providence in the manner of Neoplatonic philosophy. Pagan philosophy and Christian divinity are woven together in a manner not unlike what one finds in Vico.

Boethius reports that the dress of Lady Philosophy was made of very fine thread, and “on its lower border was woven the Greek letter Π (P) and on the upper, Θ (Th), and between the two letters steps were marked like a ladder, by which one might climb from the lower letter to the higher. But violent hands had ripped this dress and torn away what bits they could” (1.1.18–24). The two letters represent practical and theoretical philosophy. The dress of Metaphysic in the dipintura is irregular, perhaps torn. The belt of the zodiac around the globe on which Metaphysic stands has the signs of Leo and Virgo. Vico says that Leo “signifies that our Science in its beginnings contemplates first the Hercules that every ancient nation boasts as its founder.” He says that the lion is the great forest that covered the earth after the universal flood, that was burned and brought under cultivation by Hercules, and the subsequent harvesting of crops began the first time reckonings, which we owe to the Greeks. Virgo “signifies that Greek history began with the golden age. … This golden age of the Greeks has its Latin counterpart in the age of Saturn, (p.42) who gets his name from sati, sown [fields].” Vico concludes: “Thus from Saturn (whose Greek name Chronos means time) new principles are derived for chronology or the theory of times” (3).

The movement from Leo to Virgo is from time reckoning by the practical activity of cultivation and harvests to time reckoning in terms of historical ages requiring the principles of a theoretical or chronological conception of time. Vico puts the movement from practice to theory in terms of the life of nations based on this new critical art of joining philosophy with philology. In Boethius we find the ladder by which we go from practice to theory as a movement within philosophy alone.

As Philosophy explains her career to Boethius, she informs him that his plight in prison is not the first time that wisdom has been attacked by a wicked society, referring to Socrates having a martyr’s death for his dedication to philosophy. Philosophy says: “And after Socrates the crowd of Epicureans and Stoics and the rest strove as far as they could to seize his legacy, carrying me off protesting and struggling, as if I were part of the booty, tearing my dress, which I wove with my own hands, and then went off with their torn-off shreds, thinking they possessed all of me” (1.3.21–27). Vico says that in the dipintura the convex jewel on the breast of Metaphysic illuminated by the ray of the eye of divine providence “denotes the clean and pure heart which metaphysic must have, not dirty or befouled with pride of spirit or vilenesses of bodily pleasures, by the first of which Zeno was led to put fate, and by the second Epicurus to put chance, in the place of divine providence” (5).4 It is not possible to know whether Vico intended the reader to associate Boethius’s figure of Philosophy with that of Metaphysic of the dipintura, but the learned reader easily does so, and since this association is so close, it would not have escaped Vico.

The scene of the dipintura is ordered in threes, including the interplay of the three basic geometric shapes—circle, square, and triangle. The eye of divine providence, the infinite mind’s eye, projects its ray of light onto the convex jewel of the breast of Metaphysic, which reflects it onto the shoulder of the statue of Homer. Homer signifies Vico’s discovery of poetic characters that is the master key to the new science and that Homer himself is a poetic character of the Greek people. The two rays form two sides of an equilateral triangle, imitating the equilateral triangle that holds the divine eye. The circle that encompasses the triangle of the divine eye is imitated by the globe of nature on which Metaphysic stands. In the background is the great forest of the earth with the clearing in which the altar stands. In the middle ground from this are the plow, rudder, and alphabet, signifying the cultivation of the land and the migration of the peoples. In the foreground are the hieroglyphs (p.43) representing the instruments of social classes and social order. In the middle of the dipintura is representation of Vico’s three principles of humanity: the altar (religion), the torch and jar of water (marriage, aqua et igni of Roman nuptials), and the urn inscribed D.M., Dis Manibus, “into the gods’ hands” (burial).

This order of threes runs throughout the New Science and is used by Vico in the last third of his explanation (31–42) when he turns from the inventory of items of the dipintura to the account of its central concepts, ending with his reminder that “the entire engraving represents the three worlds,” namely, the civil world of the nations, the world of nature as observed by the physicists, and the divine world of minds and God contemplated by the metaphysicians (42).

In Vico’s inventory of the objects in the dipintura the last ones are “the Roman fasces, a sword and a purse leaning against the fasces, a balance and the caduceus of Mercury” (24). Vico does not include the winged cap of Mercury lying to the left of the caduceus and in front of the base of the statue of Homer. In fact, in his series of paragraphs describing each of these hieroglyphs Vico explicitly says, “The caduceus is the last of the hieroglyphs” (30).

The winged cap is the only item pictured on which he makes no comment, and it is the one item that is placed slightly differently from the 1730 original in the redrawing of the frontispiece in the 1744 edition. In the 1730 edition the cap is shown tipped up against the base of the statue of Homer, and it has somewhat more the appearance of the petasos, or broad-brimmed hat with wings added, which the Greek Hermes—Roman Mercury—is shown to be wearing in various traditional depictions. The winged cap in the 1744 dipintura has more the appearance of a helmet. In his discussion of the various divinities of the mythological canon in book 2, “Poetic Wisdom,” Vico refers to Mercury as wearing a winged cap, “un cappello pur’alato,” and as having wings on his heels, which by tradition Mercury always has. The winged cap corresponds to the winged temples of Metaphysic, but the figure of Metaphysic does not appear to have winged feet or winged sandals.

Mercury is a mediator between divine and human wisdom. In the fourth Homeric hymn it is said that Hermes is declared by his father Zeus to be “the herald of the gods” and that “he consorts with all mortals and immortals” (570–75). Hermes, or Mercury, delights in the assemblies of men and their deliberations, and in relation to this activity he is god of eloquence. With his winged cap and sandals he travels the heavens and the earth and is also the god of travelers and commerce. His connection with mankind extends to his being an envoy to Hades, making him a guide of souls, or psychopompos.

(p.44) In his interpretation of Mercury in his discussion of the mythological canon, Vico gives Mercury a unique role. He says: “It is he who carries the law to the mutinous famuli in his divine rod (a real word for the auspices), the same rod [the caduceus] with which as Virgil tells he brings back souls from Orcus” (604). In the development of the nations, the famuli are originally those offspring of the giants who did not respond to the appearance of Jove as the thunderous sky after the drying out of the earth in the centuries following the universal flood, as did those who became the founders and fathers of families. Those who became famuli sought the protection of the families and indentured themselves to them. But as this original social order developed into that of heroic republics, the famuli became mutinous, and the heroic poets imagined Mercury as bringing these famuli, scattered and lost in a lawless state, back into the protection of the heroes; otherwise they would have been swallowed up by the Orcus of such lawless existence. Mercury is imagined by the poets of the heroic age to have carried to them the first agrarian law, making them plebeians. The heroes or nobles reserved for themselves the quiritary ownership of the land but granted bonitary ownership to the famuli. Vico says that as a result, the cap of Mercury “remained a hieroglyph of [lordly] liberty” (604).5

Why is the cap of Mercury moved away from the statue of Homer in the 1744 dipintura? I think it likely a graphic revision that Vico makes, analogous to the many amendments and revisions he made to the text. The cap of Mercury is associated with the development of law in the nations, not as such with the discovery of the true Homer, although there is a parallel with the discovery of the true origin of the Law of the Twelve Tables. Why does Vico omit any commentary on the cap, when he comments on every item in the dipintura, even on the piece of Corinthian column on which the tablet of letters is leaning? It is not an oversight, because Vico overlooks nothing and constantly repeats points.

Mercury’s cap is Vico’s cap. But it would be impious for him to suggest an analogy with a pagan figure. He puts himself in the corner of the dipintura. Like Mercury, Vico is the messenger, the interpreter of divine and human wisdom, who travels through the life of nations holding their certains together with their trues, using law as the model. Like Mercury bringing the first agrarian law, Vico brings the first law of the gentile nations—the law of their three ages. Vico’s speech is eloquent, a speech of the whole, “wisdom speaking.” In general, Vico as Hermes or Mercury embodies the positive characteristics of the god, but like every god, it also has another side. In the Cratylus Socrates says: “Well then, this name ‘Hermes’ seems to me to have to do with speech; he is an interpreter (hermēneus) and a messenger, is wily and (p.45) deceptive in speech, and is oratorical. All this activity is concerned with the power of speech” (407e–408a).

Vico’s complete speech will strike the reader at times as wily, especially its etymologies, which, while persuasive, often seem too good to be true. But this is the nature of etymological claims; etymology, as is widely known, can be used to prove whatever is needed. Moreover, it is the nature of complete speech that some of what is included must be contrived because it is always the truth of the whole that matters. The details must always be there, but it is not always clear how everything completely fits or how transitions are made. The guiding principle in philosophical speech, like speech in the law courts, is that it must be true, but its truth must also be persuasive.

The cap lying there is an invitation for the reader, too, to take it up and make the science for himself by learning to weave all its details together, seeking their mutual resolution.6 Vico says that this Greek Mercury was the Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes, Mercurius Trismegistus, who was said to give laws to the Egyptians (605). All of the new science is thrice great. To verify this sense of things, one has only to consider the threefold order of book 4, which Vico summarizes in the last third of the explanation. In the Phaedrus Socrates says the Egyptian god that the Greeks identified with Hermes first discovered writing, measuring, and calculation: “it was he who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters” (274c–d; see also Philebus 18b). As mentioned above, Vico discovered the connections among the threefold unity of history, language, and law. We should also recall that Mercury, in the guise of Sosia, is the figure from Plautus’s play that Vico employs to compromise the profundity of Descartes’s cogito in the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians.

Following his explanation of the contents of the dipintura, Vico summarizes the New Science as follows. First, there are three ages through which each of the gentile nations pass: an age of gods, of heroes, and of men (31). Second, these correspond to three kinds of language: a mute language, with symbols having natural relations with the objects signified; a heroic language of emblems and inscriptions; and a human language, using words with articulated meanings agreed on by those using it. These correspond to hieroglyphic, symbolic, and epistolary or vulgar forms of language. These three types of languages correspond to types of letters, and Vico discovers that languages and letters develop together. The original form of thought and speech is that of poetic characters, which are the original genera of the fables of mankind. These three languages stem from a mental dictionary or an ideal lexicon that the languages attempt to express but is not fully embodied in (p.46) any of them. The nature of this dictionary will be discussed as part of the “Elements” and “Poetic Wisdom.”

Third, corresponding to the three ages and types of language are three types of jurisprudence. The first is a primordial theology, a wisdom based on divination and oracles and expressed in fables. The second is a heroic jurisprudence in which the heroes were the only citizens and ruled over the plebeians. The third is a jurisprudence of natural equity based on universal laws. These are the main ideas of the New Science, showing, as mentioned above, that the essence of Vico’s genius was to grasp the interconnections among history, language, and law and to comprehend their unity genetically.

Finally, in comprehending Vico’s dipintura we may consider a part of his explanation of it that appears in the 1730 edition. It follows the paragraph with which the 1744 edition ends (42). It speaks for itself and stands as both an inversion of the dipintura and a condemnation of the Stoics and the Epicureans. Vico condemns them in both their ancient forms and modern counterparts, which, for Vico, are Cartesian and Spinozistic rationalism and Lockean empiricism.7 These passages have been overlooked in the critical literature, and appear here for the first time in English translation. The numbered paragraphs refer to the “Brani delle Redazioni” of the Laterza edition.8 In the original 1730 edition, Vico presents this as a single long paragraph.

1120 You will easily be able, O reader, to grasp the beauty of this divine Dipintura from the horror that certainly will be produced in you by the ugliness of this other, wholly opposite, one I will now present to you.

1121 The radiant and clairvoyant triangle illumines the terrestrial globe; because it is divine providence that governs it.

1122 The false, and because false, queen metaphysic has her winged temples facing the globe, fixed toward the opposite part that is covered in shadows, because she could not (and cannot), because she would not wish (nor does she know because she does not wish) to raise herself above the world of nature; whence, within its darkness, she teaches either the blind chance of Epicurus or the deaf fate of the Stoics; and impiously opines that the world itself is God, operating either by necessity, which the Stoic Benedict Spinoza wishes, or by chance, as follows from the metaphysics that John Locke makes from Epicurus, and (which both) having removed from man all choice and counsel, having removed from God all providence, teaching that everywhere caprice must reign, in order to meet with either the chance or the fate that she herself desires. In her left hand she holds the purse, because such poisonous doctrines are not taught except by desperate men, they, either vile persons who have never been part of the state, or arrogant persons of low standing with no promise of honor of which they, because of their conceit, believe (p.47) themselves worthy, are malcontents of the state; for this reason Benedict Spinoza, who, because a Jew, had no republic at all, discovered metaphysics by destroying all the republics of the world. With the right hand she holds the balance, because it is science that produced the criterion of the True, or the art of good judgment; but by being overly fastidious and delicate, she is unable to be satisfied with any truth, finally falling into skepticism. She deems of equal weight the just and the unjust. She, like the most monstrous Gallic Senones [two interrelated peoples of Gaul] did with the Romans, loads the pan of the balance with a sword, imbalancing the face, making it weigh more heavily on the side opposite to that where the caduceus of Mercury is, which is the symbol of the laws, thus teaching that the laws must be served by unjust force of arms.

1123 The altar is destroyed, the augur’s crook broken, the jar overturned, the fire extinguished; and thus to a God, deaf and blind, all divine honors are denied; everywhere divine ceremonies are banished, and in consequence, solemn matrimony is completely removed from all nations, and disapproving of all divine ceremonies, they celebrate concubinage and prostitution.

1124 The Roman fasces is unbound, dissipated, and dispersed, and every moral commandment of religion is extinguished along with the annihilation of the ceremonies; with the dissolution of matrimony all domestic economic discipline is eliminated, political doctrine perishes entirely, whence all order of civil rights comes to be dissolved.

1125 The statue of Homer is knocked over, because the poets along with religion founded all of gentile humanity.

1126 The tablet of the alphabet lies shattered on the ground, because the knowledge of languages, the means by which religions and laws speak, is that which preserves them.

1127 The cinerary urn carries the inscription “Fabled Ghost” within the forest; the universal belief in the immortality of the soul has been eliminated, leaving cadavers unburied above ground; the plow has its point broken and the cultivation of the fields is abandoned, even the cities are disinhabited; and the rudder (hieroglyphic of impious men without any human language and customs) is taken back into the woods, and the feral community of goods and women returns, women who must submit themselves to men with violence and blood.

1128 Indeed, O benign reader, much of what is said so far facilitates the lesson of this work. There now remains very little for me to say in order to invite a benign judgment of it.

1129 It is for those who would judge to know that most useful advice that Dionysius Longinus, revered by all as the prince of critics, gave to (p.48) orators: that, in order to make sublime orations, they must seek the eternity of fame, and, in order to obtain such, he gave them two practics for it; we, by employing eloquence in all of whatever is elevated to science, in meditating this work, have always had these practics before our eyes. The first practic is: How would a Plato, a Varro, a Quintus Mucius Scaevola receive these things that I meditate? The second practic is this: How will posterity receive these things that I write? Because of the esteem I have for you, I have appointed to myself the judgments of such men—those, despite the changing of ages, nations, languages, customs, and modes and fashions of knowledge, are not at all diminished in repute—the first the divine philosopher, the second the most learned philologist of the Romans, the third the most sapient jurisconsult, who the Crassus, the Marcius, the Sulpicius, the Caesar, and the Cicero [various Roman families and gens] venerated as an oracle.

1130 Furthermore, it is for those who would judge to make this calculation: If this work were recently disinterred from a city destroyed for a good thousand years, having the author’s name obliterated, would you not judge it for itself? Thus if you would now make a less than benign judgment of this work, might you not consider that it is my time, my life, my name that may be causing you to do so? This motto: “Where was the man whose presumption was such that he could anticipate in hope an eternity of fame?” graciously recounts in the Annals of Tacitus [11.7] what can be said only of men who are kings; and it reflects that the same can be said even of the emperor Claudius, though a stupid prince, a vile servant of loathsome and avaricious libertinage, and who disapproved of indecency while at the same time making use of it.

In the history of philosophy, Vico’s sense of inversion in these passages is comparable to Hegel’s image of the inverted world (verkerhte Welt) in the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which consciousness in its attempt to realize itself as a subject becomes confused and entrapped in its own reasonings and loses even the ability to distinguish a thing from its opposite or moral from immoral.

As has been said earlier, Vico’s dipintura is connected to the Renaissance emblem tradition of hieroglyphics. Vico’s whole manner of thinking is hieroglyphic.9 He thinks through the power of the imagination. He never puts his points in an abstract, purely conceptual form. What he says always takes the shape of what can be called a rational image so that the reader is able both to think and to see what is meant. Vico attributes his emphasis on philology to “Bacon’s method of philosophizing, which is ‘think [and] see’ (cogitare videre)” (359). Bacon’s method connects concepts with what can be (p.49) observed empirically in nature. Vico’s philological objects are those of history; thus what is seen is not something of the senses but of the imagination. This “seeing” is the attraction of Vico’s text. His science is a science of imagination and, once his readers are taken into it, their thinking about history is transformed. Just as Bacon, with his new organon of induction, transformed the scientific investigation of nature, so Vico confronts the reader with a new organon of history. (p.50)


(1.) Quoted in Paolo Rossi, Le sterminate antichità: Studi vichiani (Pisa: Nistri-Lischi, 1969), 185. My translation. In addition to Ripa’s figure of metaphysic, the title page of the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (Rome, 1646) can be considered, as it shows an elevated figure with reflected rays, but the connection seems distant. A reproduction of this title page can be found in Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), opposite p. 124.

(2.) Giambattista Vico, Institutiones Oratoriae, ed. Giuliano Crifò (Naples: Istituto Suor Orsola Benincasa, 1989), 246.

(3.) Letter to Nicola Gaetani di Laurenzano, March 1732, in Giambattista Vico, Epistole con aggiunte le epistole dei suoi correspondenti, ed. Manuela Sanna (Naples: Morano, 1992), 167.

(4.) See below, the reference to Epicurus and the Stoics in the translation of the passages from the 1730 New Science (1122). See also the letter to Luigi Esperti, 1726, in Vico, Epistole, 127 and A 122.

(5.) Rossi, Le sterminate, 185–86, finds precedent in Ripa’s Iconology for Vico’s hieroglyph of La Libertà.

(6.) For a theory of how the hieroglyphs of the dipintura can be arranged to correspond to the five books of the New Science, based on Vico’s omission of comment on the cap of Mercury, see Mario Papini, Il geroglifico della storia: Significato e funzione della dipintura nella “Scienza nuova” di G. B. Vico (Bologna: Cappelli, 1984), 94–96. Papini is one of the few commentators to notice the fact that Vico omits comment on the cap of Mercury.

(7.) “Vico’s Reprehension of the Metaphysics of René Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and John Locke,” trans. Donald Phillip Verene, in Giambattista Vico: Keys to the New Science; Translations, Commentaries, and Essays, ed. Thora Ilin Bayer and Donald Phillip Verene (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 179–98.

(8.) Giambattista Vico, La scienza nuova seconda, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Bari: Laterza, 1953), 171–73. See also Giambattista Vico, La scienza nuova 1730, ed. Paolo Cristofolini and Manuela Sanna (Naples: Guida, 2004), 55–57.

(9.) Liselotte Dieckmann, “Giambattista Vico’s Use of Renaissance Hieroglyphics,” Forum Italicum 2 (1968): 383.