“There is no such thing as a psychic” – Patrick Jane

 

Thanks to my hard-working web designer, my new website turned out to be ready before I finished defining my ‘blogging strategy’. Nevertheless, the vision of my empty Blog has become unbearable, so I decided start with what in journalistic jargon I believe is called an ‘odd’ or ‘bright’ – putting together some pieces of information I found along the years related to the prestidigitator, illusionist, mind-reader and self-styled ‘count’ Girolamo Scotti from Piacenza, considered to be the ‘founding father’ of mentalism. A term by which I mean here the ensemble of performing arts that allow their practitioners to simulate supernatural mental or intuitive abilities.Portrait of Girolamo Scotti

The ‘official’ date of birth of mentalism is generally placed in 1572, date of the first detailed description of a performance by Scotti at the court of Archduke Ferdinand I von Habsburg (1529-1595), regent of Tyrol. However, Scotti had been active long before that, and before turning his attention to Northern Europe (where he would spend most of his life) he had ‘toured’ the major Italian cities including, of course, Florence. There, in October 1568, the Florentine priest and diarist Agostino Lapini (1515-1592) mentioned the arrival of “a young gentleman of the house of Scotti”, barely twenty-four years old, with pale skin and just the hint of a beard (1). According to Lapini, Girolamo amazed his Florentine audience with his ability to draw specific combinations of cards apparently at will. But young Scotti was much more than a skilled card manipulator: he could make appear “as real things that weren’t” and – above all – he could ‘read’ other people’s minds:

he would say to a man, “imagine something in your heart, anything you want”. And having imagined something, he would say to him, “you have imagined such-and-such a thing”, and was right.

The source of Scotti’s powers was unknown – but devout Lapini was afraid it could be of diabolical nature. More information on Scotti’s magic comes from a failed attempt at taking advantage of the interest he had stirred up in Florence.

It is very likely that Prince Francesco de’ Medici (1541-1587), an amateur alchemist and natural scientist, was in attendance at Scotti’s show – if he was not granted a personal performance. In any case Scotti’s ‘magic’ powers had left quite an impression. In fact, several months after the gentleman of Piacenza had left Florence, a Jew named Ventura approached the Prince saying that Scotti was able to perform his tricks thanks to a folletto – an imp, or sprite (Map Doc ID 26614). Further, Ventura claimed that had he been present, he would have been able to neutralize Scotti’s powers, and that he could do what this latter had done and much more, thanks to the powers of the kabbalah.

Intrigued, Prince Francesco granted Ventura access to some rare ingredients [amber, musk and other stuff] this latter needed to put into practice his personal version of Scotti’s magic tricks. However, after months of Ventura asking for more ingredients and for more delays, Francesco started to believe that the would-be kabbalist was actually a “scoundrel” trying to take advantage of him. By December 1570, the prince had asked Ventura to stop his experiments.

Mention of Girolamo Scotti and his folletto reached again Florence in January 1574, when news came of the arrest in Rome by the order of the Inquisition of Tiberio Crispo – namesake and probably a relative of the late Cardinal Tiberio Crispo (1498-1566) – for his dealings with one “Sciotto” [probably Girolamo Scotti] held to be a “necromancer and finder of treasures” who possessed a “bound spirit” (MAP Doc ID 26773).

 
(1) E del mese di ottobre 1568 arrivò qui in Firenze uno giovane gentiluomo del casato degli Scotti, d’età d’anni 24, che cominciava a spuntar la prima barba, di color pallido, che faceva e fe’ cose stupende, e quasi che miracolose, o per arte diabolica, o in che virtù e’ se le facessi non si sa e non si seppe mai. Ma erono cose grandissime, e circa con le carte da giocare, faceva parere quello che in vero non era. E quello maggiore si è, che ei diceva a uno: ‘Immaginati nel cuor tuo, quel che tu vuoi’. Et immaginatoselo, lui gli diceva: ‘Tu ti sei immaginato la tal cosa’, e si apponeva. E con le carte faceva primiera e flussi a ogni sua posta, et altre infinite cose stupende.” – Diario Fiorentino di Agostino Lapini dal 252 al 1596, ed. by G. Corazzini, Florence 1900, p. 161