Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Vico's "New Science"A Philosophical Commentary$

Donald Phillip Verene

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781501700163

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501700163.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM Cornell University Press SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.cornell.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of Cornell University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in Cornell for personal use (for details see www.cornell.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy/privacy-policy-and-legal-notice). Subscriber: null; date: 21 January 2019



(p.29) Introduction
Vico's "New Science"

Donald Phillip Verene

Cornell University Press

On opening the original edition of the 1744 New Science, the reader first encounters, on the verso page, an engraving of a bust of Vico and, on the recto, the engraving of the dipintura. These opposing pages are followed by the full title page containing the impresa. Following the title page is Vico’s eight-page dedication to Cardinal Acquaviva, inscribed “Naples 10 January 1744” and signed by Vico as “most humble, most devoted, and most obligated servant.” Following this are six pages of official declarations of Vico’s scholarly credentials and imprimaturs of the ecclesiastical and state censors. This completes the front matter. Then, on a recto page numbered in Arabic, the text proper begins with the Idea of the Work: “Explanation of the Picture [Dipintura] Placed as Frontispiece to Serve as Introduction to the Work.”

In English translations the reader will find only a reproduction of the dipintura from this front matter. Modern Italian editions include reproduction of the dipintura, and some include reproduction of the title page with the impresa, but the portrait of the bust of Vico is missing. Reproductions of the bust, dipintura, and impresa can be found among the illustrations herein.

The engraved portrait of the bust was commissioned by Vico when he was preparing the third edition of the New Science at Naples, not long before his death during the night of January 22–23, 1744. It is derived directly from the one life-portrait of Vico, done by Francesco Solimena, which was destroyed in a fire in 1819. But in 1804 Villarosa, editor of Vico’s writings, (p.30) had a copy painted for the Academy of Arcadia, which is the one source of knowledge of Vico’s appearance.1

The original dipintura, that of the 1730 edition of the New Science, was done at Vico’s direction by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, a pupil of Solimena, and the engraving was by Antonio Baldi, a prominent engraver. The publisher was Felice Mosca. For the 1744 edition the dipintura was redone by Francesco Sesone, who, at Vico’s commission, also prepared the portrait of the bust. The publisher of the third edition was the Stamperia Muziana. As will be discussed below, the two versions of the dipintura are not identical.

Beneath the engraved portrait of the bust of the 1744 edition is an inscription by the Jesuit Domenico Lodovico, to the effect: “Here is Vico; the artist could depict his countenance; Oh, that someone could depict his character and genius.” On receiving a copy of the original 1730 New Science, Lodovico wrote Vico, suggesting that a dwarf should be added beside the alphabet in the dipintura, like Dante’s mountaineer, who is struck dumb with astonishment when he enters the city, and that beneath the dwarf should be written: “Lodo-Vico” (“I praise Vico”).2 It is a strange letter, suggesting that when readers (Lodovico among them) enter Vico’s “great city of the human race” they will be astonished at all the sights that greet them. The decision to include Lodovico’s couplet beneath the bust may stem from his status, at the time of publication of the 1744 New Science, as rector of the Collegio Massimo del Gesù Vecchio, the Jesuit school that the young Vico attended in 1680 and 1681.3

The impresa on the title page is not discussed by Vico, nor is it signed by any artist or engraver. Perhaps Vico simply asked Sesone to prepare it as an extension of the reformation of the dipintura. But even without documentation of its origin or genesis we may still ask after its significance in the work. Impresa, deriving from Late Latin, has survived as an archaic English word, defined by the OED as “an emblem or device, usually accompanied by an appropriate motto.” Impresas were common in sixteenth-century works; the treatise Delle imprese, classifying and examining the various types, was published in Naples by Giulio Cesare Capaccio in 1592.4

In presenting the idea of the work, Vico calls the new science a metaphysic: “this New Science or metaphysic [questa Nuova Scienza o sia la metafisica]” (31). Vico’s phrase in Italian uses the subjunctive (sia) of the verb “to be” (essere), equating the new science with metaphysic. It is a metaphysic in the sense that it meditates the motions of the nations in terms of the order of divine providence. Vico is conceiving this metaphysic as analogous to the root sense of the term in Aristotle, as the study of the order of the natural world that goes beyond the issues of the Physics, especially as found in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics. Vico’s metaphysic is that of the order of the (p.31) human world as meditated beyond the “certains” of the historical figures and events as understood by philology.

The impresa and the dipintura are “before and after” pictures of metaphysics.5 In the impresa, Dame Metaphysic in a Minerva-like image is seated on the globe, leaning on a base or plinth. The globe is on the ground, not raised onto the altar as in the dipintura, nor does it have the zodiacal belt bearing the signs of Leo and Virgo that girds the celestial globe of the dipintura (3). Dame Metaphysic is gazing into a mirror and holding a triangle of three unequal sides, in contrast to the equilateral triangle of the divine eye of the dipintura and that formed by the celestial ray refracted from the jewel on the breast of Metaphysic onto the figure of Homer. Dame Metaphysic is self-involved. She is attempting to grasp the triangle by reflection. Her physical act parallels the mental act that both Descartes and Locke formulate as the basis of modern metaphysics—Vico’s “barbarism of reflection” (see chapter 19, below). The attempt to reflect the geometric image is further reminiscent of dianoia, whose objects are ta mathēmatica on Plato’s Divided Line—thought that reasons from assumptions and falls below noēsis. All is terrestrial in the impresa. Instead of divine illumination there is self-reflection. There is no depicted source of divine light that could direct intellection.

On the plinth is the motto ignota latebat. This inscription means “She [Metaphysic], unknown, was lying hidden.” This is metaphysic before Vico’s new science of metaphysic. The parts of the dipintura are there in the impresa, but in a static state. Once the new science is discovered they become dynamic. The circular mirror that Metaphysic holds is raised to the heavens to become the circle surrounding the divine eye of providence, which then does not reflect, but illuminates. The plinth bearing the inscription becomes the altar that supports the globe. The triangle disappears as an abstract geometric shape and is replaced by the array of hieroglyphs of the civil world that are the “certains” of Vico’s metaphysic of history. Homer is added and stands in the dipintura as representative of Vico’s discovery of the master key of the new science—that the first gentile people from which the historical world of nations arises first thought in poetic characters (34).

The impresa, then, is the emblem of metaphysic as Vico found it among the moderns, before his discovery of the new science. It thus stands at the beginning of his book. The dipintura stands, in effect, at both the beginning and the end of his book, as it is a complete summary of the new science, but it is also the beginning, because it functions as an introduction for the reader. Vico’s work is a circle, a perfect motion of thought to be entered into by the equable reader, who will be freed by it from the deaf necessity of the Stoics and from the blind chance of the Epicureans.


(1.) Fabrizio Lomonaco, Nuovo contributo all’iconografia di Giambattista Vico (1744–1991), (Naples: Guida, 1993), 21–26 and 62–65.

(2.) Letter of Domenico Lodovico, December 24, 1730, in Giambattista Vico, Epistole con aggiunte le epistole dei suoi corrispondenti, ed. Manuela Sanna (Naples: Morano, 1992), 159. There is one other short letter from Lodovico to Vico in 1733, expressing appreciation for Vico’s oration “On the Heroic Mind.” Ibid., 174. The image of the mountaineer is in Dante, Purgatorio, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 283 (canto 26, lines 67–70).

(3.) Vico, Epistole, 304 (biographical note on Lodovico). See also Lomonaco, Nuovo contributo, 23, n21.

(4.) Delle impreseimpresaMario Papini, Il geroglifico della storia: Significato e funzione della dipintura nella ‘Scienza nuova’ di G. B. Vico (Bologna: Cappelli, 1984), pt. 2.

(5.) Donald Phillip Verene, “Vico’s ‘Ignota latebat’: On the Impresa and the Dipintura,” 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), 143–66. See also Mario Papini, “‘Ignota latebat’: L’impresa negletta della Scienza nuova,” Bollettino del Centro di Studi Vichiani 14–15 (1984–85): 179–214, and Andrea Battistini, “Theoria delle imprese e linguaggio iconico vichiano,” Bollettino del Centro di Studi Vichiani 14–15 (1984–85): 149–77.