“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” ― G.K. Chesterton
Life is tough. Perhaps it’s a little too tough and you’re considering dabbling in the Dark Arts. More power to you, I say. Quite literally. Everyone deserves an alchemical, thamaturgical, or occult boost now and again. Luckily, witch burnings have become a bit passé these days, so your primary concerns are mostly contractual and existential. We don’t like to be judgmental, so whether you are looking for a benign sort of positive mojo to smooth the rough spots or are exploring the perks of worldly fame and power through more infernal means, the important thing to remember is that superhero and super-villain alike, despite whatever other extraordinary powers they evince, inevitably manifest some subtle, yet incapacitating flaw. Superman had his kryptonite. Green Lantern’s power ring is ineffective against the color yellow. Aquaman can only stay out of the water for an hour. Conan the Barbarian had his impenetrable Austrian accent. Pietro d’Abano (c.1250-1316 A.D.), considered one of the most powerful and talented dark magicians of his time, had cheese. Well, cheese and the Inquisition.
Pietro d’Abano (also called Peter of Apono, Petrus De Apono, and Petrus Aponensis) was an Italian philosopher, astrologer, and professor of medicine, studying for many years in Greece, Constantinople, and Paris before he settled down to a quiet life as an honored and wealthy doctor in Padua. He received such honorifics as “The Great Lombard” for his esteemed reputation as a physician and natural scientist and “The Conciliator” for his learned works which attempted to reconcile Arab medicine and Greek natural philosophy. He was a prolific author credited with treatises on everything from anatomy and physiology, to poisons, to Aristotelian philosophy, and the occasional magical grimoire, many of which were considered authoritative sources well into the 16th Century A.D. On the more arcane side of things, he was said to have discovered the philosopher’s stone, enchanted every dollar he paid out to magically return to his wallet, enlisted the aid of the devil to exact revenge on those who annoyed him, and kept seven alchemically created familiars (one for each day of the week) who collectively had the entire range of human knowledge at their command, in crystal vessels.
Peter of Apono, so called from a village of that name in the vicinity of Padua, where he was born in the year 1250, was an eminent philosopher, mathematician and astrologer, but especially excelled in physic. Finding that science at a low ebb in his native country, he resorted to Paris, where it especially flourished; and after a time returning home, exercised his art with extraordinary success, and by this means accumulated great wealth. But all his fame and attainments were poisoned to him by the accusation of magic. Among other things he was said to possess seven spirits, each of them enclosed in a crystal vessel, from whom he received every information he desired in the seven liberal arts. He was further reported to have had the extraordinary faculty of causing the money he expended in his disbursements, immediately to come back into his own purse. He was besides of a hasty and revengeful temper. In consequence of this it happened to him, that, having a neighbour, who had an admirable spring of water in his garden, and who was accustomed to suffer the physician to send for a daily supply, but who for some displeasure or inconvenience withdrew his permission, Peter d’Apono, by the aid of the devil, removed the spring from the garden in which it had flowed, and turned it to waste in the public street. For some of these accusations he was called to account by the tribunal of the inquisition. While he was upon his trial however, the unfortunate man died. But so unfavourable was the judgment of the inquisitors respecting him that they decreed that his bones should be dug up, and publicly burned. Some of his friends got intimation of this, and saved him from the impending disgrace by removing his remains. Disappointed in this, the inquisitors proceeded to burn him in effigy (Godwin, 1834, p268-269).
Now, all this occult experimentation and consorting with the diabolical was not ultimately what got him into trouble with the Inquisition. In fact, he was brought before the Inquisition twice, acquitted the first time. His second appearance before the Inquisition seemed to have less to do with his supposed practice of witchcraft, and more with the purported heresy of his philosophical doctrines, specifically that he denied the intervention of spiritual beings like angels and demons in the fortunes of man, and instead attributed the wonders of the universe to the influence of celestial bodies.
The most conspicuous example of an individual who is known to have questioned the accepted doctrines is Peter of Apono (c.1260-1316), a disciple of Averroes and influential in the promulgation of Averroism in Italy. He seems to have denied the existence of demons and of miracles, although his beliefs were tainted by astrological superstitions. In his old age he was imprisoned by the Church on the charge of magic and intercourse with spirits, but as he died before sentence was pronounced the inquisitors could only burn him in effigy. Like Roger Bacon he descended to posterity as one of the greatest magicians of the time (Curtis, 1922, p76).
The fact that Pietro d’Abano was an acknowledged expert in many aspects of the natural sciences and a talented physician seems to have made the Inquisition hesitant to move directly to the theological barbecue. Additionally, they had a hard time finding witnesses, who given his reputation as a fearsome black magician with a vengeful temperament, were mostly loathe to offer up testimony impugning him. As they asked in The Usual Suspects, “How do you shoot the devil in the back? And what if you miss?”
Peter of Apono defied the Inquisitors for years, for he too was protected by the superstition of the people, and they dare not denounce him even if they would. These practitioners, and many more like them, traded on the popular fallacy, and if they outraged the religious feeling of the time, they at any rate admitted its tenets. They were doubly guilty, no doubt, for in one breath they acknowledged a divinity, and in the next blasphemed it; put up an idol, and wantonly knocked it down again (Book-lore, 1886, p39-40).
Pietro d’Abano was no doubt controversial even for his own time, and while his works were well respected, he certainly had his detractors. Of course, he also spent a lot of time hobnobbing with the upper crust of 13th Century society, up to and including the occasional Pope.
As a medical writer, the opinions given by authors respecting Apono are various and contradictory: Bernardus Scardeonius and Naudaeus extolling him in terms of the most unmeasured eulogy, while Champerius, who is followed by Freind, pronounces him to have been a man of much reading, but little judgment. Making, however, the necessary allowances for the rudeness and ignorance of the age, we shall most probably find the just estimate of his merits to lie midway between each of these extremes. During his residence at Paris, sometime between the years 1260 and 1270, he composed a work entitled “Conciliator differentiarum philosophorum, acpraecipue medicorum,” which obtained for him great applause, and the title of “Conciliator,” by which we frequently find him distinguished: the object of this work, which he afterwards dedicated to Pope John the XXI his great friend, appears to have been to reconcile the conflicting opinions of the philosophers and physicians, both of his own times and of antiquity: it was first printed in folio, at Mantua, in 1472, and subsequently went through a multitude of editions in various places. He also wrote a treatise on Poisons and their antidotes, which was printed in folio, in 1474; “La Fisionomie de Pierre de Apono,” printed in octavo, at Padua, in 1505, and an edition of the works of Mesue, under the title of “Textus Mesue emendatus,” printed at Leyden (Hamilton, 1831, p353-354).
One would think that Pietro d’Abano had it all. Fame, power, and respect, not to mention some serious magical chops, but alas, he adhered to that most classic trope shared by both superhero and super-villain – “the celebrated Peter of Apono, a distinguished professor of medicine, at Bologna, could not bear the sight or smell of cheese, without fainting” (Kirby, 1820, p123). We must wonder if the Inquisition did their homework, and sussed out that a confession or recantation could easily be obtained by introducing cheese into the equation. Pietro d’Abano died in Inquisitorial custody, and as his friends surreptitiously stole his body before the Inquisitors could posthumously desecrate his corpse, rumor has it that his prison cell had the suspiciously faint aroma of mozzarella. It is entirely possible that Pietro d’Abano’s aversion to cheese arose from a sense of professional rivalry. He was after all a noted alchemist looking for the Philosopher’s Stone and consequent everlasting life, and as Clifton Faidman said, “Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality”.
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Curtis, Winterton C. 1875-1965. Science And Human Affairs From the Viewpoint of Biology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and company, 1922.
Godwin, William, 1756-1836. Lives of the Necromancers: Or, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons In Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, Or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power. London: F. J. Mason, 1834.
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