Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Glass Headhunters

Berkshire Glass Works cane from 1878 –
Charles Flint collectionThese were novelty items 
made by glassworkers after hours.
(hollow, filled with the fine quality sand of the area)
Since early days, the technical aspects of making and manipulating hot glass have remained a closed and secretive business. Down through the ages, those with inside knowledge of this art have been highly valued and highly sought after. Even with the circulation of technical manuscripts and the ultimate publication of the technology in Antonio Neri’s 1612 book L’Arte Vetraria. The beating heart of the craft remained at the furnace among those with hands-on experience. [1] These artisans could and often did make the difference between success and failure in a business that was notorious for sending substantial fortunes up in smoke.  


In some places, strict laws forbade glass workers from leaving their employ and forbade outsiders from attempts to lure them away. Recruiting seasoned talent could be a delicate if not clandestine undertaking. This was as true in the ancient world as it was through the Renaissance and it also played a significant role in the 18th and 19th century for the nascent American glass industry.

Many have, heard of the legendary prohibition forbidding Renaissance Venetian glass workers from travel abroad. The fear was that they might divulge secrets of their craft to outsiders, thereby compromising the virtual monopoly on high quality luxury glassware made on the fabled island of Murano. Many also have heard that the penalty for violating these rules was death at the public gallows located between the columns at Saint Mark's square.  While there were laws on the books that listed possible penalties as severe as death, the records show that no glass worker was ever executed for leaving and many did leave. In fact, glass workers were sometimes part of state brokered deals to exchange technology.

These Venetian laws have also led many to the incorrect conclusion that the glassmakers were held captive and treated like prisoners. Nothing could be farther from the truth; glass workers were treated like rock-stars of their time. The daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into the nobility, a privilege granted to no other guild. [2]

Early American efforts to recruit experienced glass workers provide some amusing stories. In 1894, William G. Harding, a principal in the Berkshire Glass Works in Massachusetts wrote a detailed history of glassmaking in the region.  Harding’s research was meticulous, drawn from factory records, official legal filings and personal correspondence. Two stories in particular relate the great lengths pursued in recruiting experienced European glass workers to New England.


The first concerns Robert Hew[e]s, who despite repeated failures in starting a glassworks in the late 1700s, finally partnered in Boston with one Charles F. Kupfer newly arrived from the Duchy of Brunswick in Germany. Together they formed Boston Crown Works on Essex street.  Kupfer immediately returned to Germany to recruit workers, as harding records,
“Mr. Kupfer upon his arrival at his old home, found it no easy matter to get his blowers. The works belonged to the Duke of Brunswick, and it was a penal offense either for the men to leave, or for him to entice them away. He was obliged to conceal his designs and operate in the dark, but succeeded in escaping in the night with a set of workmen and sailed from a German port before being overtaken. After a long voyage they landed in Boston and met with a Royal reception. So much interest in the new enterprise had been awakened in the citizens of Boston, that they turned out en masse…” [3]


The other story of clandestine recruiting related by Harding concerns a venture started in Sand Lake, about 10 miles east of Albany, New York around 1806.
“They had to import their skilled workmen. Mr. William Richmond, a Scotchman, was the Superintendent of their works. He went abroad to procure workmen. Disguised as a mendicant [monk/priest], with a patch upon one eye and playing upon a bag-pipe, he wandered through the glass district of Dumbarton in Scotland and engaged his blowers to cross the Sea. With great difficulty they secreted their tools on Ship-board, for it was a penal offense for glass-workers to leave Scotland as well as Germany.” [4]


[1] Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, distinta in libri sette, del R.[everendo] P.[rete/ padre] Antonio Neri fiorentino. Ne quali si scoprono, effetti maravigliosi, & insegnano segreti bellissimi, del vetro nel fuoco & altre cose curiose. All’Illvst.mo et eccell.mo Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici (Florence: Giunti 1612).
[2] A daugher of a glassmaker could marry into the nobility, which was a great honour for a family, but strategically, the son of a glassmaker had no such privilege, meaning that there were no inheritance rights for the family.
[3] Collections of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, (Pittsfield: Sun Printing, 1894),  p. 37-39
Note that Robert Hews is also known as 'Hewes' in other sources.
[4] op cit. p. 39-40.

Monday, June 26, 2017

San Giusto alle Mura

Window of  Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral,
Florence, Italy.
In Florence, at the very end of the street on which Antonio Neri spent his youth, Borgo Pinti, was the residence and estate of the Archbishop. Beyond were the city walls and the enormous wooden doors of the Porta Pinti gate (115 foot, or 35 meters tall). Just on the other side of the gate, which in Neri’s time was normally closed and guarded, once stood the San Giusto alle Mura monastery, built in the thirteenth century. Despite the similar name, there is no connection between the Ingesuati monks of San Giusto and the modern order known as the Jesuits, which was not formed until 1534 and recognized by the Church in 1540.

The monks at San Giusto were famous for the stained glass windows they made; hence one of numerous theories that the street name 'Pinti' may be a contraction of 'dipinti 'or 'dipintori' (paintings or painters). Using their own glass furnaces, the Ingesuati monks provided windows for the Neri family's church Cestello and for Santa Maria del Fiore among other churches. They also ran an art school and were famous for making the color pigments used by painters, producing a coveted ultramarine blue. Their customers included the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Del Sarto, Ghirlandaio and Filippo Lippi. 

Apparently, the Ingesuati's artistic devotion was not matched by their religious observance. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari recalls the less than complimentary sentiments of the monk's own in-house chaplain, a certain Servite monk named Fra Martino. He notes that the monks do not read Mass, and that they, "do nothing but say paternosters ['our Father...'], make glass windows, distill herbs for sweet waters, dig their gardens, and perform other works of similar kind, but do not study or cultivate letters."

Antonio Neri has a slightly more positive opinion about the value of stained glass windows. In the introduction to L'Arte Vetraria, he waxes poetic: 
Glass is also a great ornament to God's churches since, among other things, many beautiful windows are made, adorned with graceful paintings, in which the metallic colors are so intense and vivid that they seem like so many oriental gems. 
The windows that inspired these lines may well have been made by monks of San Giusto. As a child, Antonio Neri had seen the striking windows in Cestello and in the city cathedral. It would be nice to be able to connect him to the Ingesuati, but in 1529, long before his birth, their entire complex just outside the Pinti Gate was dismantled in defensive preparation for the siege of Florence. The Florentine military cleared away the structures near the outside of the city walls. The monks of San Giusto alle Mura moved to the much smaller Calza Convent on the oltrarno, on the opposite side of town near the Porta Romana gate. They did not rebuild the glassworks at the new location and it is doubtful that any of the glass workers would have still been alive by the time Antonio Neri came of age.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form as "Glass Monks" on 30 September 2013.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Montpellier

Montpellier, France, in the seventeenth century.
(Attribution unknown)
Montpellier is an old city in southern France. It stands about halfway between Marseille and the Spanish border along the Mediterranean Sea (strategically located slightly inland to avoid pirates). First documented in the tenth century, it is one of very few French cities that developed without the influence of ancient Roman occupation; it is a pure product of the local region. It became a center of intellectual learning and attracted students from throughout Europe. Around it sprung a number of supporting arts not the least of which was glassmaking. Once famous for its fine glassware, today this centuries long heritage is all but forgotten, yet when we dig into the literature, we find a surprise connection to one of the oldest legends in the history of glass.

Since before the Renaissance, Montpellier was an established center for medical and legal education, a strong tradition that continues at the university there; today, it houses the oldest running medical school in the world. This prestigious institution "was founded perhaps by people trained in the Spanish medical schools; it is certain that, as early as 1137, there were excellent physicians at Montpellier University." [1] In 1529, Nostradamus entered to study for a doctorate in medicine, but shortly thereafter, he was expelled when it was discovered that he previously worked as an apothecary; a 'manual' skill that was banned by the school's rules of conduct.

Paradoxically, these impugned 'manual' arts account for some the region's more intriguing activity. Along with medicine, the area became known for the production of paint pigments, for glassmaking and finally for alchemy. All of these turn out to be closely related to each other, but perhaps not obviously so. Throughout the Renaissance, apothecaries were responsible for a wide range of distillations and extracts used by physicians to treat disease. They were also the de facto suppliers of pigments and other fine art supplies and even sourced some of the materials for glassmaking. Glassmakers often relied on painters to embellish their products, painters used ground glass in their pigments and apothecaries needed glassmakers to produce the flasks, beakers and other alchemical equipment required for their profession.

An anonymous Montpellier manuscript of the fourteenth century, called the Liber diversarum arcium [Book of Various Arts], offers us one of the most complete guides to the production of pigments to have survived from that period. [2] Another, later writing of the sixteenth century offers an extensive collection of glassmaking recipies brought to Montpellier from Venice. This one is titled Recette per fare vetri colorati et smalti d’ogni sorte havute in Murano 1536 [Recipes to make colored glasses and enamels of every kind as in Murano, 1536]. [3]

Local history points to the town of Claret just north of Montpellier as the seat of regional glassmaking. Beginning in 1290, the oak forests on the Causse de l'Orthus attracted glassmakers and their families. "So maybe the oaks got used for fuel. (A 'causse' is a geological term for a limestone plateau.) [also a material of glassmaking] At any rate, the glassmakers were ennobled by the King and formed a guild of premium glassmakers whose wares were sold all over Europe from the market at Sommières." [4]

In the early seventeenth century, Pierre-Jean Fabre (1588-1658) studied medicine at Montpellier where he discovered the works of Paracelsus, to which he became a devotee. [5] After securing a medical degree, he returned to the nearby town of his birth, Castelnaudary, to work as a doctor. Eventually, he was awarded the status of "Royal Physician" by Louis XIII, probably for his work on treating victims of the plague with chemical preparations. [6]

Fabre's first book, of a total canon numbering sixteen volumes, was on the subject of alchemy and medicine titled "Palladium spagyricum" 1624. [7] The book, written in Latin, contains advice on the transmutation of metals, turning water into "good wine" and elixirs to cure all disease. It contains one recipe that is of particular interest on the subject of glassmaking; a malleable form of glass, known in legend since the Roman Empire as Vitrum Flexile.

See my previous post to take a closer look at Fabre's specific recipe for a glass that is malleable at room temperature and trace a bit of the legend's history.

[1] Wikipedia, “University of Montpellier” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Montpellier.
[2] Mark Clarke: Mediaeval Painters' Materials and Techniques: The Montpellier Liber diversarum arcium (London: Archetype Publications, 2011).
[3] Montpellier 1536, MS. H. 486: Recette per fare vetri colorati et smalti d’ogni sorte havute in Murano 1536, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole de Médecine de Montpellier, see also Zecchin 1987, v.1 p 247-276. Although the manuscript is dated 1536 it is probably copied from much earlier Venetian sources.
 [4] Ed Ward, Blog: City on a Hill, 1 Nov. 2010 post “Where the Glass-Blowers Were.” http://wardinfrance.blogspot.com/2010/11/where-glass-blowers-were.html . Also see Halle du Verre regional glass museum website http://www.cc-grandpicsaintloup.fr/-Halle-du-verre-.html .
[5] Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss born physician and alchemist who looked to nature rather than ancient texts for remedies to disease. He was widely condemned durring his lifetime but became very popular after his manuscripts were printed in the late sixteenth century.
[6] The definitive reference on Fabre is Bernard Joly: La rationalité de l'alchimie au XVIIe siècle (France: Vrin, 1992), pp. 35-50. A good English treatment can be found in Allen George Debus: The French Paracelsians: The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) pp, 75, 76.
[7] Pierre-Jean Fabre: Palladium spagyricum Petri Ioannis Fabri doctoris medici Monspeliensis ... (Toulouse: Bosc, 1624), p. 276. Later translated into several English editions, notably by William Salmon: Polygraphice: Or the Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limming, Painting … (London: T. Passenger & T. Sawbridge, 1685), pp. 598, 599.




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Vitrum Flexile

Roman Emperor Tiberius - Glass paste cameo
 c 20ACE by "Herophilos, Son of Dioskurides"
In the first century CE, references appear in the literature for a malleable form of glass --that is to say flexible-- the method for which is reported as lost. This 'vitrum flexile' was a material that supposedly could be worked with a hammer like metal; not brittle but plastic, yet retaining the other favorable properties of glass. In the ancient world, historians Strabo (c. 63 BCE–24 CE), Pliny (c. 23–79 CE), Petronius (c. 27–66 CE) and others recount the story of a hapless artisan who brought his great discovery to Roman emperor Tiberius. Fearing the devaluation of his wealth, the emperor had the glassmaker executed on the spot and his workshop destroyed. The implication being that the inestimable value of a malleable glass would crash the markets for gold and silver. [1]

Since then, the legend has resurfaced in various forms, notably at periods in history of technological upheaval; times when innovative knowledge threatened to 'disrupt' the established order. One incarnation has the sophy of Persia gifting a set of malleable drinking glasses to the king of Spain, Philip III, around 1610. Just then, new trade deals with the Middle East rattled the European economy and Venetian glass craftsmen fanned out through Europe, disrupting local glass furnaces and guilds with their superior techniques. [2] Another version tells of a French sculptor bringing his malleable glass-work to Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), of Dumas' Three Musketeers fame. According to the story, that particular artisan’s reward was life in prison. The tale takes place in a tumultuous political period in French history and appears in print at the dawn of the so-called industrial revolution. [3]

Chronologically, this last story aligns nicely with the publication, in southern France, of a Latin book of alchemical recipes by royal physician Pierre-Jean Fabre (1588-1658). Contained in his volume is a prescription for a malleable form of glass, presumably the fabled vitrum flexile. Fabre's book was titled Palladium Spagyricum, 1624. [4] Spagyricum is a reference to spagyrics, the specific brand of chemistry practiced by sixteenth century alchemist-physician Paracelsus. Palladium translates to 'protector' or 'savior'. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Fabre developed an elaborate philosophy which integrated chemistry as a 'sacrament' to Catholic theology, but that is a story for another day.

In 1685, Fabre's recipes were nicely translated into English and tucked into the end of a book otherwise devoted to the art of drawing, by William Salmon [5]. Here is the full recipe "To Make Malleable Glass" as rendered in Salmon's book:

I.        Take oyl of Luna, twenty drachms: oyl of Mercury, or its water seven times rectified, one pound: mix them together and distill them.
II.      Repeat this distillation till the oleum Lunae rises with the water of Mercury in distillation. 
III.     Distill this water again until it is fixed, and converted into a fixed oyl, and this repeat four times. 
IV.     In the fourth time the oyl of Luna is fixed with the oyl of Mercury, so that they render glass malleable; for so great is the viscosity in your oyls, that it removes the brittleness of the glass, and so leaves it of a malleable temper. 
V.      The reason is, because that the radical moisture of the glass is multiplied by the radical moisture of the metals. Which is plentiful and turgent or swelling in the oyls of Luna and Mercury. 
VI.     And if [in] this oyl made volatile, diamonds should be dissolved, and then digested into a fixt oyl, it would transmute all glass into diamonds, only by projecting this oyl onto melted glass. 
VII.   There are also other precious stones comprehended within this oyl, when it is made volatile, and digested, and fixed again by digestion continually for the space of a year. 
VIII.  Also this oyl can turn glass into precious stones of any kind whatsoever, if therein (being made volatile) precious stones of the same kind have been dissolved, and digested with it into a fixed oyl. 
IX.     For as metals are included in their fixed oyls: so are precious stones in theirs, as Raymundus Lullius doth witness in many places; the which thing we shall teach you in the following chapter. 
 Elsewhere in the book, it is explained that 'oyl of Luna' is silver dissolved in acid, and 'oyl of Mercury' is a sublimation of mercury and saltpeter. [6] From a purely technical standpoint, the formula is credible in that both mercury and silver were successfully used as additives to glass and they do integrate into the matrix. Notably, Antonio Neri used both of them in his chalcedony glass. In Neri's case he was using these metals to produce color, although he does not attribute a specific tint to these ingredients. Under some circumstances, silver is known to produce an attractive blue. It should also be noted that Renaissance glassmakers used similar silver-mercury formulas to produce a reflective layer on finished glass mirrors, in a process that resembled gilding. They formed what was known as "mercury glass." It is not beyond the pale to speculate that experiments would be conducted to add such concoctions directly to the glass melt. In the end, though, there is no indication that these additives would produce a malleable glass.

As far as I am aware, this is the first example of a specific recipe for malleable glass uncovered in the literature. If nothing else, it is an important marker for further research into the history of glassmaking.


[1] Strabo: Geography, v. 8; Pliny: Naturalis Historia XXXVI.lxvi.195; Petronius: Satyricon 50.7; Also recounted by Casius Dio (c.150–235 CE): Historia Romana 57.21.7; Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636 CE): Etymologiae XVI.16.6, ‘De vitro’; Suetonius; Ibn Abd Alhokin; John of Sailsbury.
[2] Knolles, Grimstone, Johnson: Richard Knolles' The General Historie of the Turkes (London: Adam Islip, 1621).
[3] Neri 1697 (Introduction). A French translation of Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri’s 1612 book L’Arte Vetraria [The art of making glass] by Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt. Also see my earlier post here http://www.conciatore.org/2014/07/flexible-glass-reprise.html .
[4] Pierre-Jean Fabre: Palladium spagyricum Petri Ioannis Fabri doctoris medici Monspeliensis ... (Toulouse: Bosc, 1624), p. 276. Later translated into several English editions, see note [5].
[5] William Salmon: Polygraphice: Or the Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limming, Painting … (London: T. Passenger & T. Sawbridge, 1685), pp. 598, 599.
[6] To more adventurous readers: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, or anywhere else, ever. Vaporized mercury is a powerful neurotoxin. Small amounts can cause permanent brain damage and multiple organ failure. Furthermore, this recipe uses powerful acids and nitrates, which are extremely dangerous even in a controlled laboratory setting. Even if you have little regard for your own health and safety, consider those around you; this includes loved ones, family, children, pets, neighbors and the emergency workers who will inevitably be left to clean up your mess.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Material of All Enamels

Léonard Limosin, Allegory of Catherine de' Medici as Juno,
French, 1573, Polychrome enamel  on copper and silver.
In L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's recipe book on glassmaking, he devotes the sixth chapter to making enamel. For Neri, this was a tinted form of opaque glass favored by jewelers and goldsmiths. The material was ground into a fine powder, added to a binder and painted onto glass or metals, usually copper, gold or silver. Once dry, the item was fired over a flame or in a kiln so the enamel would fuse to form a durable glossy coating. Talented workers could use various colors to paint entire scenes.
“We see ornate enameled metals in many colors and they make a pleasant and noble sight; they entice others to look and take notice.”
Neri begins by showing how to produce what he calls “the material to make all enamels.” This is a neutral-white base to which he then adds various metal oxide pigments to produce color.

He starts by mixing together thirty pounds of pure lead and thirty-three pounds of pure tin, both in a finely divided state. He heats them in a low temperature kiln that has a wide, accessible hearth. He roasts or "calcines" the metals, raking the powders around with special iron tools for many hours. This has the effect of oxidizing the metals without melting them.

He sifts the mixture and boils it in a kettle of pure clean water. The kettle is removed from the heat and the contents are allowed to settle for a while. The water is then carefully poured off, carrying with it only the finest particles still in suspension. This liquid is saved, while the sediment at the bottom of the kettle is sent back for reprocessing in the kiln. He repeats the "decanting" procedure many times, and then carefully evaporates the accumulated liquid over a low fire. What remains is an extremely fine powdered tin and lead oxide mixture.

Neri tells us that fifty pounds of this oxide is to be mixed with an equal weight of powdered cristallo frit. Cristallo was the coveted glass perfected by the Venetians on the island of Murano. "Frit" is the granulated glass before it is put into the furnace and melted. The recipe for cristallo had remained a state secret for over a century. It was the clearest, finest glass that money could buy and items made from it commanded top dollar among the richest families in Europe. Even after production methods became known to outsiders, Venice still controlled many of the raw materials through exclusive trade agreements around the Mediterranean. Neri was first to actually publish the recipes for making cristallo, in this very same book. It was made with pure white quartz pebbles from Pavia, mixed with purified salts derived from the Levantine kali plant, and decolorized with manganese from Piedmont.

In order to complete the enamel base material, Neri adds eight ounces of white tartar salt (made from the dregs of wine), sifts the mix and carefully heats it in terracotta pots for ten hours. The result is ground again and stored in a in a dry place, in a sealed container for future use.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to coloring this enamel base material; he always starts with a batch of either four or six pounds. He uses a large furnace pot to melt the enamel because even though the amount is relatively small, some of the pigments cause the batch to froth and swell violently. After adding the pigments, he lets the glass cook for a while, adjusts the color as necessary and then "washes" it several times. In this process, he throws ladlefuls of molten glass from the furnace-pot into large vats of cold clean water. The effect is to remove excess plant salts from the glass, which would ultimately foul the enamel. Finally, he forms the glass into individual dollops of about five ounces each; a size to which the goldsmiths were accustomed.

For green enamel, Neri uses copper and iron oxides in various proportions, for blues he uses "zaffer," which is a cobalt oxide. He mixes green and blue pigments to obtain turquoise colors. Manganese produced a red wine color, for yellow, he adds the unrefined dregs of red wine (potassium) with a pinch of manganese. Violet is a mix of manganese and copper oxides.

Finally, a word to the wise: Do not attempt to duplicate these recipes; fine lead powder is dangerous enough, molten lead enamel will evolve fumes that cause heavy metal poisoning. Remember that Antonio Neri was dead by age thirty-eight.

* This post first appeared here 11 July 2014.

Friday, June 16, 2017

True Colors

The European Roller [Pica Marina]
Antonio Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria, is devoted to making glass from raw ingredients found in nature. Many of his finished creations were intended to also resemble the natural world. A number of colors are meant to mimic the appearance of gems and minerals, others are named after plants and animals. Some are easily recognized today, even if they are not as familiar as they were in the seventeenth century. One of his recipes will make "a wonderful pimpernel green," while others evoke peach and orange blossoms. An entire section of the book is focused on paints that are named after the flowers from which the colors are extracted. Many of these plants have remained common: poppies, irises, violets, lilies, carnations and red roses. Others are less so: the mallow, pomegranate, broom and borage flowers.

In addition to flora, the fauna make a few notable appearances in Neri's book. In chapter 16, in the preparation of iron oxide pigments, he advises that after fifteen days in the furnace, the product will be finished when it takes on the purple color of the peacock. In chapter 73 he gives a method for "tinting rock crystal the color of a viper" and chapter 121 is the method for a glass which is "red like blood."

Named in several chapters is a shade of 'celestial blue,' which Neri likens to the color of the "gazzera marina." Common bird names pose a special challenge for translation in that they, like the birds themselves, never seem to settle in space or time for very long. Vernacular names of a species can change from one century to the next, one region to another, even between adjacent valleys and several species can share the same name. It is with this admonition that we attempt to flush out the elusive gazzera marina.

Consulting a modern Italian dictionary draws the eye to the similar sounding 'gazza marina' (alca torda), known in English as the razorbill. This sea bird inhabits coastal cliffs, but alas, as a close relative of the penguin, it dons only black and white formal attire. Digging deeper we find poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, "At Dawn" carefully tracking the gazzera marina across a salty marsh, in his Halcyon. This time the poet himself throws us off the trail with his description, since no bird sports five digits but the chicken. Turning to etymology, we find another potential match in the magpie (pica pica); it is a credible but unconvincing fit with its blue and white plumage.
Aldrovandi's pica marina
Combing the references of Neri's own sixteenth century, we find the best candidate is the roller (pica marina). This bird was described by naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, a friend of Don Antonio de' Medici's father and guest at the Casino di San Marco, where Neri later worked. Other contemporary authors list the gazzera marina as a synonym to Aldrovandi's pica marina. Neri's Latin translator Frisius (1668) and his German translator Geissler (1678) agreed, both sighting the "Pica Marina" in their works.

This post first appeared here on 13 Sept 2013.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Cardinal's Ceiling

From "Tesoro del Mondo" (Treasure of the World)
Antonio Neri 1598-1600
In the years 1598-1600, newly ordained Florentine priest and alchemist Antonio Neri was hard at work on a manuscript which he titled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World). [1]  One illustration near the front shows an allegorical map in which six roads all lead to the Vatican at its center. A Latin inscription translates as, "The different ways to Rome" followed by "Qui pot[est] capere capiator 'He that can take, let him take it.' Taken in context, this Biblical reference ( Matthew 19:12) apparently refers to the various alchemical 'paths' leading to the philosopher's stone, but the choice of imagery suggests that Neri spent time in the city of seven hills. [2] It is a tantalizing clue to his travels, although there is no direct confirmation. 

If Rome did figure in the young Neri's itinerary, a visit to Cardinal Francisco Maria Del Monte would have been de rigueur. The Medici family ruled Neri's home region of Tuscany and Cardinal Del Monte was the Medici's informal ambassador in Rome. He was a dedicated patron of the arts, an amateur alchemist, a collector of glass and a trusted successor to Grand Duke Ferdinando in the College of Cardinals. More significantly, he was a close friend and advisor to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio de' Medici ever since that prince was a child.  Del Monte's biographer Zygmunt Waźbiński offers, "It is very likely that Cardinal Del Monte, with his interest in glass, had known then (in 1598) the [future] author [Neri] of L'Arte Vetraria." [3]
Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597
Casino Ludovisi.

As the sixteenth century ended and a new one dawned, Del Monte sheltered the rough-and-tumble painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he set up with an in-house studio and an allowance. However, in 1606, the master of Realism fled Rome after reportedly murdering a tavern waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the vaulted ceiling of Del Monte's own alchemy laboratory. Looking out over Rome, on the panoramic Pincio, in the Villa that later became the Casino Ludovisi and is now known as the Casino dell'Aurora, Caravaggio put his brush to work. According to early biographer of artists, Gian Pietro Bellori, he executed the oil painting on the vaulted ceiling of the small alchemical laboratory (now a corridor) sometime between 1597 and 1600. [4] Depicted in the mural are the three brothers Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: the masters of the universe. The image is a double allegory of the three basic chemical substances of Paracelsus (salt, sulfur and mercury) and the four Aristotelian elements (air, earth, water and fire). Jupiter with the eagle stands for sulfur and air, Neptune with the seahorse stands for mercury and water and Pluto with the three-headed dog Cerberus stands for salt and earth. Jupiter is reaching out to move the central celestial sphere in which the sun (fire) revolves around the earth. [5] 

The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests discretely, including his friend Galileo–Del Monte and his older brother Guidobaldo helped land Galileo the chair of mathematics at the university in Pisa. It would be interesting to hear the astronomer’s comments on Caravaggio's tribute to heliocentrism.


[1] Neri 1598-1600, f.xxviii-v.  (see bibliography).
[2] For more on the alchemical interpretation of this illustration see Grazzini 2012.
[3] Neri 1612.
[4] Bellori 1672, pp. 197-216.
[5] Wallach 1975, pp. 101-112.

* this post first appeared in a slightly different form on 4 July 2014.