Monday, February 27, 2017

Antonio Neri's Birthday

Relief portrait of Antonio Neri,
artist unknown, La Specola Museum,
Florence.
Glassmaker Antonio Neri was born in Florence, Italy on 29 February 1576. Because he was a "leap year baby" we celebrate the actual day of his birth only every fourth year. From his baptismal record, we know the exact time of birth: "three hours and 25 minutes past sunset." In terms of current timekeeping conventions, sunset occurred on that particular Thursday at about 6:15 pm CET (local time), so the big event happened at 9:40 pm.

It might seem a bit odd to have such accurate records -- almost as if an astronomical event were being recorded. Actually, that is exactly what was being done; astrology of the sixteenth century drew a strong correspondence between 'macroscopic' events in the heavens and more earthly matters. To have an exact time of birth was seen as a way to gain greater insights into the events of ones personal life and to plan in a way that was more in harmony with the natural order of things.

Of all the days to be born, 29 February was considered among the least auspicious. A dire Northern Italian folk proverb states "An bisesti, o la mama o 'l bambi" predicting that, born on this day, a child or its mother was fated to die by year's end. Indeed, the Italian word naming the day, bisestile, had become a synonym for misfortune or calamity and is still the case for the French cognate bissêtre. Whatever stock the family put into ancient superstitions, happily this prophecy did not come true for Dianora or her fourth child Antonio.

Although his was a February birth, it was perhaps not as deep into winter as one might assume. Due to a discrepancy in the Julian calendar, which was in force then, the Spring equinox of Neri's birth year happened much earlier in the calendar than today, around 10 March, in fact. 

Infant mortality was not uncommon and for a child to die unbaptized only magnified a family's trauma. Church theologians had debated since the fourth century on the fate of the souls of such children. Most Catholic families baptized infants as soon as humanly possible, in Antonio's case the very next morning. Births occurring within Florence were officially registered at a central baptistery, San Giovanni, the ancient octagonal basilica standing directly in front of Florence's main Cathedral. 

The full baptistery record, in translation, for Antonio Neri reads:
Thursday, 1 March 1575:  Antonio Lodovico was born to Mr. Neri di Jacopo and Dianora di Francesco Parenti, residents of San Pier Maggiore parish. The time of birth was 29 February, at 3 hours 25 minutes past sunset. The godparents are Francesco di Girolamo Lenzoni and Ginevra di Federigo Sassetti.
The year is recorded as 1575 because in those days, Florentines celebrated the New Year on 25 March. Today we consider January, February and March to be part of the new year. 

Antonio joined a growing family that already contained siblings Lessandra, Jacopo and Francesco, and later would number ten children.  His father was thirty-six year-old Neri di Jacopo Neri, (Neri Neri to his friends) and his mother was twenty-one year-old Dianora Parenti. Neri Neri was a prominent doctor and later was appointed to be the personal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando. Dianora was the daughter of Francesco Parenti, Michelangelo's lawyer. 

Tradition dictated that births were celebrated with a house party open to friends and neighbors. Thirty-four year-old Francesco Lenzoni, Antonio's godfather, would certainly have done his best to attend. His family included Florentine senators and Francesco himself would later become Tuscan ambassador to Spain. Godmother Ginevra Sassetti, in her late fifties, was also from a prominent family. Her nephew Filippo would send plant specimens back from India to be inspected by Neri Neri and their mutual friend Baccio Valori who would become director of the Laurentian Library in Florence.

Antonio Neri, would go on to learn the finer points of alchemy and glassmaking, developing new formulas and techniques that would be applied throughout Europe. In 1612, he published the world's first book entirely devoted to formulating glass, L'Arte Vetraria. It seems especially appropriate that we pause and raise a toast (in glass, of course) to his accomplishment and to the end of February, looking forward to warmer days ahead. B
uon compleanno Antonio!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Botanical Gardens

Rudolf  II as "Vertumnus"(c. 1590)
Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
In 1543-44 new botanical gardens were founded in Pisa; L’Orto Botanico was its Italian name. It was the very first garden devoted to the research of plants. Literally within a year, similar gardens sprung up in Padua and Florence, and many other cities followed shortly thereafter. Exotic foreign species as well as important local plants were grown, studied, harvested distilled, and imbibed. These horticultural stations became centerpieces of medical programs throughout Italy, and then greater Europe. The concept of herbal (“simples”) gardens was centuries old. Almost every monastery, convent and hospital maintained a space to grow the plants they needed to transform into medicines for care of the infirmed. The grafting of fruit trees was actively practiced since before Roman times, but these new gardens were specifically planted as research spaces and run by universities. 

When Neri Neri, the father of glassmaker Antonio Neri, studied medicine at the Studio Fiorentino  in the mid 1550s, there can be no doubt he spent time at the gardens in Florence, and quite possibly at the ones in Pisa. (The Pisa gardens were moved twice before arriving at their current location in 1591). This was a period of vigorous expansion in the field of herbal medicine. Competition was fierce to obtain and study medicinal plants from around the globe. Cosimo I de’ Medici poured money into the medical school in Pisa, attracting students and faculty from around Europe. In 1554 famed botanist and physician Andrea Cesalpino took over the Pisa gardens  from his teacher, Luca Ghini, who first built them. 

In 1602, Neri was to be found working alongside Niccolò Sisti at the grand duke’s secondary glass furnace along the Arno River in Pisa. According to Neri’s own account, Pisa is where he worked on ferns as an alternative plant salt for glass and mentions many other plants with which he experimented: 
Set about making ash in the way previously described, however use the husks and stalks of broad beans after the farmhands have thrashed and shelled them. The same may be made from the ashes of cabbages, or a thorn bush that bears small fruit, called the blackberry, even from millet, rush, marsh reeds, and from many other plants that will relinquish their salt.
In a letter to Neri from his friend Emanuel Ximenes, the Antwerp based Portuguese banker expressed surprise that Neri was able to devise a fern based glass salt recipe so quickly. In all likelihood, Neri would have had access to the botanical gardens and the small adjacent laboratory located just a few blocks from the glass furnace. In the period of time the glassmaker spent there, the directorate of the gardens changed hands from Francesco Malocchi to Marco Cornacchini. Both of these men avidly pursued new botanical based cures, and corresponded internationally. 

In his Glassmaking book, L’Arte Vetraria, Neri devotes a number of recipes to making paint pigments from flower blossoms. While he could have easily obtained his stock material from any number of sources, the botanical gardens would have certainly provided a convenient cache of many different varieties.

In the winter of 1603-4 Neri traveled From Pisa to visit his friend in Antwerp. If he followed Ximenes suggested route, he would have passed back through his native Florence, then on to Venice where he would meet up with a caravan of merchants on their way to the Frankfort spring fair, and then on to Antwerp by river. Upon his return to Italy, seven years later, he wrote his glassmaking book, but then devoted himself fully to alchemy and medicine. In January of 1614, in what might be the very last manuscript he worked on before his death, he wrote about some recipes “copied from an old book here in Pisa.” At that time, the director of the botanical gardens was Domenico Vigna, who continued to direct the gardens on and off until 1634.

It would be interesting to know how Neri the alchemist thought about his raw materials. Did he see all the possibilities of what could be made with them? For instance, how did he approach a towering pile of May ferns, large enough to produce a hundred pounds of ash, or a giant sack of rose petals? Did he ever lean forward and breathe in the delicious musty aroma? Did he ever dig in with his hands and bury his face in an arm-load of soft, pure color? How could he not?

*This post first appeared here 22 Jan 2014.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Duke's Mouthwash

Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549-1609),
Scipione Pulzone (1544 - 1598), Private collection.
Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was royal physician to the family of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. As such, he regularly interacted with other members of court, ranging from the archbishop of Florence, to his colleagues in medicine, including the royal apothecary (speziale), Stefano Rosselli. Rosselli shared more than a professional relationship with Neri Neri. They both admired the work of an ancient Greek physician named Dioscorides; Rosselli was something of an authority on his methods. In addition, he ran the 'Speziale al Giglio' shop, once owned by Tommaso del Giglio, who's chapel Neri Neri took over at Cestello church. Rosselli's son, Francesco, and Neri Neri were among the four chosen to revise and update the famed Ricettario Fiorentino,[1] the official reference for medicinal cures in Tuscany. 

On 21 September 1589, Rosselli started to compile his own book of recipes to pass down to his two sons, Francesco and Vincenzo, who would go on to continue the pharmacy.[2] The book begins with a poison remedy credited to none other than Cosimo de' Medici. Recipe no. 9 is the grand duke’s antispasmodic oil, presented by Niccolò Sisti, with whom Antonio Neri would later work at the glass house in Pisa. No. 20 is the duke's oil for deafness, also presented by Sisti. No. 41 is a poison antidote revealed to Francesco de' Medici by the Archduke of Austria. It was tested on a prisoner at the Bargello prison, a "volunteer" who was intentionally poisoned as part of the experiment, then revived with the antidote in the presence of Stefano Rosselli and Baccio Baldini, the long time physician to Cosimo I. Supposedly, the prisoner's reward for surviving was early release.

Recipe No. 30 carries perhaps a bit less risk; it is titled "Acqua da gengie di messer Nerj Nerj" (Mouth wash of Neri Neri):
Take a quarter of a bushel of mastic buds,a quarter of a bushel of myrtle buds, a quarter of a bushel of red roses, three ounces of alum, a half ounce of salt and a quarter ounce of hard rose honey. Mash the herbs with a mortar and pestle and put them in nine pounds of Greek wine for twenty-four hours, then boil in a bain-marie and reduce to two-thirds. In this, we bathe the gums: it makes them dry and firm.
MasticPistacia lentiscus. Native to the Mediterranean, its resin used for millennia to settle upset stomachs.
MyrtleMyrtus communis. An Aromatic herb used by the ancients, effective treatment for sinusitis.
Alum: Used by the ancients as a treatment for canker sores.
Rose HoneyMiele rosato. Honey infused with rose petals, an astringent still used to sooth children’s teething pains. It is produced both as a solid and a liquid. 
Greek Wine: Vino Greco. Italian wine made in the style of sweet Greek wines. In 1673, English botanist John Ray describes it as being made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The date that Stefano Rosselli started his book of secrets is interesting because it is the same day that Neri Neri, with the grand duke's two other physicians, Cini and Da Barga, were busy making medicinal wine based on Dioscorides' ancient recipes. Perhaps they all met that day at Rosselli's shop, for his advice. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2] Rosselli 1996; an Italian transcription and French translation of Rosselli's recipes, with a very entertaining introduction.

* This post first appeared here on 4 November 2013 in a shorter form.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Duke's Oil

Trajan's Column, Rome
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1758)
In the seventeenth century, alchemy was a dangerous business. Yes, there were risks of sanctions by the authorities, which could be very harsh, but great dangers also lurked in the chemicals themselves. Some like lead and mercury accumulated in the tissues slowly, over a period of years, others could kill a man within a few minutes. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte had personal knowledge of just how deadly the products of alchemy could be.

In Rome, Del Monte was the unofficial ambassador to Florence and the Medici family. He regularly greeted dignitaries from around Europe and dazzled them in his sumptuous palace. He was an avid glass collector, a patron of the arts and more quietly a dedicated student of alchemy. He was a lifelong friend to Don Antonio de' Medici and visited the prince's laboratory in Florence several times. This is where Antonio Neri was making glass early in his career. Later, Neri worked at a secondary Medici glass furnace in Pisa, where the cardinal had fancy glass table service made for the Vatican.

About a two mile walk from Saint Peter's Basilica, over the Tiber River, directly toward the Colosseum, is Trajan's Column. It commemorates Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars at the beginning of the second century. It displays a scroll in base relief that winds all the way from the pedestal to the capital. The monument is large enough to contain an internal staircase leading to an observation platform at the top. In 1587, it was crowned by a bronze statue of Saint Peter that still stands today; the initial model was sculpted by artist Tommaso della Porta, who was under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte. 

Giovanni Baglione picks up the story in his book Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects:
That man [della Porta], I think, suffered mentally and it showed at the end of his days. When he felt some kind of tingling in his abdomen, he went to the Cardinal del Monte his friend and master and asked for some of the "grand duke’s oil" that he hoped would relieve the tingling. The Cardinal indulged him; gave it to him and said that he should apply it only to the wrists and only a little, because the oil was potent and it could make him feel sick. He took it and went back to his house and after dinner he sent for the barber, to administer the medication, and while the messenger went on, Tommaso impatient and simpleminded, applied the oil himself and instead of touching the wrists, as the Cardinal had instructed, he lathered the arms, chest, body and entire abdomen, so that the powerful oil went to the heart and in fact killed him. The barber arrived to medicate him, found him dead and all attempts at revival were in vain. Tommaso della Porta, was buried at Santa Maria del Popolo.
The "grand duke's oil," was widely known, and widely cited in references throughout Europe well into the 19th century. Its other name was oil of tobacco – essentially a distillation of almost pure nicotine. In very small doses, it acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system, in slightly higher doses it is a narcotic, even greater, but still relatively small amounts act as a quick and lethal poison absorbed directly through the skin. Ingesting a single pill capsule of typical size full of pure liquid nicotine is more than enough to kill an adult in short order.

This story has one final twist. Antiques dealer Domenico Lupo was one of the men present at the reading of Della Porta's will on 7 March 1607. Twenty-five years later, an inventory of Lupo's assets listed a "small figure half old and half new that is said to be of Prior Ant. Neri," either the glassmaker or possibly his great uncle. 

* This post first appeared here 5 February 2014. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Glass or Rock?

Rock crystal ewer, Egypt (1000-1050)
V&A Museum, #7904-1862
Today, a sharp distinction is made between glass and rock, but in the early seventeenth century, differences in the two materials were not so well defined. One was the product of nature and the other of art, but after that the lines begin to blur. Philosophers debated whether glass should be classified as artificial stone, and why not? It is a material that was actually made from crushed up rocks (quartz and calcined limestone) with the addition of plant salts. In a very accurate sense, it is a form of artificial rock. 

In his 1612 book L'Arte Vetraria, Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri repeatedly illustrates the thinking that glass was an artificial form of rock. The very first part of the book concerns itself with cristallo glass, which was considered to be an imitation of natural rock crystal. He devotes a whole section to the imitation of the colorful stones variously known as chalcedony, jasper and oriental agate. About these he writes: 
It is often said, and it may well seem to be true, that art cannot match nature. However, experience in many things shows, and this is particularly true of colors in glass, that art not only challenges and matches nature, but by far exceeds and surpasses it. Why, if you did not see it for yourself, you would find it hard to believe the beauty and great variety of interplay seen in these particular chalcedonies.
Another entire section of the book is devoted to artificial gemstones: rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, chrysolite; he even uses crushed natural gems to color his glass. He describes a "sky blue even more beautiful, from the garnets of Bohemia." 

An earlier 1540 book that Neri read closely was by Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio, called De La Pirotechnia. This was the first book entirely devoted to mining and metal foundry practices. Biringuccio was from Siena, but was considered something of a folk hero in Neri’s nearby Florence because he oversaw the casting of iron cannons for the city's defense in the great siege of 1529–30. His book contains a short six-page chapter devoted to glass where he writes:
[I]t [glass] is one of the effects and real fruits of the art of fire, because every product found in the interior of the earth is either stone, metal or one of the semi-minerals. Glass is seen to resemble all of them, although in all respects it depends on art.
This is an observation that Neri echoes almost verbatim in the introduction of his own book, and in this light, it is not so difficult to see what connects glassmaking to alchemy. Neri was in the business of learning nature's secrets, and then using them to create new materials that were even better than the originals. These are aims quite familiar to any modern materials engineer. Neri and his contemporaries were successful up to a point. They were able to create artificial gems and other items that were impressive in color and clarity, yet they lacked some key properties of their natural counterparts, most notably hardness. 

Based on Neri's earliest known writing Treasure of the World, started in 1598, he was already familiar with mining practices before his glassmaking activities started and over a decade before he would write the book. He devotes this early manuscript to "all of alchemy, its furnaces, instruments and the mining of metals." Around 1600 he started work at Prince Don Antonio de' Medici's Casino di San Marco laboratory. Here, he may have had the opportunity to interact with characters such as Filippo Talducci (1543- c.1615), celebrated Florentine chemist and mining engineer, several of whose relatives worked at the Casino. In his 1613 manuscript Discorso, Neri strongly hints that he has personally been to more than one mine in connection with his alchemical activities. "I would not say this, had I myself not had the good fortune of being in such a mine from which, with much artifice, was extracted a small quantity of real gold liquor, which was the true golden seed. […] To this day I have never found another mine like it, and therefore suitable for this purpose."


Today, we hardly associate glass with the raw materials from which it is composed, just as we hardly ever think of metals in their unrefined state. Antonio Neri was more closely connected to the earth, by virtue of his profession, but also because daily life in the early seventeenth century was filled with such activity; refining raw materials into useful forms had a direct and immediate impact on quality of life. Although glass is now manufactured in highly automated facilities, far away from our daily lives, it is still essentially the same product that Neri made. The next time you come in contact with a piece of glass, to pour a drink or look through a window or read the text on a screen as you are probably doing right now, stop for a minute and think of it as Neri did four centuries ago, as artificial rock.

* This post first appeared here 17 Feb 2014.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Friar Mauritio

Friar Mauritio,
Treasure of the world, f.19v (detail)
Antonio Neri, (1598-1600).
Shortly after ordination as a priest in the Catholic Church, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript devoted to alchemy, which he called Treasure of the World (1598-1600). It was completed a couple of years before we find any reference to his glassmaking activities. Among the recipes, is one for the philosopher's stone, entitled "Fifth way to make the stone which is very secret." Neri explains that "Friar Mauritio" was a Dominican brother, held prisoner in "The Castle of Naples" by Gilbert Montpensier. There he learned the secret of transmuting mercury into gold. Ultimately, he was freed from his French captors and went on to use his secret to create great wealth. The recipe was passed down through his family, and ultimately fell into Neri's hands. He presents the full recipe, which takes many pages in the manuscript detailing complex alchemical manipulations.

Some background is in order here. In the year 1494, French King Charles VIII amassed a very large army (twenty-five thousand men), and with encouragement  from the duke of Milan, marched straight down the Italian peninsula with the intention of annexing the Spanish controlled Kingdom of Naples, which encompassed the entire lower portion of Italy. But by the time Charles marched into the capital city, his victory was already threatened; a "League" was forming to oppose him among the states of northern Italy. Charles set up an occupation government, quickly appointed Gilbert Montpensier as viceroy and judiciously headed back toward France, but not before having to fight through the League forces blocking his way. The city of Naples would be held by the French for only three months; the occupation government barely in control. Truth be told, it was not only Friar Mauritio who was confined, but the entire French contingent was more or less sequestered to several fortresses in the area, as they were greatly resented and resisted by the Neapolitan people. Soon the Spanish military was on the scene and systematically routed French forces, reclaiming all of the lost territory.

The most likely location of Mauritio's imprisonment was the foreboding Castel Nuovo, but there are other possibilities, among them Castel Sant'Elmo and Castel dell' Ovo. In the same years that Neri was writing about the Dominican Friar Mauritio's imprisonment, Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella was held and tortured in Naples, under suspicion of heresy and conspiracy against the Spanish rule of his native Calabria. His "heretical" views on astrology and departure from sanctioned Aristotelian doctrine earned him a cell at Castel Sant'Elmo. 


The ancient Castle dell' Ovo or "castle of the egg," is located along the bay of Naples. The name derives from a story about the Roman poet Virgil, who at one time was thought to be a great sorcerer. Supposedly, he had fortified the foundations of the castle with a magic "egg," which he concealed there. Legend warns that if the egg ever were to be disturbed or broken, the entire Castle would self-destruct, and a series of great calamities would befall the city.

The endeavor of history rightly demands strong attention to demonstrable facts. Unfortunately, folklore is often a casualty of that process, because, by its very nature it has little to contribute that can be vigorously verified. The identity of Neri’s Friar Mauritio and, for that matter, the existence of Virgil's egg in the foundations of a Naples castle, in all likelihood, will never be confirmed. But these stories have qualities that solid evidence often does not capture. Regardless of its factual content, folklore tells us about the hopes and fears of the people who repeat it; it is a taste of their culture. Folklore also emphasizes that the way we see history is very different from the way contemporaries saw it. We have no choice but to view events of the past through a lens of the present, just as Neri viewed it through the lens of his time. His view of the events was very much colored by legends about characters like Virgil and Friar Mauritio, but also by the promise of transmutation, and fear of the Inquisition. 

* This post first appeared here on 12 March 2014.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Early Modern Glass Furnace

From "De re metallica" 
Agricola (Georg Bauer) 1556.
In the seventeenth century, glass furnaces represented a pinnacle of technology. True, the ability to achieve the high temperatures required to melt glass had been around for centuries – high enough to melt gold, silver and copper as well. What made the glass furnace remarkable was its refinement. It made efficient use of its hardwood fuel and was able to maintain a controlled, even temperature long before any thermometer could measure it. In fact, in the early seventeenth century, Galileo was only just beginning to use glass bulbs and tubes to measure differences in ambient room temperatures.

In Florence, the construction used was typical of the time throughout Europe, called a "beehive" furnace because its shape resembled the elongated dome of a beehive. A double wall, built of fire resistant bricks, provided further insulation, trapping heat inside. Vertically, the furnace was divided into three levels, each forming a wide open chamber. The bottom space was used to build the fire, and had one or two openings to the outside, used to add wood fuel, rake the coals, or shovel out ash. The second, central level was where the pots of glass resided. A central hole or "eye" on the floor directly exposed the fire pit below. The space directly next to the eye was the hottest, and temperature could be further controlled by moving the crucibles farther away or closer to the eye. A number of openings in the wall allowed gaffers access to the glass pots, and at least one larger opening was used to place new crucibles, or rearrange the existing ones. The upper chamber was used to control the draft, and sometimes for annealing. Again, a central hole in the floor of this (top) level allowed exhaust gasses to leave the glass chamber and an opening to one side vented the exhaust.

In his book, L’Arte Vetraria, Neri is careful to stress that only dry oak or other hardwood should be used because it burns cleanly, and will not deposit ash or creosote in the glass.
The furnace should have dry wood, hard wood of oak because soft wood tinges the furnace and does no good. Stoke it steadily and continuously so that the flame is always clear, and there is never any smoke, which is very important in order to make a beautiful cristallo.
Once a finished piece of glassware is made, it must be allowed to cool slowly, over a period of many hours. This was often accomplished by building a long enclosed horizontal trough that connected to the furnace. A draft opening at the far end allowed heat from the furnace to be drawn in, and finished pieces were placed in a pan at the furnace end and then slowly pulled by a chain further and further down the trough toward the cooler end. This "annealing" process ensured the glass would not develop stresses and crack as it cooled.

Although Neri does not concern himself with the vagaries of furnace construction in the book, it is clear that he did possess considerable knowledge on the subject. Several of his unconventional methods for making pigments for glass involve taking bricks out of the furnace wall to stash chemicals for long term exposure to the heat.
Take small pieces of copper and put them inside the arches of the furnace. In that place, they will be within the walls. Leave them that way until each piece of copper is well calcined, using a simple fire.
While it is true that artisans of the early seventeenth century did not possess the same understanding of nature that we now enjoy, they did have a working knowledge that served them very well. It was backed by a theoretical framework that was quite sophisticated and was consistent with what could be observed and measured at the time. This is no different from our own modern understanding of nature: sophisticated and consistent with what we can observe and measure.

*This post first appeared here 24 January 2014