Monday, May 26, 2014

A Matter of Plagiarism Reprise

Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687)
Two years ago, my friend and colleague Maria Grazzini was researching a paper about seventeenth century alchemist Antonio Neri. In the course of her work she made a surprising discovery. An entire manuscript of Neri’s had been appropriated by the well known Jesuit polymath Francesco Lana Terzi. Terzi had added a few sentences and presented, under his own name, an otherwise word-for-word transcription as a chapter in his Prodromo. Over fifty years past Neri’s death, Terzi had somehow managed to obtain a copy of the obscure manuscript and thought well of its contents; well enough to wish he had written it himself. Maria went on to publish an analysis of that work, Neri's Discorso, which includes a full English translation (which you can find here in Nuncius). It is a fascinating look at the chemical arts in a period when experimental science was just starting to gain traction. Simultaneously, the centuries-old Aristotelian concepts of air, water, earth and fire were beginning to fade from the stage of human enquiry. Last year, Maria kindly consented to compose a post for this blog on the subject; here is what she wrote on 29 November 2013:

The seventeenth century Jesuit scientist Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687) is famous for his design of a "flying boat"; he has been immortalized as the father of aeronautical engineering. What is not generally known is that he plagiarized the entire text of Antonio Neri's manuscript Discorso.

The original was never published by Neri, perhaps due to his premature death, but even as a manuscript, it must have circulated widely. It would be interesting to know the history of its diffusion, in order to understand how it became the subject of plagiarism. Lana Terzi, well known in the Italian Academia of the late seventeenth century, published his Prodromo in 1670. The entire chapter 20 is an exact reproduction of Neri's Discorso. Lana Terzi was fascinated by experimentation and manual arts. The Jesuit order refused their members permission to write about magic and alchemy; Jesuits with such esoteric interests could never write books directly devoted to these subjects, however, they could write works on the different aspects of natural philosophy. In this broader context chemical philosophy could be admitted.

Title page of Lana Terzi's Prodromo
Neri was popular in his own time for his glassmaking knowledge. L'Arte Vetraria was widely read and its reprints and translations appeared over the centuries. Nevertheless, Neri enjoyed a considerable reputation among his contemporaries also for his 'chemical philosophy'. Discorso is a complete treatise on the subjects of chemistry and philosophy, to all appearance not different from many others written during the sixteenth century. It holds a similar structure, with an introduction defining the subject and the description of procedures. The final part lists possible objections raised against the validity of chemistry and gives Neri's timely responses. In this sense Discorso belongs to the alchemical traditions and Neri shows his deep knowledge of the Paracelsian doctrine and literature. Even so, the main features of the new 'scientific' mindset are present in Neri's treatise: the study of "the great book of nature" and the value of experimental practice. The traditional reliance on the authority of ancient wisdom loses its legitimacy. "We should not so easily give credence to all the histories," Neri claims, but we should "prove the possibility of this art of transmutation with certain […] experiences". Knowledge is acquired "with the practice of many experiences." It does not come from a divine revelation or from the study of many books.

There is no contradiction between the alchemist Neri and the glass-conciatore Neri; the will of gaining a deep knowledge of nature, based on the observation and experimentation, is common to both. Neri is always 'the technician' and never 'the philosopher'. Alchemy, the "Great Art," is the result of a deep study of nature and its aim is not to give an imitation of nature, but to make it perfect.

The 'modernity' of Neri can also be understood in his way of talking about chemical philosophy. He does not pretend to teach eternal truths, but only to indicate the way to achieve greater knowledge, by "understanding the modus operandi of nature." Consequently, the writer does not use the form of a dogmatic essay, but that of a conversational chat, or 'discourse'.

It would be interesting to discover how Lana Terzi came into possession of Neri's manuscript. Perhaps he was attracted by the mixture of old and new which was also a predominant theme of his time, when different models of knowledge coexisted and intertwined. Discorso offered him the chance of introducing the topic of alchemy without being accused of magism.

-M. G. Grazzini

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