Monday, September 22, 2014

Deadly Fumes Reprise

Antonio Neri handled very dangerous materials on a daily basis. He used strong acids, which if splattered could easily burn flesh, or cause blindness. He handled poisonous compounds containing arsenic, mercury and lead. If ingested, or inhaled as fumes these materials caused progressive, irreversible damage to internal organs and especially to the nervous system. There is no question that Neri did take chances with his health, but he was not naive. He knew very well many of the potential dangers and others he could well imagine. In chapter 74 of his book L'Arte Vetraria, he describes a way to tint rock crystal with beautiful colors. He wrote: 
Take orpiment of that really tawny orange-yellow color and pulverize 2 ounces of this along with 2 ounces of powdered crystalline arsenic, 1 ounce of pulverized crude antimony, and 1 ounce of sal ammoniac. […] Perform this entire operation under a large chimney to draw the fumes out of the room. These fumes are not only harmful but also quite deadly. Return to see if the coals have died down, because for the work to come out nicely, they must be burning well and full. For the remainder, leave and let the fire run its course with no one in the room with the work, for it is dangerous; the harsh materials will smoke quite a bit. Leave it to finish all fuming by itself and then extinguish the fire and spread the coals.[1]
In the spring of 1603, Neri was working in Pisa and became seriously ill. The specific cause and symptoms of his ailment are not known. He could have been harmed by one of his own experiments, or just as easily fallen prey to an infection or one of many other maladies prevalent in the early seventeenth century. He postponed his planned visit to Antwerp in order to recuperate. Finally, on 2 May 1603, his friend Emmanuel Ximenes wrote: "Praise God that your indisposition has ended ... if the Pisan air is suited to your recovery then do not change it." [2]

In the winter of 1603-4 Neri embarked on what would become a seven-year-long visit to his friend's palace in Antwerp. There, he would learn many new techniques, and ultimately have special glass vessels made and presented to Philip William, Prince of Orange. Upon his return to Tuscany in 1611, he sat down to write the book for which he is most remembered, L'Arte Vetraria. Two years after publication, in 1614, the priest would be dead. According to the only known account, printed over two centuries later by Francesco Inghirami.
Meanwhile, Neri became gravely ill, so he called the prince to come to him, having the promised the secret [of the philosophers stone]. But the Medici, who was in the countryside, took too much time; the patient died before the prince could be with him. Don Antonio was not quieted and he questioned all of Neri’s friends to see if he could find the information, but his efforts were in vain, as they should be in so groundless a science, although Giacinto Salducci [sic.] said that he had seen great things, specifically a powder that fixed mercury into gold. [3]

[1] Neri 1612, ch. 74.
[2] Ximenes 1601–11, also see Zecchin 1987–89, v. 1, pp. 165–169.
[3] Inghirami 1841–44,v. 13, pp. 457–458 probably based on Targioni-Tozzetti  189.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form on 30 October 2013.

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