Monday, January 26, 2015

Scientific Glassware Reprise

Antonio Neri (1598-1600),
"Libro intitulato Il tesoro del mondo" f. 38.
In the introduction of L'Arte Vetraria, his 1612 book on glassmaking, Antonio Neri discusses the technical and scientific uses of glass. He rattles off an impressive list of items, many of which are still in everyday use in chemistry and medicine:
Beyond the ease and low cost with which it is made, and the fact that it can be made anywhere, glass is more delicate, clean, and attractive  than any material currently known to the world. It is very useful to the arts of distillation and spagyrics, not to mention indispensable to the preparation of medicines for man that would be nearly impossible to make without glass. Furthermore, many kinds of vessels and instruments are produced with it;   cucurbits,  alembics,  receivers,  pelicans,  lenses, retorts, antenitors,  condenser coils, vials, tiles, pouring-vessels (nasse),  ampules, philosophic eggs  and balls. Countless other types of glass vessels are invented every day to compose and produce elixirs, secret potions, quintessences, salts, sulfurs, vitriols, mercuries, tinctures, elemental separations, all metallic things, and many others that are discovered daily. Also, glass containers are made for aqua fortis and aqua regia, which are so essential for refiners (partitori) and masters of the prince’s mints to purify gold and silver and to bring them to perfection. So many benefits for the service of humanity come from glass, which seem nearly impossible to make without it.
The glass book, as it was published by Neri, did not contain any illustrations. If we hunt around in the alchemical literature and in museums, we can find examples of the apparatus and vessels on his list, but still, we might feel disappointed at not seeing the specific pieces with which our glassmaker was referencing. As it happens, we actually can see a number of these pieces, exactly as Neri experienced them. Over a decade before writing  the glass book, when he had just completed Catholic seminary and become an ordained priest, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript devoted to "all of alchemy" in which he shows us many of the same glass vessels. Here he lists and shows us (in the illustration, from left to right, top to bottom) a double vase, a urinal (yes, that kind of urinal), a pair of Florence flasks (the Italians now call this a pallone di Kjeldahl), a philosophic egg, another flask which Neri calls a "bozza longa," an alembic (or still-head), a retort, a bottle,  mouth-to-mouth urinals, a receiver (for a still or retort), a saucer, and assorted cups and ampules. Since many of these terms changed from place to place and over time, we can use this chart to get a much better idea of exactly what Neri was doing in his recipes. The use of urinals in his chemistry kit shows simple practicality; these were standard items made by glass factories. If a low-cost, readily available item could be used in the laboratory, so much the better.

Many of the items Neri lists were used in distillation, which was a basic technique of alchemists. A still could be set up in any number of variations, depending on the intended product, which could range from alcoholic spirits to powerful acids and other reagents. The "athanor" was a stove specially engineered to gently heat a large flask, called the "cucurbit," which contained whatever was to be distilled. The apparatus would include an "alembic"; a cap that fits on top of the cucurbit with a snout-like tube running downward from its top. The idea was that volatile ingredients would evaporate inside the cucurbit, rise up, condense in the alembic and run down its snout, to be collected in a "receiver" vessel. Sometimes, for convenience, all three pieces (cucurbit, alembic and receiver) are together referred to as the alembic. The process could be sped up significantly by adding a condenser coil, what Neri calls a "serpentine." As steam built up in the cucurbit, it was routed through its snout to a coiled tube that might be submerged in cold water. This way, the steam would condense more rapidly, sending more liquid to the receiver. Neri uses this method to produce acids in order to dissolve metal pigments for his glass, but the same basic technique is still applied today in producing industrial chemicals, medicines, perfumes and alcoholic drinks such as moonshine, brandy, vodka, rum and whisky. However, in the distillation of alcohol, metal (usually copper) containers are preferred. Neri was often producing chemicals that would react with metal, glass provided a very good solution to this problem but as he discusses at length, great pains must be taken to ensure that the glass vessels do not crack or break when heated or cooled too suddenly.

* This post first appeared here on 27 December 2015.

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