Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pebbles from Pavia

A Bridge on the River Ticino, near Polleggio,
William Pars (1742‑1782).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a type of glass known as 'cristallo' was the absolute pinnacle of the art. Its recipe was invented in Venice and guarded there as a state secret. Its name derived from the mineral it was designed to mimic: rock crystal. As clear as water, rock crystal was valued since ancient times for carving into cups, vessels and other objects of art. Today we know it as a form of quartz, but in Roman times it was thought to be a type of frozen or coagulated water.

In the early 1600s, when Antonio Neri started making glass in Florence, the grand duke's craftsmen were routinely carving this hard and brittle rock crystal into complex thin shapes, a process that took great skill and effort. Due to the expense involved in producing a piece, this art was the exclusive province of extremely wealthy individuals. Thus, objects made from rock crystal were considered markers of status. The recipe for cristallo was a very great secret indeed, but its real value lay in the specific materials used. Even if the recipe found its way out of Murano, which it inevitably did, the Venetian's tight trade network ensured a monopoly on many of the ingredients. It is said that even the furnace crucibles for cristallo were made from a specific clay gathered in Constantinople.

Cristallo was not only exceptionally clear, but for the artist it had working properties like no other glass. Thin, complex shapes were possible in cristallo that could never be duplicated in common glass. The secret for making cristallo came to Florence in the late 1560's, only a few years before the birth of Antonio Neri, who would learn the techniques and go on to publish the recipe for the first time anywhere.

 After protracted overtures, which involved diplomats, spies and the archbishop of Florence, Grand Duke Cosimo I managed to negotiate with the Venetian Doge and Senate for a Muranese master and two assistants to come to Florence and teach the way to make cristallo. It is likely that the raw materials were all purchased through the Venetians, at least initially. By the time Neri wrote his book, L'Arte Vetraria, in 1612, the Florentines were already finding alternate sources. In Venice, the ingredients of cristallo were prescribed and controlled by strict laws. The Florentines did not have this constraint and were free to experiment.

In the second recipe of Neri's book, he spills the beans on where the Venetians procured the single most important ingredient for cristallo, the pure quartz stones which account for the material's clarity. Notice in the following excerpt that Neri mistakenly thinks that the white river stones are a form of marble and also notice the alchemical language he uses to describe the process in which the stone is "transmuted" into glass.
When you want to a make cristallo that is beautiful and fully perfect, see that you have the very whitest tarso. At Murano they use pebbles from Tesino [Pavia], a stone abundant in the Ticino River. Tarso, then is a species of very white hard marble [quartz]. 
In Tuscany, it is found at the foot of Mount Veruca in Pisa, at Seravezza, at Massa near Carrara, and in the Arno River both above and below Florence. In other places as well, common stone is often recognized, which is seen to have the same qualities as tarso; it is very white and does not have dark veins, or the yellowish appearance of rust, but is spotless and pure. Take note that any stones that will spark with a piece of steel or strike plate, are apt to vitrify and will make glass and cristallo. All those stones that do not make sparks with a piece of steel or striker as above will never vitrify. This serves as advice for being able to distinguish stones that have the ability to transmute their form, from those that cannot be transmuted. 
Start with this same tarso, as fair and as white as possible. Grind it finely into powder in stone mortars. Do not use bronze or any other metal for this purpose or the stone will take in the color of the metal, which then would tinge the glass or cristallo, and make it imperfect. The pestle must be iron by necessity but at least the other materials will not have the possibility of causing any effect. Pulverize the tarso well and sift with a fine sieve. It is important that the tarso is ground as finely as flour, so that it will all pass through a fine sieve.
* This post first appeared here on 30 May 2014. 

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