Friday, January 8, 2016

Torricelli and Glass

Evangelista Torricelli
by Lorenzo Lippi, circa 1647
Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) is remembered as the inventor of the mercury barometer. Lesser known are a number of significant contributions he made to mathematics, astronomy and physics. There is no direct connection to the Florentine alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri—Torricelli was only a boy of six when Neri died—yet there are unmistakable echoes left by Neri that are amplified when we examine Torricelli’s time in Florence.   

In 1632, Torricelli wrote a letter to Galileo, which began a friendship that lasted until the famous astronomer died a decade later. In fact, Galileo invited Torricelli to stay at his house where they spent the last three months of Galileo’s life working together. If Torricelli had not heard of Neri before, perhaps he became acquainted through the copy of L’Arte Vetraria that Galileo had on his bookshelf. Afterward, while preparing to return to Rome, Torricelli was intercepted by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de' Medici, who asked him to succeed Galileo as the chair of mathematics at Pisa. He was given a good salary and quarters at the fabulous palace in the center of Florence, that is now called the Medici-Riccardi.  

Historian Mario Gliozzi writes: “Torricelli remained in Florence until his death; these years, the happiest of his life, were filled with the greatest scientific activity. Esteemed for his polished, brilliant, and witty conversation, he soon formed friendships with the outstanding representatives of Florentine culture.” [1]  The ancient palace itself was largely empty in this period, inhabited by a handful of relatives, officials, intellectuals and artists connected with the Grand Ducal court. [2]

Among Torricelli’s companions at the palace were the three sons of Don Antonio de’ Medici, Antonio Neri’s long time benefactor. The boys, Paolo (1616-1656), Giulio (1617-1670) and Antonfrancesco (1618-1659) moved there in 1646. None of the brothers had personally met Neri, as they were all born shortly after his death, but they must have heard plenty about him growing up. As children, they had the run of the Casino di San Marco, the palace where Neri had made glass and pursued the secrets of alchemy. After Neri’s death, their father, Don Antonio spent significant time trying to hunt down Neri’s secret recipe for transmutation. Years later, when Giulio died in 1670, among his possessions were found a box of elixirs and “a booklet, entitled: Material of all the compounds of Priest Antonio Neri; there is a red dustcover, which says ‘experiments.’” [3] The materials were handed over to Jacinto Talducci, the Grand Duke’s chief chemist, and master of the new glassworks established in the Boboli Gardens, a man whom Torricelli depended on for glass. Talducci was also a veteran of the Casino di San Marco Laboratory; according to legend, as a boy he personally witnessed Neri’s transmutation of gold. Curiously, at Giulio’s death he was listed as living on Borgo Pinti in Florence, the same street on which Antonio Neri grew up.

While in Florence, Torricelli took a great interest in optics. Again quoting Gliozzi:
[T]here is very good evidence of his technical ability in working telescope lenses, a skill almost certainly acquired during his stay in Florence. By the autumn of 1642 he was already capable of making lenses that were in no way mediocre, although they did not attain the excellence of those made by Francesco Fontana, at that time the most renowned Italian telescope maker. Torricelli had set out to emulate and surpass Fontana. By 1643 he was already able to obtain lenses equal to Fontana’s or perhaps even better, but above all he had come to understand that what is really important for the efficiency of a lens is the perfectly spherical machining of the surface, which he carried out with refined techniques. The efficiency of Torricelli’s lenses was recognized by the grand duke, who in 1644 presented Torricelli with a gold necklace bearing a medal with the motto “Virtutis praemia.” 
The fame of Torricelli’s excellent lenses quickly became widespread and he received many requests, which he fulfilled at a good profit. He attributed the efficiency of telescopes fitted with his lenses to a machining process that was kept secret at the time but was described in certain papers passed at Torricelli’s death to the grand duke, who gave them to Viviani, after which they were lost.
Gliozzi continues to describe that in 1924 one of Torricelli’s lenses was examined optically using the diffraction grating. “It was found to be of exquisite workmanship, so much so that one face was seen to have been machined better than the mirror taken as reference surface, and was constructed with the most advanced technique of the period.”

In addition to precision glass for lenses, Torricelli depended on Talducci and the grand duke’s furnace for scientific glassware; his experiments that demonstrated the measurement of air pressure required glass tubes, sealed at one end, two ‘cubits’ long (about four feet). They needed to be strong enough to be filled with mercury (which is very heavy) without breaking. It took his colleague Mersenne a couple of years (until 1646) to match the Florentines and obtain an acceptable tube from the French glassworks. 

Torricelli worked with former employees of the Casino di San Marco laboratory who knew Neri, he lived with Don Antonio’s three sons and he took a keen interest in glass; it seems impossible for him to be unaware of Neri and the echoes of his work in Florence.

[1] Mario Gliozzi "Torricelli, Evangelista" in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008.

[2] 1609-1659 - The last inhabitants of Palazzo Medici

[3] Covoni 1892, p. 193.

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