Friday, August 26, 2016

The Dregs of Alchemy

"The struggle of fixed and volatile" 
allegorical illustration from
Splendor solis [detail] 16th C.
To 17th century Italian glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri, "Dregs" were otherwise known as terra, gruma, immondita, terrestreità and the evocative sporchezza. It was the "filth" and sediment left in the bottom of vessels after useful material was extracted from a preparation. These often foul-smelling substances were sometimes discarded:
Then filter out the dregs of the vitriol impregnated water; that which is yellowish you should throw away. –L’Arte Vetraria, chap. 38.
Other times, dregs were further refined. A notable example was the potassium rich muck left at the bottom of aged wine barrels. This was Neri's secret ingredient in producing a fine, sparkling cristallo glass. To understand the distinction between the useful and the useless forms of dregs, we must dig deeper into Neri's philosophy.

It might be surprising to some that these lowliest of materials could play an important role in the theory of transmutation—the alchemists' ultimate quest—which was to turn base metals into gold and silver. The idea was that a natural evolutionary process occurred in which  primordial material from the creation of the universe would, over time, mature through the lesser metals into pure gold. It was thought that this maturation was prompted by "seeds" of gold contained in the material. In Neri's view, this could be interrupted by various natural circumstances and could be restarted or sped-up through alchemical manipulation.

If one was to "purify" lesser metals into gold, it was advisable to know what needed to be removed. In his manuscript Discorso, Neri carefully explains five categories of impurity, which he then breaks down further into two sub-groups:
It should be noted in general, that in dealing with the [Aristotelian] elements in accordance with chemical philosophy, we can say that all mixed bodies in this art are discovered to contain five kinds of impure substances, which are completely dead and without any virtue or properties effective to [alchemical] operations. Two are from impure substances and three from pure substances, where all the strength, effectiveness and virtue are located specific to each mixture. Of the two [derived from the impure] one is called 'phlegm', which is to say a watery substance with no odor or taste and the other is called 'dead body' [corpo morto] or 'damned earth' [terra dannata], an earthy substance that is equally tasteless and without virtue.[1]
Indeed, in Neri's chemical philosophy, the above two useless forms of impurity (phlegm and corpo morto) are complemented by three useful forms (salt, oil or true sulfur and spirit or mercury), which are present in so-called pure materials. Researcher Maria Grazzini notes in her annotations to the manuscript that: "The chemical philosophy to which Neri refers is Paracelsian, which in addition to the four Aristotelian elements introduces the principal triad (tria prima) of salt, sulfur, and mercury. References to sulfur and mercury were already present in Arabic alchemy." [2] 
Of the other three [derived from the pure] one is called 'salt' and it is the so-called most fixed substance because it is resistant to the violence of fire; it does not flee or vanish into the air. The second is called 'oil' or 'true sulfur' because of the similarity to it, fatty and viscous. The third is called 'spirit' because it is more spiritual and volatile than all the others and even the slightest heat will cause it to dissipate into the air if it has not been bound to the salt, which is the component fixed by the oil. By its tenacious, slimy nature, [oil] acts to bind the volatile to the fixed. These three types are those of the pure substances, which are called by many other names; 'body', 'soul' [anima], 'spirit'; 'bitter', 'sweet', 'acid'; 'salt', 'sulfur', 'mercury' etc.
In them alone are placed all of the virtue and effectiveness of the minerals, the vegetables and the animals, even if the quantity of pure substance is very small in comparison with the impure in any kind of mixed body. These [three] are found in each mixed quantity of pure substance, in comparison with the ineffectual found in the impure. [3] 
In his view, it is these last three forms of impurity that hold the key to transmutation, which tends to puts dregs in a whole new light.

[1] Grazzini 2012, p. 339.
[2] Ibid, note 45, p. 339.
[3] Ibid, p. 340.
* This post first appeared here on 20August 2014.

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