Monday, December 12, 2016

Neri the Scholar

Francesco Bartolozzi, Laurentian Library in the 18th cent.
(click to enlarge).
Whether one's chosen field was medicine, law, religion or alchemy, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, books played as important a role in education as they do today. The schooling of Florentine priest and glassmaker Antonio Neri was no exception. The details of his training at seminary remain elusive, but there is no mistaking that his introduction to alchemy occurred well before his ordination as Catholic Priest around 1598. [1] Since his father was the celebrated physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando, there is a good chance that Antonio had access to wide variety of Medici resources, not the least of which was the famed Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo and run by Neri family friend Baccio Valore. [2]  

But we need not look as far as the Laurentian, which was only a ten-minute walk from the Neri household. Closer to home, in fact inside his home, there was the extensive library of his own father. At the turn of the century, it contained 477 volumes, spanning poetry, philosophy, the Greek classics, medicine, pharmacology, surgery, religion, even grammar. [3] We know this thanks to an inventory taken at the time of the physician’s death, leaving a list of titles that has survived the ages, even if the volumes themselves have long been dispersed or lost. At the time, outside of the royal family, it was probably one of the largest collections of books in private hands in Florence. Neri’s father had himself been in charge of the revision of the Ricettario Fiorentino, [4] the gold standard of doctors and apothecaries throughout Europe for medicinal prescriptions, published in 1597 and again without revision in 1623.

Antonio Neri is known best as an artisan who worked with his hands. No evidence has been found to place him at a specific monastery or university classroom. Nevertheless, what emerges from the details that we do have is a picture of a man who was steeped in a literary, scholastic tradition from an early age. His Mother’s father, Ser Francesco, held a degree in law as did her grandfather and great-grandfather. [5] Antonio’s father held a degree in medicine from the “Studio Fiorentino,” the forerunner of what today is the University of Florence.[6]  In addition, it would be reasonable to assume the household library included titles once owned by his grandfather Jacopo, a noted barber-surgeon who was known among the literati. It has been speculated that Jacopo’s best friend in the world [7] was poet Lodovico Domenichi, who wrote of his friend in a sonnet:

Marvel about you the people do,
Over how, one might say, almost stupidly,
So many lecturers and scholars admire you. [8]

Domenichi who had been appointed court historian by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, goes on in the sonnet to name a list of mutual friends that includes poets, playwrights and intellectuals of the day.

In a similar way —that is through legal records—we know the contents and titles of the alchemical library of Neri’s sponsor, Don Antonio de’ Medici at the time of his death in 1621. These included several manuscripts by Neri himself, as well as his book on glassmaking. [9] However, one title did escape the attention of the bean-counters; sixty years after Don Antonio’s death, at the death of his son, Giulio, a handwritten book of recipes by Neri was found along with a box of elixirs. “Among them there was a booklet, entitled: Material of all the compounds of Priest Antonio Neri; there is a red dustcover, which says “experiments.” [10]

In his twenties, after a couple of years of making glass in Florence, Neri moved to Pisa where he assisted at the Medici’s furnace run by Niccolò Sisti. Pisa was home to a thriving university, with ample study possibilities, and Neri was proving himself a life-long researcher. From Pisa, in early 1604 he embarked on a seven-year long residence in Antwerp, where he stayed with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. Ximenes was one of the wealthiest men in Flanders and maintained an extensive library in his palace. He owned many volumes devoted to the chemical arts. [11] In fact, his collection of books was probably the largest in the entire region. [12] Here too, the full list of books is preserved in an inventory compiled after the death in 1617 of Emmanuel’s wife, Isabella da Vega. 

Upon Antonio’s return to Italy, he published his glassmaking recipes in L’Arte Vetraria and then appears to have focused his attention on chemistry and medicine. In the last manuscript he is known to have written, within a year of his death, he writes of a recipe copied “from an old book, here in Pisa” in 1613. 

[1] In his manuscript Tesoro del Mondo devoted to “all of alchemy” (Neri 1598-1600) Neri self-identifies as a priest.
[2] Bartolomeo di Filippo di Niccolò Valori [il giovane] (1535–1606). He was keeper of the Laurentian, steward of the Medici herbal (simples) garden and an early director of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. He was a personal friend to Antonio Neri’s father and godfather to his first child (Antonio’s older sister) Lessandra.
[3] Bec 1984, pp. 299–310.
[4] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597, 1623.
[5] Ser Francesco di Ser Niccolò di Ser Antonio Parenti (1519 - ?)
[6] Fathers medical degree ref.
[7] . Garavelli 2004, p. 82, n. 186.
[8] Domenichi 1555, Stanza 7.
[9] Covoni 1892.
[10] Ibid p. 193.
[11] Duverger 1984.
[12] Dupré, Lüthy 2011, p. 272; Göttler, Dupré 2009.
* this post first appeared here on 31 Dec 2014.

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