Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Blue Tower

"The Blue Tower" Jozef Linnig 1868.
(click image to enlarge)
There are three known facilities where priest Antonio Neri worked as an alchemist formulating glass in the early seventeenth century; in Florence, Pisa and Antwerp. If he did work elsewhere, it must have been for a relatively short period since his time at these three locations accounts well for his entire career. Of the three, he is known best for his work at the Casino di San Marco, on the north side of Florence. It is also the facility about which the most is known, since its owner was Medici prince, Don Antonio. However, a good argument can be made that the facility in Antwerp, about which much less is known, was the one most influential to his career as a glassmaker.

Neri traveled to Antwerp in early 1604 to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes (Pronounced Se-men-ez), where he stayed for seven years. Ximenes was an international trader (known then as a 'banker') from one of the wealthiest families in Flanders. At the time, Antwerp stood at the center of the bloody Dutch war for independence from Habsburg Spain. The population of the city was a shadow of its former self, after being sacked and burned by Spanish troops a couple of decades earlier in what has become known as "the Spanish Fury." A Dutch blockade of Antwerp's seaports had strangled commerce, but for the ultra-wealthy, life went on.  

"Antwerpen, het Arsenaal" Jan Wildens, 17th Cent.
 In his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, [1] Neri names "the most courteous gentleman Filippo Gridolfi" as the owner of the glass factory in Antwerp. Indeed, records show that Gridolfi was the latest in a long line of owners who had been granted exclusive rights to make the exalted Venetian style glass known as cristallo. Under the management of Gridolfi and his wife Sara Vincx, the luxury glass business thrived. In the 1590s, shortly after their marriage, they employed seventeen Venetian workers. 

The most fashionable street in Antwerp was the Meir. This was the address of  Ximene's palace, as well as of his brother in law, Baron Simon Rodrigues d'Evora, who happened to be the most prestigious diamond dealer and jeweler in the region; he was known locally as "the little king." Gridolfi and Vincx had one, and later a second retail space for their glassware here. The factory and furnaces were located a few blocks away, near the fortress wall that ringed the city. Records indicate it was in a district called  the Hopland, near -- or possibly also in -- a huge structure actually built into the defensive wall around Antwerp. Called the "Blauwe Toren" [Blue Tower] for its blue slate roof, this impressive building had at various times functioned as an armory and a storage facility. In this period, a below street level canal led from the basement of the tower directly to the Meir, in later years the canal was filled in. Just on the other side of the city wall was a mote with access to the network of waterways which connected towns and villages throughout the region; this too was eventually turned into usable real estate when the wall was demolished in the nineteenth century. This situation of the glass production facility makes perfect sense. They needed to bring in heavy materials, ship delicate product and occupy a space which was not in danger of burning down the city should disaster strike. 

Blue Tower, 1860. Edmond Fierlants.
Today the foundations of the Blue Tower are preserved just below street level in a busy traffic square. Over the centuries, surrounding structures came and went. A small number of contemporary depictions do exist. Two illustrations that give a flavor of the neighborhood are shown here. One sketch by Jan Wildens  is not in the best of condition, but shows the tower and a few nearby structures from canal level in the seventeenth century. This might well have been typical of the view from a barge making deliveries. The factory would need a steady supply of pure quartz river stones used to make the exceptionally clear cristallo glass. A second view by Jozef Linnig, shows the neighborhood more clearly albeit in 1868. By then a furniture maker was located to the left of the tower, and another structure stood where the canal once was. Also of interest is an early photograph of the tower before it was demolished.

What we know of Neri's experiences in glassmaking come mostly from his book. His activities in Florence included making aquamarine colored glass for beadmaking and chalcedony glass with its multicolored swirls. In Pisa, he made emerald green, pimpernel green and celestial blue glass, he experimented with enamels, constructed a frit kiln and made glass using fern plants. From his early glassmaking activity in Florence, Neri seems to build momentum in Pisa. In these two locations combined he spends at most four years, in Antwerp he spend seven years, and there is no indication that he was slowing down, in fact quite the opposite. There he made artificial gems, a "beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished." He tinted rock crystal "the colors of balas, ruby, topaz, opal and girasol." He "built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors" He made ultramarine, the deep blue pigment valued by painters more highly than gold. Finally in 1609, in Antwerp, at Gridolfi's shop he made "the most beautiful chalcedony that I have ever made in my life" and presented two vessels of this glass to the prince of Orange.

[1] Neri 1612.
* This post first appeared here on 1 October 2014.

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