Friday, April 3, 2020

Eyes of a Lynx

The seal of the Accademia dei Lincei.
In the spring of 1612, Florentine priest Antonio Neri published his book on glassmaking. L'Arte Vetraria was the first printed book devoted to the formulation of glass from raw materials, but unfortunately for him it did not exactly take the world by storm, at least not at first. Sales were such that a number of copies still exist from the initial printing; they remain in pristine condition, never bound. 

Initially, the book received scant attention, but it was noticed. In fact, within a couple of years word had reached Rome, where Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of a scientific society, asked a Pisan member of his group to obtain a copy. That other member would go on to become one of the most recognized scientists in history. Meanwhile, L'Arte Vetraria gained prestige and readers, slowly but steadily.  By the end of the century, Neri’s book would be translated into English, Latin, German, French and then back into English from the French. It became the bible of glassmakers throughout Europe. 

In 1614, the year of Antonio Neri's death, naturalist Prince Federico Cesi wrote to his good friend Galileo. He complained of the difficulties in getting material from the Roman libraries, urging the astronomer to send him a copy of Antonio Neri's book.
The poor management of these libraries in Rome makes me feel continually thirsty for good books that come to light, which I can use for my study of compositions. They are scarcely giving me the titles, and after a long wait, only a tenth of what I asked. […] now I hear that printed in Florence is L'Arte Vetraria by Priest Antonio Neri, and I think there is some good in it. Please, your lordship, send me a copy, and believe me that I will gladly give them trouble.
 Shortly after, having received the book the prince wrote,
I thank your lordship for the book on glass, which I find very rich in experiments and beautiful artistry.
In 1603, Cesi founded the Accademia dei Lincei (Society of the Lynxes), an early scientific society whose members (with eyes as sharp as a lynx's) eventually included both Galileo Galilei and Giambattista della Porta.[1] Within a few months of Neri's death, his book was already on its way to making history.

[1] In classical Greek mythology Lynceus was the grandson of Perseus, and had preternaturally keen eyesight. See Apollodorus, Bibliotheke I, viii, 2 & ix, 16; III, x, 3 & ix, 2.

* This post first appeared here in a shorter form on 1 August 2013.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Chalcedony Glass

17th century ribbed bottle,Brescia, Italy.
In hopeful anticipation of flowers, the cusp of spring seems the appropriate time to celebrate Antonio Neri's most colorful creation; chalcedony glass.[1] Through his clever technique, the 17th century glassmaker and alchemist managed to throw every color he knew into one glass pot and come up with, not mud, but the opposite—a swirly rainbow glass that defies verbal description. Somehow, he achieves a balance that blends a full range of colors in a way that seems natural and harmonious. While many glass creations survive from the seventeenth century, none is directly attributable to Neri's glass formulation. But, in my opinion, this piece from Brescia comes close to our alchemist's own description. 

Chalcedony is one of the more exotic varieties of glass described in Antonio Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria. It is also one of the most labor intensive, exacting recipes and consequently a 'high stakes' risk for losing the entire batch after considerable work. Nevertheless, Neri assures us that the end result is worth the trouble; he describes it as:
Adorned with so many graceful and beautiful areas of undulations and enhanced with the play of diverse, lively, flaming colors.
Chalcedony is a natural mineral, known and admired since antiquity. It occurs in a variety of translucent colors and is most valued when swirls of many different colors are present together in the same piece. In the Roman Empire, it was prized for seals and signet rings; its fine-grained structure allowed intricate carving without fractures. Like many other rare natural materials, it was sometimes supposed to have mystical healing properties. 

Chemically, the mineral chalcedony is identical with quartz or silica, the main ingredient of glass. However, unlike the fabricated substance, the mineral is formed of networks of microscopic interlocking crystals that are responsible for its favorable properties. Small amounts of impurities between the crystal grains cause the swirls of color.

Neri presents three variations of chalcedony glass that span his career as a glassmaker. The first he describes as "the way that I made chalcedony in the year 1601, in Florence at the Casino, in the glass furnace there." The last was made "in the Flemish city of Antwerp, in January of the year 1611" where he presented "His Excellency, the Prince of Orange with two vessels of chalcedony [glass] which delighted him greatly."

His friend Emmanuel Ximenes was anxious to learn the secrets of this glass as early as July of 1603, when he wrote: 

The details of the last chalcedony [glass], which you promised to send to me, did not come in the letter: but I had to recant by the time I got to the end […] I see and understand, that Your Lordship is not at leisure, but in fact busy at work in the service of Christianity... 
Neri advises that in order to bring out the swirls of color, the glassblower must cool and reheat the piece several times, a process that today is known as 'striking'.

Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this colorful creation.  It is strongly advised to avoid replication of Neri's chalcedony glass as described in his book of recipes; it contains a cocktail of extremely toxic ingredients. While these are relatively harmless once locked inside the glass, in preparation and especially in the hot molten glass melt, vapors of mercury and arsenic can be deadly. Moderate exposure can be expected to cause neurological and liver damage. (The term "mad as a hatter" comes from the unfortunate side effects of inhaled mercury vapors in the formation of felt hats.) In addition, Neri's extensive uses of strong acid reactions in these preparations make sudden eruptions and severe chemical burns a very real danger.


[1] At least in the northern hemisphere, lets say "autumn colors" in the south.
*This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 27 September 2013.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sisters of an Alchemist

Pharmacy, apothecary and assistant 
cooking medicine, woodcut, from: 
Hieronymus Brunschwig
 (circa 1450 - circa 1512)
Among the ten children born to glassmaker Antonio Neri’s parents, three of them were girls; Lessandra, Maria, and Lucrezia. Because women were not allowed to legally own property, or sign contracts many of the usual sources of information are silent. Most of what we can learn about them is through their relationships with the men around them.

The Neri's were a patrician family, and the children enjoyed a very comfortable existence for the late sixteenth century. There is evidence that all three sisters survived into adulthood. Lessandra was the first-born, nine years older than Maria, and twelve years older than Lucrezia.

When Lessandra was around age seventeen, her famous father, Neri Neri, was appointed as personal physician to the newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici. However, only a few short years later their mother Dianora died at age 42, of causes that are unknown, perhaps childbirth. The girls were 22, 13 and 10. A few short years later they lost both their father, and a brother.

Two information sources for the Neri sisters are their birth records kept at the Opera del Duomo and genealogy records for the family which are filed at the National Archives, both in Florence. The baptism records hold a wealth of indirect material through the names of their godparents. While these do not tell us anything specific about them, it does tell us who their influences were; who they looked to for strength and spiritual guidance, under the circumstances, this is the best we can do.

Lessandra (b. 1572) claimed Baccio Valori as her godfather. The Valori family had a long, tragic history with the ruling Medici family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all close Medici supporters, yet each ended up exiled, imprisoned, or executed after relationships soured. On one hand he was faithfully employed by the Medici, yet he reportedly spent a good deal of his time collecting letters and papers documenting his family’s close support of Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand Dominican priest who lead Florence in the late 1490s, after the Medici had been temporarily expelled from the city.

Lessandra’s godmother was Marietta Gaetani, also from a noble family, which included dukes, cardinals and popes. They played prominent roles in the politics of Pisa, Rome and Naples for several centuries. Marietta’s father owned the house from whose tower Galileo showed the moons of Jupiter to Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1610.

The genealogical records imply that Lessandra later took vows with the S. Agata monastery on the North end of Florence and took the name suor Emilia.

Maria’s (b. 1581) godfather was Monsignor Giovanni Alberti. Giovanni was the son of a Florentine senator. He served as protonotary apostolic for Pope Gregory XIII and as bishop of Cortona under Pope Clement VIII. A godfather serving in the papal inner chambers was a good family contact indeed. Also appearing for Maria was Pierfilippo Perini, a physician and lawyer. The Registri lists Maria Neri's godmother as Alessandra di Girolamo Pepi. Among the prominent Florentine republicans was Alessandra's father, Girolamo. He was tortured by Alessandro de' Medici in the 1530s, upon the family's regaining control of Florence after the siege.The genealogy indicates that she married into the Boscoli family, but further work is needed to identify a specific individual.

Lucrezia (b. 1584), the youngest Neri girl, has a single godparent listed in the register, Montiglio degli Albizi. The Albizi family boasted powerful bankers and politicians. This was another case where deep divisions over Medici rule drove a family apart. Perhaps the best-recognized member of the Albizzi family was Eleonora degli Albizi. She was the young consort of grand duke Cosimo I. Folklore has it that in 1566, Cosimo intended to retire from public life and marry Albizi quietly, after the birth of a girl, but his regent son, Francesco I, forbade it to due to the inheritance complications that would ensue. The story is that Cosimo's long-time personal secretary, Sforza Almeni, leaked word of the clandestine marriage to the family. For his betrayal, an enraged Cosimo murdered Almeni in cold blood. Eleonora later gave birth to Don Giovanni de’ Medici, the uncle and friend of Don Antonio, Neri's sponsor. The specific Albizi family member we are interested in, Lucrezia's godfather, Montiglio degli Albizi, seems to have eluded history. Lucretia married into the Talenti family, but no further details are known.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Dianora Parenti

Agnolo di Cosimo 'Bronzino',
"Portrait of Florentine Noblewoman"
(subject unknown , circa. 1540).
The mother of Antonio Neri, the 17th century glassmaker and alchemist,  was named Dianora Parenti. She was the oldest of six children: three girls and three boys. She was born in Florence, on 11 February 1552, with the given name of Dora listed in the city's baptistery register. In all probability by the age of eighteen she was quite accustomed to helping her mother with the other children; Caterina, the youngest, was born less than a year before Dianora's wedding.

Her father and grandfather were prominent lawyers; together they handled much of the personal business of famed artist Michelangelo. On the 20th day of August 1570, Francesco Parenti walked his eldest child down the aisle to be joined, in holy matrimony, to physician Neri Neri. Two years later, their first child Lessandra was born. 

Historians Luigi Zecchin and Enzo Settesoldi identified four of Antonio's brothers, two older and two younger. They were Jacopo (1573), Francesco (1575), a second Jacopo (1577) and Vincenzio (1579). In addition to these five boys, there were at least two more brothers born later, Emilio (1583) and Alessandro (1587). And there were at least three girls, the first-born child Lessandra (1572) and two younger sisters: Maria (1581) and Lucretia (1584). 

In all, there were ten births by Dianora recorded in Florence, occurring almost like clockwork on a fifteen-month schedule. As did many women of the period, she spent a significant portion of her adult life pregnant. In her case, it was a span of sixteen years, carrying one child after another with minimal interruption.

The birth of a child in Renaissance Florence was no small occasion. Patrician families went to considerable expense on decorations, on food and drink for guests and on gifts for the mother and godparents. "The woman who gave birth, like a bride at her wedding, occupied for a passing moment a position of unparalleled honor,"* more than that, while a wedding signaled the transition from daughter to wife, the birth celebration was a rare social recognition of a woman as an individual.

A genealogical record of the eighteenth century, held at the State Archives in Florence (ASF), confirms most of the Neri children's births. It also sets the date of death for their mother Dianora at 1594 when she would have been forty-two years old. This means Antonio lost his mother when he was eighteen and his youngest brother Alessandro was a mere seven.

* Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 4.

This post first appeared on 11 September 2013.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bianca Capello and Francesco de Medici

19th century romantic depiction of
Bianca Cappello, Francesco de' Medici 
(with Don Antoni as a child.)
The story of 17th century glassmaker Antonio Neri weaves together closely with that of a Medici prince also named Antonio. The prince was six months younger, living quite a different life, yet holding many of the same interests. Don Antonio de' Medici was the eldest and only surviving son of the second grand duke of Tuscany. He became both Neri's employer and his benefactor. Don Antonio's own fascination with nature's secrets ran in his blood, a fascination that preceded him by at least four generations. His father Francesco and his grandfather Cosimo, both grand dukes of Tuscany, avidly pursued the vagaries of natural secrets. Cosimo had picked up the interest of alchemy from the notebooks of his own paternal grandmother, Caterina Sforza, as preserved by his father, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Don Antonio would carry on the family passion working in the laboratory built by his father on the north side of Florence, called the Casino di San Marco. Shortly after the prince settled in, priest Antonio Neri came to work in the Casino laboratory and there learned the craft of glass formulation. 

Evidence suggests that Don Antonio's mother. Bianca, was also fascinated by alchemy. Although specifics are hazy, she apparently cultivated relationships with women in the city's Jewish quarter who were well steeped in the concoction of various remedies and potions. Furthermore her family was involved in the glassmaking industry in Venice, another craft with close connections to chemistry.

By the time Don Antonio dusted off the cobwebs at the Casino and restarted the laboratory there in his early twenties, he had already experienced more than his share of misfortune. At the age of eleven, his life was suddenly changed forever when he lost both parents. Among many other implications, it meant relinquishing his future as grand duke of Tuscany to his uncle Ferdinando. Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici had been visiting his brother, Grand Duke Francesco and his wife Bianca when they both became violently ill and died within days of each other in the fall of 1587. It was no secret that the brothers had running quarrels on a variety of matters from the cardinal's allowance to the way Francesco was running Tuscany. It was also no secret that Cardinal Ferdinando strongly disapproved of his older brother's wife, Bianca Cappello. She had earlier been the duke's mistress; they married in secret shortly after Grand Duchess Giovanna died in pregnancy. 

As soon as Francesco and Bianca's deaths were made public, rumors began to fly that the cause was poison in their food and not pernicious malaria, as pronounced by Ferdinando's own two doctors, Cini and Da Barga. Related rumors claimed that Don Antonio was an illegitimate child, or adopted, or even the product of witchcraft, none of which hurt Ferdinando's case for succeeding his brother as grand duke. The narrative was that Ferdinando had made a ruthless power grab, assassinating his brother and sister-in-law; it was a narrative that spread and gained momentum over the years, fueled by careless researchers and Victorian era romanticism. In some nineteenth and twentieth century history books, it was reported as all but fact. The poisoning of Ferdinando and Bianca has been the subject of theatrical productions, novels, poetry, paintings and a musical composition. Admittedly, it does have all the elements of a great story: Marriage for love in the aristocracy, sex, murder, intrigue, politics and religion. Truth be told, given the Medici family’s actual history, the story is not all that far-fetched, but it turns out not to be true, at least as far as modern forensics technology can determine.

 Controversy erupted in 2007 when a team from the University of Florence reported that they had unearthed what they presumed to be the long-lost (but partial) remains of Grand Duchess Bianca. Testing revealed a significant level of arsenic, leading some to give assassination another look. Others pointed out that arsenic was commonly used as an embalming preservative in this period. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Pisa confirmed that there are malaria pathogens in what are not disputed to be Francesco's remains, interred at the Chapel of Princes in Florence. 

Ferdinando's two physicians, Giulio Cini and Giulio Angeli da Barga, who were on the scene in October of 1587, reported that symptoms were identical in both patients. Modern forensics pathologists agree that those symptoms are entirely consistent with pernicious malaria. Furthermore, it was recorded that a few days earlier, Francesco and Bianca had ventured into a swampy area on a walk near the estate where they met their end. In fact, Francesco had lost two younger brothers and his mother to malaria, and I can personally vouch that Tuscan mosquitoes are nasty little creatures. If not for an insect bite, Don Antonio might well have become the third grand duke. As it was, Ferdinando took the reigns of power and Antonio Neri's father was appointed to be the new grand duke's royal physician, with Cini and da Barga his assistants.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Rise and Fall

"Merry Company," (1623)
Gerard van Honthorst
The first decade of the seventeenth century was a golden era for glass in Tuscany. The Venetian techniques brought to the region by Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici in the 1570s had been assimilated. The pioneering work of his son, Francesco, in cross pollinating different crafts under one roof, was by now bearing fruit in unique items that included the handiwork of glass artisans. Grand Duke Ferdinando understood the value of glass as a source of prestige and was willing to invest in it. This was the environment in which Antonio Neri first learned to make glass. Delicate drinking glasses were the toast of the aristocracy throughout Europe. The material was critical to the advancement of chemistry, medicine and by the end of the decade astronomy. 

In 1602, Antonio Neri came to work in the shop of Niccolò Sisti in Pisa. While Sisti was making fancy glassware for the Medici court, the nearby Coscetti firm was supplying Pisa with everyday items. Coscetti made glassware for private homes, but also innkeepers, spice and perfume sellers, winemakers and a baker among others. Their wares included cruets for oil, saltcellars, carafes, drinking glasses, containers for holy water, reliquaries, gilded Venetian style cups and English style flasks. 

By the second decade, momentum started to shift and before long, the glass industry in Tuscany fell on hard times. Apparently the demand for glass could not support the number of factories that had started and the rapid succession of leadership in the duchy added uncertainty to patronage of the arts in general. 

Another factory in Pisa was run by Giovanbattista Guerrazzi, who had acquired the exclusive right to make Venetian style cristallo from Neri's old employer Sisti. In 1623, Guerrazzi had problems of a different sort, not directly related to the sales of glass. He appealed to Pisa’s Office of Rivers and Ditches, pleading with them to modify a recent ruling. He explained that he owned three houses next to his furnace, one for his family and the others functioning as sales space and housing for his workers. Since he was the exclusive maker of cristallo, he had employed a number of girls and women to decorate the delicate glassware, and a constant stream of the nobility showed up to watch the work being done. Guerrazzi's problem was that the Magistrate of Public Decency had recently published a list of seven places where women of "ill repute" were allowed to stay. One of these was located next door to his glassmaking operation. He begged for a change in the ruling, to move his new neighbors elsewhere.

The outcome of his appeal is not known, but Guerrazzi was succeeding in the glass business, and at the same time accelerating the demise of his competitors. He bought-out and demolished the furnaces of a number of other glassblowers and planned the same fate for the Coscetti operation, putting all the craftsmen there out of work. In the mid 1620s, after a quarter century of operation, the fires under Coscetti furnace were allowed to go out forever. Furnaces at Leghorn, Pistoia and Prato had shuttered, leaving only the one furnace in Pisa, two in Florence and two at the castle of Montaione. 

*This post first appeared here on 12 Dec 2013.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kitchen Alchemy

Tesoro del Mondo, "Ars Preparatio Animalium"
Antonio Neri 1598-1600, f. 10r (MS Ferguson 67).
Between 1598 and 1600, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript filled with alchemical recipes. He entitled it Tesoro del Mondo or "Treasure of the World" and stated that it was a book in draft form, intended for publication. It never did see the ink of a printer's press, but Neri's original did survive intact and today occupies a place of pride in the Ferguson Collection of the University of Glasgow Library. [1]

Tesoro is an ambitious work, devoted to "all of alchemy," containing numerous hand-drawn ink and watercolor illustrations; some of the pictures are allegorical, many others document practitioners working with equipment. Only passing reference is made in this manuscript to Neri's later claim to fame: glass—its most notable appearance in Tesoro  is in illustrations of experimental vessels. 1598 was two or three years before Antonio's glassmaking career is thought to have started. His life was busy on other fronts. He had just been ordained as a Catholic Priest, undergoing the laying on of hands ceremony, probably by his neighbor on Borgo Pinti, the Florentine archbishop Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici. 1598 was also a year of tragedy for the Neri family; by the summer, his father Neri Neri, personal physician to the grand duke, died of an unknown illness, but not before making arrangements for his family, which included a will. A court magistrate would oversee the now orphaned children's education, inheritance and dowries. They would soon suffer further tragedy in the unexpected death of a brother; sixteen year-old Emilio would leave them on Christmas day of the following year, in Castello outside Florence. 

The losses must have been devastating. In 1598, five of the nine children were still under the age of twenty. Without a mother or father, great responsibility must have fallen on the shoulders of the matriarch of the house, the children's elderly paternal grandmother Maddalena. [2] To outsiders, the Neri's were a wealthy and quite well respected family, but internally, the tragic events undoubtedly threw their lives into turmoil. It is in these circumstances that Antonio started his manuscript. The events allude to the reasoning behind a cryptic Latin quote scribbled at the top of a page above the first recipe of Tesoro: "fuimus troes." It means, "We are Trojans no more" From Virgil's Aeneid, referring to the fall of Troy. [3] 

Early in the manuscript there is a series of four illustrations, each showing a different activity, In order, they are titled The Art of Preparation of Stones, Metals, Plants and Animals. [4] Each is filled with multiple workers engaged in various activities pertinent to the specific art. Each highlights interactions between the Aristotelian elements: air, water, earth and fire. There is no specific indication of where any of the four scenes take place, although some educated guesses can be taken. For instance, the stone workers, or lapidaries, almost certainly are an early incarnation of the famed 'Opificio delle pietre dure' working in the Uffizi's Galleria dei Lavori. But we will leave that discussion for another time. 

Of the four illustrations, "Preparing Animals" focuses on activity within a kitchen. (See above, click to enlarge). The scene is intriguing in that it appears to take place in a domestic setting. Labels call out the four Aristotelian elements; birds hanging from the rafters represent air, fish on a grilling rack represent water, a whole carcass on the spit represents earth and fire appears as itself. The scene suggest that this setting is none other than the Neri family kitchen and that the practitioners of the art are three of Antonio's siblings. In the middle right, a young boy is engaged in turning the spit (in green). The best candidate would be then eleven year-old Allesandro, the eventual heir to the family, whose own son named Neri would carry on the family practice as a physician. Of the two young women pictured, the three family choices are fourteen year-old Lucretia, Sixteen year-old Maria and twenty-six year-old Lessandra.

In one sense, the methodology of alchemy lives-on today in kitchens around the world. The process of combining raw ingredients and cooking them together, of experimentation and of iteratively refining a recipe to perfection, this is not so different from what Antonio Neri and his siblings were doing four hundred years ago.


[1] Neri 1598-1600.
[2] Maddalena di Bartolomeo di Niccolò Bartoloz[z]i, married Jacopo Neri, and they gave birth to Antonio’s father Neri Neri. (ASF 599).
[3] Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium, et ingens Gloria Teucrorum. [We Trojans are at an end, Illium has ended and the vast glory of the Trojans], The Aeneid: Book 2, Line 325.  See also the post in this blog (Conciatore.org) dated 13 June 2014.
[4] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 7r, 8r, 9r, 10r.
* This post first appeared here on 27 August 2014,