Monday, May 20, 2019

A Band of Alchemists

"The Alchemist" 1558, Pieter Brugle the Elder.
Mention the word 'alchemist' and the images that spring to mind are likely the same ones that have been around for centuries. Perhaps you will imagine something like Pieter Brugle’s 1558 depiction; a fool, whose head is filled with fantasies of conjuring gold. He spends all his earnings on exotic chemicals while his children go shoeless, the cupboard goes bare and his family starves. No? Then perhaps a more classical rendition; a white bearded mystic stirring a cauldron in a deserted castle, summoning unearthly forces, bending the will of nature.    

It is true that outlandish characters like these have existed, but as a fringe element at best.  For every secluded wizard or "get rich quick" schemer there were many more alchemists who lived otherwise unremarkable lives and went to work every day. They interacted with colleagues and used their knowledge to provide valuable services like making painter's pigments or medicines or refining metals. Seventeenth century glassmaker and Catholic priest Antonio Neri fell into the latter category. Another departure from the typical caricature of alchemy is that it was very much a plural endeavor; it was practiced not primarily in isolation but by well connected networks of people, at least in late sixteenth century Florence.
Anibal and Martin

Neri's father was the chief physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and as such probably had something to do with Antonio's education and with the position that he landed in Florence at the renowned "Casino di San Marco," the laboratory of Medici prince Don Antonio, inherited from his father grand duke Francesco. Even before his prestigious appointment, Neri wrote an illustrated manuscript in which he shows a number of young men and some women his own age working at the business of alchemy. A few of them are identified by name and must have been Antonio’s friends: Anibal, Martin, Hiroem and Pietro. [1] 
Female alchemist depicted in Neri's
"Tesoro del Mondo"

The female alchemists depicted in the manuscript are not specifically identified, but a strong possibility is that they were nuns from one of the nearby convents. These facilities often maintained their own pharmacies and ran cottage industries that produced and sold goods to raise funds. Alchemy practiced by women is an area of study which still needs much research, but it is known that convents used alchemical techniques to distill their own medicinal remedies and produced their own paint pigments. The famous painter Suor Plautilla Nelli resided in the Dominican convent across the street from the Medici's Casino laboratory. Sculptor Suor Caterina Eletta was a nun at the same convent around Neri's time and was the daughter of Stefano Rosselli, the royal apothecary, another profession steeped in alchemy. Her uncle Fra Anselmo ran the Dominican's apothecary at San Marco, literally a few steps from the laboratory's front door. Suor Caterina was surrounded by relatives deeply involved in alchemy, how could she not be familiar with the subject?

At Don Antonio's laboratory, the Casino di San Marco, or the Royal Foundry as it also became known, Neri worked closely with Agnolo della Casa, another Florentine of the same age. In fact, all three men, Neri, Della Casa and Don Antonio were all born within a year of each other around 1576. Della Casa took notes on Antonio Neri's experiments in Florence over a period that spanned more than a decade. He filled literally thousands of pages. Much of this material is devoted to transmutation and the philosophers stone, both were subjects dear to Don Antonio de' Medici, their boss. The notebooks also indicate a lively correspondence with other chemical experimenters around Italy and wider Europe. Neri himself carried on a correspondence with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes who lived in Antwerp, a city that would become Antonio's home for seven years. 

The network of alchemy in Florence reached outwards to other experimenters and it also reached forward in time. Knowledge was passed from one generation to the next by schooling children in the art. From another branch of Della Casa's family came two brothers, Ottavio (1596) and Jacinto (Giacinto) Talducci della Casa (1601).  As youngsters they were said to have learned alchemy at the knee of Don Antonio. A century later, historian Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti chronicled that these boys would go on to serve Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici  and continue the work by directing the Real Fonderia when, after Don Antonio's death, it was moved from the Casino to the Boboli Gardens. Ottavio would become director of the Royal Foundry. [2]  
Jacinto Talducci Della Casa

Jacinto became a parish priest a few kilometers east of Florence, but he was pressed back into service as an alchemist after his brother died. He succeeded Ottavio as director of the Royal Foundry under Francesco Redi. Little is known about Jacinto's contributions to chemistry, but it must have been a remarkable life. He saw the germ of experimentalism really take hold; it would continue to grow and become the basis of our own modern science. Jacinto died in 1700 at the age of 99, he was the last surviving member of Don Antonio's band of alchemists and quite likely the last living soul to have personally met Antonio Neri.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 22r, 23r, 24r.
[2] Targioni-Tozzetti 1780, p. 127. Don Antonio de' Medici died in 1621.
* This post first appeared here on 26 September 2014.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Glass Discovery Legend

Giovan Maria Butteri,
"The Discovery of Glass"
Studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici
Any self-respecting Roman historian living in the first century could tell you the story that glass was first discovered by Phoenician sailors. They were temporarily grounded at the bay of Haifa, near the Belus River, in the shadow of Mount Carmel, forced ashore by a storm. Needing to eat, they improvised a fire on the beach in order to cook their food. Using natron, a mineral they were carrying as cargo on the ship, they built up a stove. To their amazement, in the heat of the fire, the natron mixed with the beach sand started to melt and liquid glass trickled out.

Actually, starting with Pliny the Elder, the author of most famous version of this story, skepticism abounds about how much of it was true. Nevertheless, if we gently tease apart the loose threads of this yarn we find that it is not without substance. First, there is the location; not just any port in a storm, this region was the site of a thriving glass industry as early as the sixth century BCE, due to the exceptional, pure white sand at the outlet of the Belus river. Archaeologists have excavated ancient glass furnaces at the nearby cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Next, the sodium carbonates in natron do indeed form glass when mixed with fine sand and brought to a high temperature, but this takes strong, concentrated heat, likely more than could be provided by a cook's beach fire. Natron is a hydroscopic mineral – this means it pulls moisture out of the surrounding environment. The water is locked into its solid crystal structure, where it remains until it is released either chemically or through heat. Natron can hold a remarkable amount of water, up to two-thirds of its weight. This is why it was used extensively to preserve mummies in Egypt; it dried out the bodies, quickly preserving them. While the story of the Phoenician sailors deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, it is also easy to see how the decomposition of the natron in the fire, resulting in the release of briny liquor, might be misinterpreted as glass.

In the early 1600s glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri published the first printed book of glass recipes, and in his introduction he too recounts the tale. However, in Neri's telling, natron does not make an appearance. Instead, the sailors use 'kali,' a coastal plant that is rich in alkali salts, to fuel their fire. The salts in kali are substantially similar to natron and, according to the story, triggered a similar result. In this period, Kali ash was a well-known ingredient in glass making. Neri used it in his own recipes, so the substitution is not surprising, but in this respect, Neri's version of the story does appear to be unique in the literature. It is interesting to note that Lodovico Domenichi, who was good friends with Neri's grandfather, tells a version of this story in his Italian translation of Pliny's Natural History. Here the sailors use natron, but in the next paragraph, Domenichi describes how local natives later used the plants to make their own glass.

The above depiction of the discovery of glass was painted by Butteri, one of a select group of painters for the Medici court in Florence. The work was commissioned to hang in the secret "studiolo" of Francesco de' Medici, a concealed barrel vaulted room tucked under a staircase in the Palazzo Vecchio in the early 1570's. It was only accessible through secret passages, one leading from Francesco's bed chamber. Another led from the chamber to an unmarked door on the street and a third passage led from the chamber to the secret treasury room once used by his father, Grand Duke Cosimo I. The walls and ceiling were entirely filled with paintings, the lower ones concealing cabinets full of oddities of nature, precious gems, coins, alchemical concoctions, and other treasures. Presumably, the cabinet behind Butteri's "Discovery of glass" would house some of the intricate Venetian glass vessels for which the craftsmen of Murano had become world famous. Shortly before the room was completed, a small number of these glass masters were allowed to teach their secrets in Florence by special arrangement with the Venetian government.

This post first appeared in a shorter form here on 9 October 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Alberico Barbini

The island of Murano , circa 1600
attributed to Danckerts
In the early seventeenth century, Antonio Neri began preparing batches of glass for the royal family in Florence, Italy. This was a specialist vocation undertaken by alchemists, which by schooling, Neri was. His job as “conciatore” involved procuring the ingredients, preparing, mixing and melting them and working with the glass artisans, adjusting the consistency and colors for the work being done. It was a position that carried great prestige, and Neri’s book on glassmaking [1] would cement his name in history. 

Shortly before Neri was born, in 1576, the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, brokered a special deal with the doge of Venice to have master glass artisans come to Florence and teach their secrets. These men were from the island of Murano; the most famous center of glassmaking anywhere. There is only scant evidence that Neri himself traveled to Venice and perhaps only once, but there is no doubt that he benefited greatly from the knowledge of Muranese workers in Florence, Pisa and Antwerp during his lifetime. 

Over the intervening centuries, the title of the glass batcher changed, but the tradition and prestige of glass formulation continued well into the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, even today, among the small glass manufacturers that compose the studio glass movement, the glass batcher is considered to be something of a modern alchemist; keeper of the arcane knowledge of  the chemicals and amounts necessary to produce special colors and adjust properties of the glass.

Now, fast forward four centuries from Neri's Italy; in the early 1920s, a Milanese lawyer named Paolo Venini partnered with a Venetian-born antique dealer friend, Giacomo Cappellin, to start a new glass factory on Murano. [2] Even as recently as this, the glass batcher still held a respected position both within the factory and the community. Through several incarnations over the next half century Venini grew a world-wide reputation for innovative designs, of which color played an important part. They are specifically associated with the fazzoletto (handkerchief) style vase and the incalmo technique of fusing two or more colors of glass seamlessly in a single furnace-blown piece. 

In 1925, Cappellin split from Venini and took many of the craftsmen with him, in 1933 the new business was acquired by Pauly & C. Again, chemical knowledge and the artistry of reproducing ancient colors made a worldwide reputation. [3] As ownerships changed hands like cards in a game of poker, artisans shuffled between factories. It is easy to lose track of the individual glassworker. Even for a period so recent, many records exist only in the heads of the family members still living on the island. 

In 1956 the Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro (Experimental Station for Glass) was started on Murano with the mandate to preserve and promote the technical aspects of Italy’s glassmaking heritage. [4] The new institution was regarded by some traditionalists with great suspicion, but as we will see, others embraced the resource.

I recently sat down with renowned glass artist Emilio Santini, who today carries on a six-centuries-old family tradition in glasswork. [5] Emilio had recently called home, to Murano, which led to his father’s recollection of an uncle, who worked making color for Venini and Pauly. Here Emilio recounts the conversation:
Alberico Barbini was the uncle of my father, Mario Santini and the man in charge of making the glass batch “partie” (Venetian) “partite” (Italian). He was the brother of my grandmother, Delfina Barbini. He was not the only one [in my family] who worked for Venini in the early days but the most respected. At Venini he worked formulating glass after another great batch maker, [Albino] Carrara. 
In the early to mid [twentieth] century the batch maker still held an important position in the factory, not like now, you know, and he kept his formulations quite secret, although this relative of mine, Alberico, was smart enough to use the most modern technology available at that time. 
He was different from other batch makers in that when the Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro opened, he made extensive use of it in reproducing colors. At that time, and even now to an extent, the institution was not seen as good for traditional Murano glassmaking. 
He later moved on to Pauly where he was in charge of reproducing the glass colors that were in use in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, he assisted in remaking broken or missing pieces in private collections, then later in making reproduction antique stemware at Pauly that was impossible to distinguish from the originals. 
You must realize that all this does not come from documents but from the memory, still very sharp and lucid, of my father.
Addendum: On 7 August 2016, at the age of 96, Mario Santini died, surrounded by his family at his home on Murano.

[1] L’Arte Vetraria, (Neri 1612).
[2] Paolo Venini also see
[3] Pauly & C. Compagnia Venezia Murano
[4] Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro
[5] Emilio Santini
* This post first appeared here on 25 Feb 2015.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Laughing in the Fern

Alain Manesson Mallet  1719,
"Der Mont. – Lune"
In Chapter 5 of L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri shows how to extract salt for glass from fern plants in an evocative recipe. Fern was and still is widely abundant in Tuscany. It presented a ready source material for glassmakers of the region. Neri directs that harvesting of the plants be done in the spring:
Cut this herb from the ground when it is green, between the end of the month of May and mid June. The moon should be waxing and close to its opposition with the sun, because at this point the plant is in its perfection and gives a lot of salt, more than it would at other times and of better nature, strength and whiteness.
At first, it is tempting to dismiss this lunar influence as the product of a fertile imagination, but let us take a closer look. Even today, grandmothers throughout Italy remember the advice to pick vegetables from the garden and bring them into the kitchen at a half-moon. Can nona be completely off-track? The fact is that tidal forces of the moon do subtly affect plants, fish and animals in ways that can be measured. A closer look at Neri’s advice reveals reasoning that is hard to dismiss as mere astrological superstition. When the moon is waxing, tides rise and so do water tables. According to folklore, this is when sap rises from the roots of plants into stems and leaves. Sap carries the dissolved mineral salts required for glass. Neri also stipulates that harvesting should take place during lunar opposition. When the moon is 'opposed' to the sun, it is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. In opposition, the moon is near full and rises as the sun sets. Plants see more light at night, leading to increased photosynthesis and growth.

In contrast, violin makers from Cremona valued high alpine spruce called moon wood which contain a minimum of sap. Trees were felled in the wintertime, when lunar tides were low. This minimized the amount of vibration deadening sap in the wood. In his Natural History, Pliny relates Cato’s advice on felling trees in accordance with the lunar cycle. In fact, centuries-old tradition specified lunar conditions for a host of needs from construction timbers to cheese boxes. In this case the advice relates to picking ferns for use in glass.

Fern ash is high in potassium carbonates. If carefully purified it can make an exceedingly clear glass, rivaling or even surpassing Venetian cristallo. It has the additional advantage of being physically tough, making it ideal for engraving or diamond-point work. On the other hand, once out of the furnace it stiffens quickly, giving it a short 'working life' for the hot glass artisan. This limits designs to simple basic forms. While soda-based glass was the norm for the Mediterranean region, throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, northern Europeans were more likely to be making potash-based glass. They utilized the potassium rich local trees and plants of the northern forests. In France, fern glass is called verre de fougère. In the considered opinion of some connoisseurs, wine tasted better when sipped from verre de fougère cups, hence the delightful expression 'le vin rit dans la fougère' [wine laughs (sparkles) in the fern].

Since the middle ages, fern glass became part of everyday life in northern Europe. It was familiar enough to find its way into literary verse on matters of the heart. There is a nice reference to fern glass by Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Squires Tale:
But notwithstanding, some said that it was
Wondrous to make fern-ashes into glass,
Since glass is nothing like the ash of fern;
But since long since of this thing men did learn,
Chaucer, in turn, borrowed this reference from an epic twenty-two thousand line French poem from the late thirteenth century, when the technique of making glass from ferns was already ancient.

* This post is a mashup of material that first appeared here on 5-7 August 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Alchemy of Plants

Antonio Neri, Tesoro del Mondo, f. 9r.
"Arts Preparatio frugu vel Piantar."
In a 1598 manuscript devoted to "all of alchemy", Antonio Neri singled out four particular practices, each of which he made the subject of a detailed illustration. Each is devoted to a different "art"; preparing animals, stone/minerals, plants and metals. The manuscript was produced over a period of two years starting when he was just twenty-two years old. He began writing shortly after his ordination as priest and the work was completed before he was employed making glass for the royal Medici family in Florence. 

Neri is best known for writing the first printed book of glassmaking recipes, so we might expect to find that subject covered in the early manuscript, but nothing appears aside from a single recipe for artificial ruby which makes use of glass. Indeed, the general conclusion of historians is that his involvement in making glass did not start until 1600 or 1601. Absent of any direct citation of that art, the manuscript does show a familiarity with the kind of individual skills required. Among the things Neri would need to know was the ability to make "glass salt" from certain dried plants. Presently we will look into the third of the illustrations mentioned above, which he titled "The Art of Preparing Fruits or Plants." [1] All of the activities depicted here relate to food and drink, yet they could easily be applied toward other purposes.

While there is scant reference to glass in the text, the pictures are filled with examples of specialized vessels for chemical production and investigation. From these figures we know Neri at least received an exposure to the glassmaking profession earlier. He must have started his training in alchemy as a teenager while still studying for the priesthood. This is not hard to imagine since his father was the chief physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and would have a strong grounding in alchemical techniques for producing medicines. Indeed, the first sentence of Antonio's 1612 book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, begins: "I have spent years of my youth laboring around the glassmaking craft, and experimented with many fine and marvelous effects." [2]

At center-left of the illustration at hand, we see a male farmer holding a flail, perhaps going about the business of threshing wheat, which appears in a bale behind him. Figuring prominently above the farmer (upper left) is a large mechanical apparatus that appears to be a gristmill powered by a waterwheel. A conical bag feeds grain or possibly corn from above into the central hole of a horizontal grinding stone supported by a large rectangular box. We can easily imagine that the gears shown on the front of the box control the drive or the gap between the stones. Wheat, of course, was an ancient well established staple. Corn was introduced as a direct result of Columbus' voyage to Cuba and by Neri's time, corn was being widely cultivated throughout southern Europe, northern Africa, and even as far as China.

Returning to the illustration, on the immediate left of the mill is a woman, who we can guess, is fashioning rolls or small loaves of bread from dough made with flour from the mill. Below her, (center right) is a boy using a long paddle to put the balls of dough into a baking oven. In effect, Neri is showing us the full chain of events from harvesting to finished baked goods. 

Further down, another woman works over a large basket of herbs, which appear destined for three large glassware stills to her right. In his book, Neri presents numerous recipes for extracting paint pigments from flowers using similar methods.

At the bottom of the illustration, a third woman stands in a large wooden tub crushing grapes with her bare feet, as grape juice runs into a pan on the right. To her left are three wine barrels standing side-by-side. 

For us, the connection to alchemy might seem tenuous with the possible exception of the distilling stations. For Neri, there was a deep lesson here about the way nature works; in his later manuscript Discorso, he uses the growth of grain as a metaphor for "multiplying" the "seeds" of gold inherent in primordial material left over from the creation of the world. 
This is confirmed by the example of seeds, of which a single grain is capable of producing a hundred or a thousand, as long as you sow them in a commensurate place. Take the further example of fermentation, in which one small part is sufficient to ferment a large mass. Nor is it contradictory to say that the metals do not produce seeds, like herbs and plants, because even though nature by itself has no power to take the seed out of gold, however, aided and encouraged by art, [nature] will do that which it does not do by itself. So that art begins where nature ends, and art will perfect the seed, which in gold is merely begun. [3] 
Given knowledge of how to work in harmony with nature and bring about the right conditions, he was convinced that a small quantity of material could be converted into a large amount of precious metal. The illustration on the art of preparing plants simply showed a different manifestation of the same principle; he is showing how grain multiplies in the fertile earth, it is then transformed through the addition of water and fire into nourishment.

[1] Neri 1598–1600, f. 9r.
[2] Neri 1612, p. ii.
[3] Grazzini 2012, p. 454, (Neri, 1613).
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 10 Sept 2014.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Early Modern Lapidaries

Antonio Neri, Tesoro del Mondo, 1598-1600
f. 7v, "Ars Preparatio Lapidum"
In 1598, in his early twenties, before his glassmaking career began, Antonio Neri completed an extraordinary manuscript. Tesoro del Mondo or 'Treasure of the World' was devoted to all aspects of alchemy and was intended for publication, but it never saw a printer's ink. By a minor miracle of providence, the manuscript survives today, in the special collections department of the University of Glasgow Library. The pages include a set of fascinating images, this one (left) among them.   Labeled "The Art of Preparing Stone," the picture shows five men working with various pieces of equipment related to the art. [1]

In the upper-left a lapidary works at a polishing wheel. It turns at low speed, driven by a belt which is powered from below, possibly by a foot pedal. The artisan holds two polishing fixtures against the surface of the disk, while four more stand at the end of the table. Under this workstation is an inscription in Italianate Latin that reads "Accontiare et lustrare pietre praciose" [preparing/dressing and polishing precious stones]. Behind the lapidary are shelves holding finished pieces. They range from small objects that appear to be rings, to cups, vessels and large bowls, presumably all made from stones, gems or minerals. 

Proceeding clockwise to the upper-right side of the image, we arrive at a worker tending a furnace with iron tools. Inside is a crucible sitting in the flames. Below is the firebox, and underneath that is the word "Calcinare" [calcination], which in Neri's parlance refers to the process of breaking down a material into a powder usually through the use of heat. Neri uses this method extensively in his glass formulations; in his book L'Arte Vetraria, [2] almost every colorant discussed is a metal which requires "calcination" before use in the glass melt. In the case of stone, Neri uses the furnace to make the main ingredient of glass. He breaks down quartz stones into powder by repeatedly heating them and then quenching in cold clean water. The rocks fracture into coarse granules which are then ground into a fine powder.

The middle-right of the illustration shows a worker checking on a distilling apparatus. This consists of a small stove and three pieces of glassware.  The "body" holding the raw material to be evaporated or sublimated is capped by a "head" that sports a long snout leading to a "receiver" vessel which collects the finished product.  Stills were useful in producing everything from alcoholic spirits like grappa to acids and reagents. Their specific use in stonework is not clear, possibly in dissolving precious metals from the constituent minerals in stone.

The lower-right portion of the image depicts two men seated at a low bench, each holding specialized tools used to shape "alabaster, marble and porphyry." Finally, in the lower-left we see a specialized mortar and pestle used to grind stone and minerals into a fine powder.

The two benches and the distilling stove all bear a distinctive diamond shaped insignia with a small circle at its center. The two men in the lower portion of the illustration appear to be working on a stone inlay version of this same pattern.  The implication is of an identifying symbol, but a specific affiliation is elusive.

 This technique of creating designs entirely in colorful gems and minerals (pietre dure) is an ancient one revived by the Medici family, specifically by its first three grand dukes.  In the 1560s Cosimo de' Medici employed two such artisans (commessi) in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. By the 1570s a larger group was working out of Francesco de' Medici's new palace, the Casino di San Marco. In 1588 Ferdinando de' Medici moved them into the Galleria dei Lavori [Gallery of Works] at the Uffizi Palace where they were named the "Opificio delle Pietre Dure." [workshop of hard-stone]  There the organization thrived and refined the art of creating inlaid stonework to the point of producing realistic life-like scenes. Their work graces the most opulent spaces in Florence, including the Chapel of Princes and the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Opificio delle Pietre Dure continues to operate to this day. The organization has been charged with the maintenance and conservation of many of Italy's great works of art. They maintain a worldwide reputation for excellence. [3]

It seems well within the realm of possibility that Neri's illustration indeed depicts an early incarnation of the Opificio. The artisans working in Pietre dure were handling precious materials and as such might not be readily accessible to the general public. The fact that Antonio Neri's father was a prestigious member of the Medici royal court all but ensured his entree to the royal workshops.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, f. 7v.
[2] Neri 1612.
[3] Official website:
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 3 Sept 2014.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Glass, Fire and Brimstone

The Alchemical Symbol for Sulfur
Bright yellow elemental sulfur or “brimstone” as it was often called, occupied a central place in the cabinets of seventeenth century alchemists. Antonio Neri used it in many of his preparations and specifically in pigments for glass. When sulfur is heated with thin sheets or shavings of metal, foul smelling chemical reactions can take place that reduce the metal to a powdered compound and some of these turn out to be effective glass colorants. Neri’s 1612 book, L’Arte Vetraria, offers a variety of recipes, which specifically prepare iron and copper using sulfur to form pigments. In reality, the resultant chemicals were mixtures of oxides and sulfur compounds. Since these also chemically interact with each other in the glass melt, many different effects are possible. Modern glass artists sometimes specifically use both oxide and sulfide pigmented glass side by side in the same piece; a striking effect can be the spontaneous formation of a third color along the boundary. As Neri says in the closing line of his book:
Although I have placed here the way to make this powder with much clarity, do not presuppose that I have described a way to make something ordinary, but rather a true treasure of nature, and this for the delight of kind and curious spirits.[1]
Keep in mind that the thinking of alchemist Neri was that the sulfur acted upon the metal, but did not necessarily combine with it. From his point of view, the exposure resulted in the metal’s infusion with new properties. The Aristotelian conception of the world was that everything under the sun contained various amounts of four elemental essences: air, water, fire and earth. Sulfur was seen to be dominated by the latter two, ‘fire’ because it burned easily and ‘earth’ because it occurs as a solid.

In the sixteenth century, a Swiss physician named Paracelsus developed an extension of the four-element system. After his death, his writings enjoyed a new popularity among chemical experimenters in the period that Neri came of age. Since his teenage years, the work of Paracelsus was a strong influence on both Neri and separately on his benefactor, Florentine prince Don Antonio de’ Medici. According to Paracelsus, sulfur was one of a triad of “principles” consisting of salt, sulfur and mercury. These three had philosophical as well as physical interpretations attached to them. Besides other applications, like in medicine, the three physical materials figured prominently in efforts to transmute one metal into another. 

In fact, sulfur in particular played a starring role in a very convincing demonstration that purported to turn iron into copper. Mining operations often utilized water to clean or separate ore from tailings. Other times, water was used to keep dust down, or simply flowed naturally through underground springs. When sulfur-bearing earth is exposed to air and moisture, the result can be the formation of dilute sulfuric acid. This “vitriol” was an irritant to the eyes and skin, and very unpopular with the miners. However, in at least one location, it seemed to have a miraculous property. When this “vitriolated water” flowed out of the mine, it seemed to transform bits of iron into copper. [2]

Chemically, copper had already been dissolved in the acid, forming a copper sulfate solution. But sulfuric acid shows a preference for iron. When the copper solution flowed over iron tools, it took up the iron and dropped the copper, depositing it in a thin layer. The effect appeared to be a transmutation of iron into copper. Further testing and scrutiny confirmed that pure iron, when exposed to the mine fluids resulted in real copper. Neri for one was well aware that the vitriolated water might have arrived containing copper, as he explains in his manuscript Discorso. [3] But apparently, it did not occur to him that the water leaving the scene might have contained the iron. If he had made the connection, the observation would have advanced the understanding of both ion-exchange chemistry and the principal of conservation of matter; these were two ideas that would not be explored seriously for another hundred years.

Well into the eighteenth century, the mine at Smolnik, (now in Slovakia), was a highly touted tourist destination for chemical experimenters. [4] For some, it was considered among the strongest evidence that transmutation could and did take place in the natural world. I like this demonstration so much because it works the same way as a parlor trick; while we are so intently focused on the metal changing before our eyes, Mother Nature quietly slips the copper in with one hand and takes the iron away with the other, no one the wiser.

[1] Neri 1612, p.114.
[2] See this post for a more detailed description
[3] Grazzini 2102.
[4] The effect had previously been described Georgius Agricola, in book 5 [9] of Nature Fossilium. See edition, transl. from the first Latin edition of 1546 by Mark Chance Bandy, Jean A. Bandy (New York: Mineralogical Society of America, 1955), p. 188.
*This post first appeared here on 7 November 2014.