Friday, January 15, 2021

Aventurine Glass


Small amphora in aventurine glass,
Murano, Salviati.
With all its glitz and sparkle, aventurine (avventurina) stands out as a flamboyant extrovert among the varieties of glass. Developed and perfected on the Venetian island of Murano, also known as 'goldstone', it consists of a transparent base glass with myriad reflective crystalline "spangles" running throughout. The classical version is a deep golden brown with crystallites composed mainly of metallic copper, with a few related compounds as supporting cast. However, numerous colors have been developed, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, black and white. 

Folklore holds that aventurine was discovered by accident ("a venturi") when unknown monks inadvertently dropped copper or brass shavings into a glass melt as early as the thirteenth century. [1] However, more thorough investigations have recently identified 1620 as a likely date for the first appearance of aventurine glass. [2] No example or written account has been found that dates prior to the seventeenth century. An alternate story accounts for the name aventurine being derived from 'adventure'; referring to the difficulty and uncertainty involved in its production.[3] At first, the formula was a closely held secret among a few glassmakers and subsequently it was lost and then rediscovered not once but  twice.

To complicate matters, natural minerals with a similar appearance were named after the glass, leading to the misconception that they were also discovered after the glass was invented. This is clearly not the case. Early examples of mineral aventurine artifacts date to the Neolithic era [4] and can be found throughout history. First century Roman writer Pliny mentions a type of stone with silvery flecks, a passage that was well known when the glass was developed.  The compositions of these minerals were also identified early; either species of quartz that contain flecks of mica, or a type of feldspar (sunstone).[5] Mineral aventurine turns up as the eyes of Greek statues, in stonework mosaics and later in the 'pietre dure' art perfected by the Medici artisans in Florence around the time Antonio Neri started making glass there. The chances are good that examples of the mineral were known to Neri as well as to the glassmakers on Murano, but a recipe for the glass version does not turn up in Neri’s 1612 book; he was apparently too early by a decade.  

The story of aventurine's accidental discovery by monks may well be apocryphal; nevertheless, it is a great entrée to understanding how the formulation works. First, contrary to what the story implies, aventurine is not the result of dumping metallic confetti into glass. The reflective "spangles" (as early researchers were fond of calling them) are actually uniformly sized, mirror-like crystals that are grown in the glass. In truth, the formula is quite similar to recipes already in use by Neri and others; the difference was in proportions and in how the glass was treated after it was in the furnace. The formula for aventurine calls for the addition of copper, iron and tin oxides, to a base that was a hybrid of soda, potash and lead glass. Neri’s recipe #128 is titled "A Proven Way to Make Rosichiero" [6] and provides for all of these ingredients, albeit in lower concentrations. Rosichiero was a transparent tawny red colored glass that was a staple of furnaces throughout Italy. 

The secret to producing the reflective "spangles" was to mix the glass and heat it in the furnace in a normal way, but then to slowly reduce the heat while creating a low oxygen “reducing” atmosphere. The furnace draught was shut; the glass pot was fitted with a tight lid and then covered with ashes and allowed to cool very slowly.  

Initially, the batch is saturated with copper oxide. This means the glass has dissolved as much copper, iron and tin as it can and any further addition of these powders will simply float to the bottom of the pot.  The exact amount of powdered metals able to dissolve is a function of temperature; the hotter the glass the more that will dissolve and the cooler the glass the less that will dissolve. The key concept here is that as the glass slowly cools, the metals start to come out of solution and crystals start to form. There is some complex chemistry happening at the same time; the reducing atmosphere encourage the metals to stay in a pure un-oxidized form,  Furthermore any oxygen or sulfur  that happens to be present will preferentially combine with the iron, leaving the copper crystals pristine. Once cooled to room temperature, a successful batch would be broken away from the glass pot by workers and divided into smaller pieces. Glass artisans wanting to incorporate the aventurine into their work needed to work quickly. They carefully reheated an appropriate nugget and coated (encase) it in a layer of clear glass; once molten, direct exposure to the air would destroy the glittery effect. 

Over time, it was discovered that various colors could be produced with the addition of different chemicals, but the central principal of growing tiny metallic crystals is the same.

[1]  The earliest instance of this story in print that I can find is fairly late;  Faustino Corsi, Delle pietre antiche: libri quattro (Rome: Salviuccio e figlio, 1828)  pp. 166-167.  
[2] Cesare Moretti (†), Bernard Gratuze and Sandro Hreglich,  “Le verre aventurine (‘ avventurina ‘) : son histoire, les recettes, les analyses, sa fabrication”, ArcheoSciences, 37 | 2013, 135-154.
[3] For instance see  Giulio Salviati, “Venetian Glass” Journal of the Society of Arts (Proceedings), Volume 37 (7 June,1889), p. 630
[4] Neolithic Quartz Aventurine Pendant - 7 Cm/ 2. 76 ", green - 6500 To 2000 Bp – Sahara. Item Id: 106549,  Weight: 83 gm. Sahara - Mauritania - Tagant country.
[5] Dizionario del cittadino, o sia Ristretto storico, teorico e ..., Volume 1 pp. 38-39.
[6] Antonio Neri, L'Arte Vetraria (Firenze: Giunti, 1612).
[7] Sauzay, A. (1870) Marvels of Glassmaking in All Ages. London, 1870 pp. 173 - 175.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Adventures of Adam Olearius


Adam Olearius
In the autumn of 1633, a trade mission heavily laden with gifts headed east from northern Germany. The great duke of Holstein was sending an ambassador to Moscow to request the czar’s permission for travel rights along the Volga River. Holstein was the northernmost tip of the Holy Roman Empire, in many ways more  closely tied to Scandinavia than to their Habsburg overlords. This expedition was part of an attempt to establish an inland silk-trade route between Europe and the Orient. Such a route would eliminate the circumnavigation of Africa, shortening the trip and reducing risk. After several years and initial high hopes, it became clear that the effort was doomed to failure. Czar Michael I of Russia was enthusiastic about the project, but at the southern end of the route, the king of Persia was not so receptive. Nevertheless, the expedition did become famous for a different reason: a written account of the adventures of the diplomats.

Upon the delegation’s return to Holstein, their secretary Adam Olearius (1599-1671) published a book that chronicled their travels. [1] As a mathematician, astronomer and general polymath, Olearius provides an uncommon perspective of the various cultures, practices and technologies encountered. Ultimately, he was appointed royal librarian and keeper of the duke’s cabinet of curiosities. The book proved so popular that more comprehensive editions soon followed, adding the contemporary accounts of another traveler, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo. [2]

Glass is not the central theme of his adventures, yet this and related subjects are discussed in a number of different passages, giving us a unique insight into the material’s place in those societies.

In August of 1634, the group arrived in Moscow. Having been granted audience with the czar, Olearius describes the procession of the entourage and enumerates a long list of the gifts they brought. Among them was “a great looking-glass, being an ell and a quarter high and half an ell broad, in an ebony frame, with boughs and fruits carv'd thereon in silver, carried by two Muscovites.” [3] An ‘ell’ was the northern european equivalent of a cubit or about 25 inches, so the mirror measured about 12 inches wide by 30 inches tall, not enormous by current standards, but quite an achievement in the seventeenth century. Glass workers would have to blow a large cylindrical bubble, cut it open and lay it flat on a polished marble surface. To be usable, the sheet of glass would have to be made without waves or defects and it would have to be cooled slowly, over a period of many hours in order not to form cracks. Silvering the back was a whole other ordeal performed by an artisan schooled in alchemy.

Speaking of the chemical arts, gifts from the duke of Holstein to the czar of Russia also included “an ebony cabinet, garnish'd with gold, like a little apothecaries shop, with its boxes and vials of gold, enrich'd with precious stones, full of several excellent chymical extractions, carried by two Muscovites” [4]

While in Moscow, Olearius put on a demonstration of optics for some locals. “I shew’d them upon a wall of an obscure chamber, through a little hole I had made in the shutter of the window, by means of a piece of glass polish’d and cut for optics, all was done in the street, and men walking upon their heads: This wrought such an effect in them, that they could never after be otherwise persuaded than that I held a correspondence with the devil.” [5] Here he is describing a ‘camera obscura’ in which scenes from outside are projected upside-down onto the wall of a darkened room.

A couple of years later, after a return to Holstein to ratify a treaty with the czar, the delegation arrived in Persia. They were treated to a sumptuous meal by the king’s chancellor. “The walls were all set about with looking-glasses, to the number of above two hundred, of all sizes. So that when a man stood in the midst of the hall, he might see himself of all sides. We were told that in the king’s palace, in the apartment of his wives, there is also a hall done all about with looking-glasses, but far greater and much fairer than this.” [6]

“For the teaching of astronomy they have neither sphere nor globe, insomuch that they were not little astonished to see in my hands a thing which is so common in Europe. I asked them whether they had ever seen any such before. They told me they had not, but said that there was heretofore in Persia a very fair globe which they call ‘felek’, but that it was lost during the wars between them and the Turks. They haply meant that which Sapor, king of Persia, had caused to be made of glass, so large, that he could sit in the center of it, and observe the motions of the stars and must no doubt be like that of Archimedes, where of Claudian speaks in the Epigram which begins thus: Jupiter in parvo cum cerneret aehera vitro.” [7]

Olearius goes on to describe the Persian army in some detail, including this account of an early form of chemical warfare. “At the siege of Iran, in the year 1633, they had the invention of casting into the place with their arrows, small glasses full of poison, which so infected the air that the garrison was extremely incommodated thereby and made incapable of handling their arms for the defense of the place.” [8]

In 1637, near Tehran, Iran, he describes a royal tomb “adorn’d all about with glass of all sorts of colors, which are preserved by iron grates.” [9] And in the same area,

“At Kimas, in the province of Kilan, there was one of these mountebanks, who having found out the trick of setting cotton on fire by means of a crystal cut in half-round and held in the sun like a burning-glass, would have people persuaded that by operation, which he affirmed to be supernatural, that he was of the kindred of Mohammed. After our return to Holstein, I shew’d the Persians, whom Schach-Sefi [king of Persia] sent thither, that it was the easiest thing in the world to get fire from the sun, and I lighted paper in the very depth of winter by means of a crystal full of cold water, or a piece of ice, which I had made half round in a pewter dish. They were astonish’d at it, and said, that if I had done as much in Persia, I should have pass’d there for either a great saint, or a sorcerer.” [10]

As an addendum, in later editions of Olearius’ book, the recollections of Johan Albrecht de Mandelslo (1616–1644) were added. He accompanied an unrelated trade mission to Isfahan,Persia, and then split from his group to continue touring the region. He traveled through India, and then down the African coast. In 1639, the German traveler passed through Madagascar. He commented on the inferior quality of European glass trade-beads, compared to those of India, which he acquired earlier in the trip.

“The glass-bracelets, beads and agates, we had brought from the Indies [India] were incomparably beyond what they were laden with out of Europe; so that it was resolved ours should not be produced, till the others were sold. By this means, we bought every day four oxen for forty pair of glass bracelets, which the inhabitants call ‘rangus’; a sheep for two, and a calf for three ‘rangus’; and for a brass ring, ten or twelve inches about, a man might have an ox worth here six or seven pound.” [11]

Much has been made of the use of glass trade-beads by Europeans around the world.
In Madagascar and along the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, European traders were fairly late to the party. For a thousand years earlier, [12] beads had been used as the currency of choice among disparate cultures from Indonesia and China to India to Africa who did business with each other.[13] The above quote from Mandelslo’s diary provides a fascinating firsthand account of transactions with beads. The passage also hints at the superior quality of Indian glass beads. Today, glass beadmaking continues on an industrial scale there, and the glass bracelet industry still survives, notably in Firozabad, northern India.

[1] Adam Olearius: Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reise, (Schleswig: 1647).
[2] Adam Olearius, John Davies, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo, Philipp Crusius, Otto Brüggemann: The Voyages and Travells of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia... (London: John Starkey, and Thomas Basset, 1669).
[3] Ibid, p. 11.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, p. 58.
[6] Ibid, p. 212-213.
[7] Ibid, p.252. Jupiter in parvo quum cerneret æthera vitro [When Jove a heav’n of small glass did behold,] see Henry Vaughan: Silex scintillan, Hermetical physick, Thalia redivava, Translations, Pious thoughts and ejaculations. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914) v. 2, p.635.
[8] Ibid, p. 271.
[9] Ibid, p 182.
[10] Ibid, p. 280-281.
[11] Ibid, p.204.
[12] For example warring states beads in China, see
[13] Carla Klehm has a nice post on the subject of trade beads used around the Indian Ocean; see “Trade Tales and Tiny Trails: Glass Beads in the Kalahari Desert” in The Appendix, Jan. 2014, v. 2, n. 1.

Monday, January 11, 2021

What Goes Around Comes Around


The German city of Ulm in the 16th century
Georg Braun, Franz Hogenberg 1570-78
(Click image to enlarge.)
In the spring and summer of 1525, peasants and farmers throughout German speaking Europe staged a popular revolt now called the Deutscher Bauernkrieg. [1] At the heart of the matter was an oppressive system of taxation run by the Roman Catholic Church, in which little or none of the revenue was used to improve life locally. Often, action was lead by Protestant clergy, but to little effect against the mercenary armies hired by the aristocracy. In the end, up to 100,000 of the poorly armed and organized peasants were slaughtered.

Along the banks of the Danube River in southern Germany lies the ancient city of Ulm. Besides being the birthplace of Albert Einstein, Ulm was, in the sixteenth century, near the center of the Peasant’s Revolt, which brings us to a curious story which traces the migration of a technical recipe from Ulm over the alps to Venice, then to Sienna and finally Florence. The recipe is for the metal alloy to make mirrors, and it is told from one friend to another while chatting amiably in Venice.
Among other things, he said that he had made one [concave mirror] almost half a braccio across [about 13 inches], which extended the clear rays of its brightness more than a quarter of a German league when he caught the sun with it. One day, when for amusement he was standing in a window to watch a review of armed men in the city of Ulm, he bore with the sphere of his mirror for a quarter of an hour on the back of the shoulder armor of one of those soldiers. This not only caused so much heat that it became almost unbearable to the soldier, but it inflamed so that it kindled his jacket  underneath and burned it for him, cooking his flesh to his very great torment. Since he did not understand who caused this, he said that God had miraculously sent that fire on him for his great sins. [2]
The story was told to Vannoccio Biringuccio, who recalls it in 1540 in his Pirotechnia, the first printed book devoted to metallurgy. Specifically, the recipe is a variant of what today we would call white bronze, which as Biringuccio states is similar to the metal used to cast bells. He recites ancient formulations that used three parts copper and one part tin. To this was added 1/18th part of antimony and optionally 1/24th part of fine silver to give it a neutral color. Indeed, other ancient formulations for what was known as speculum metal specify a 3:1 ratio of copper to tin. He continues,
But nowadays most of the masters who make them take three parts of tin and one of copper, and melt these together. When they are melted, for every pound of this material, they throw in one ounce of tartar and half an ounce of powdered arsenic, and let them fume and melt and incorporate well. 
Biringuccio’s version reverses the copper and tin ratio from the classical composition. Compare it with Antonio Neri’s prescription which appears half a century later, it is almost identical:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
To be clear, the tartar, saltpeter and alum act as a surface flux - they form a layer that floats on the liquid metal, preventing oxides from forming, which can foul the melt.  their addition does not change the base alloy composition.

The similarity of the two recipes alone is not enough to draw any conclusions. Biringuccio himself reports that the contemporary artisans favored the tin rich formulation. However, there are other details to consider. The Sienese born Biringuccio was something of a hero in Florence where Antonio Neri was raised. The famous metallurgist helped cast cannons, mortars and guns for the Florentines to defend themselves in the late 1520s, when the city was under siege, just a few years after Biringuccio’s conversation in Venice with his German friend from Ulm.

Neri was definitely familiar with Biringuccio’s book Pirotechnia. In fact, the introduction to Neri’s own book L’Arte Vetraria is patterned after the metallurgist’s survey of glassmaking.  In his chapter 14, book 2 Biringuccio wrote:
… it [glass] is one of the effects and real fruits of the art of fire, because every product found in the interior of the earth is either stone, metal, or one of the semi-minerals.  Glass is seen to resemble all of them, although in all respects it depends on art. [3]
And here is the opening to Neri’s introduction a half century later in 1612,
Without a doubt, glass is a true fruit of the art of fire, as it can so closely resemble all kinds of rocks and minerals, yet it is a compound, and made by art. [4]
Both passages go on to cover much of the same ground, albeit with a change in focus reflective of new thinking about chemistry and nature. In one sense, Neri is paying homage to his distinguished predecessor, and there can be little doubt that he read Biringuccio’s book and its technical recipes closely. 

Lastly, the story of the burning mirror itself mimics a widely known story about the Greek polymath Archimedes. About 200 BCE during the siege of Syracuse, he is said to have set invading Roman ships on fire with a concave mirror, which focused the radiation of the sun.

In fact a depiction of this scene was painted in Florence on the walls of the Uffizi Palace in 1600, when Neri was at the height of his employment for the ruling Medici family. This particular rendering would have been all but impossible for him to miss. 

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, Wall painting
showing the Greek mathematician Archimedes' mirror 
being used to burn Roman military ships. 
Painted in 1600 by Giulio Parigi.
In the years leading to the publication of Neri’s book, he left his home in Florence and traveled to visit a friend in Antwerp. If he had read the book on metallurgy early, perhaps as part of his education, then he was already familiar with the mirror alloy recipe. If he followed the route suggested by his friend, he would have taken the recipe back to Venice, and then over the Alps and likely through Ulm on his way north to the Low Countries, where he would spend the next seven years before returning to Italy. [5]

[1] For more on the German peasant wars of 1524-25 see
[2] Vannoccio Biringuccio, Pirotechnia. Ed., Tr. Cyril Stanley Smith, Martha Teach Gnudi (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 385-390. (Original Italian published in 1540.)
[3] Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria (Florence: Giunti, 1612). p. iv.
[4] Ibid,  p.126 (in original, ff.41r-44v).
[5] Special thanks to Jamie Hall (@PrimitiveMethod) for inspiring this post.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Reflections on the Mirror


Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
L’Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's 1612 book, would eventually become the glassmakers' bible throughout Europe. By 1900 it had been translated into five different languages besides the original Italian; English, Latin, German, French, and Spanish (and in this century Japanese). Because of its seminal importance in the spread of glass technology, often overlooked are a few recipes at the back of the book, which have only a tenuous connection to the main subject.

Among these is a metallurgical formula for making convex mirrors. Neri gives instructions for producing what we would now call a "white bronze" that may be cast into a rounded form and polished to take on a highly reflective surface finish. This "spherical" form of mirror was popular throughout the Renaissance. It reflected a wide-angle view of the space in which it was hung, but at the cost of distorting the image. Nevertheless, upon looking into such a mirror, objects are still quite recognizable. 

Here is Neri's prescription:
A Mixture to Make [Mirror] Spheres:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
Of note is the fact that the word Neri uses for this alloy, acciaio, translates to "steel." Over the intervening four centuries, the meaning of this term has been refined so that today it denotes not simply a hard white metal, but a specific range of alloys containing iron and carbon, which Neri's alloy does not. 

This recipe and a few others in the book show the breadth of Neri's experience in arts other than glassmaking. It is a conclusion greatly amplified by a perusal of his other manuscripts on alchemy and medicine. There is good evidence that our priest was a voracious reader, however he was also quite cautious about repeating techniques only after he had verified them personally. Besides, artisans never wrote down much of this knowledge – only passed in confidence between trusted parties – since, in a very concrete way, superior knowledge represented a competitive advantage over ones rivals. Even if Neri was in the business of divulging secrets, it is safe to assume that many of the artisans and craftsmen he interacted with were decidedly not. Apparently, Neri was not familiar with the process of mirroring glass directly with mercury/tin amalgam; a process for which Venetian glassmakers had already become famous for perfecting. It is an interesting omission from his book, since he almost certainly would have seen examples in Florence and in Antwerp.

Two centuries before Neri, the beginning of the fifteenth century saw the invention of moveable type printing in Germany, but also the mastery of perspective illustration in Italy. The contribution of printing to early modern science is well documented, less obvious is the role playerd by artists and perspective illustration. Moveable type made possible the mass production of books; what did get committed to paper now stood a much better chance of survival and transmission. Perspective illustration played a more nuanced role, one that ultimately brings the convex mirror back into the discussion.
Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (detail).

In Venice and especially in Florence (Neri's hometown), perspective drawing became the rage among artists, largely due to the Italian translation of a book entitled Deli Aspecti, or "Alhazen's Book of Optics." Suddenly, paintings were made to look three-dimensional, with a realistic sense of depth to them. The new techniques were largely kept in Italy, but interest spread across Europe. Patrons placed great value on work depicting scenes in correct perspective, and in excruciatingly accurate detail. 

In Flanders, in 1434, Jan van Eyck produced "The Arnolfini Portrait," (above). Behind the main subjects, hanging on the wall is a convex mirror. The reflection in the mirror shows the backs of the two subjects, but also two other figures further back, one of which is thought to be the artist himself, and beyond him a strong light source. The image in the mirror is distorted exactly as one would experience in real life. 

There is growing speculation that among the secrets of "realist" (or naturalist) painters was a growing arsenal of optical tools and lenses used to map out and understand the attributes of perspective. The mirror, in the Arnolfini Portrait was a sort of boast of the artist's proficiency in recreating reality on the canvas.

The point is that here is a case where art led science into new realms. Painters started to take great pains in reproducing reality "as it is" on canvas. Soon minor experimenters like Neri and major luminaries like Galileo were taking great pains to do the same. They strove to observe nature "as it is," not as was prescribed in ancient texts, or dictated by authority. Once that process started, awareness of the world grew and there was no turning back.

Finally, it is amusing to note that in his many manuscript illustrations, Antonio Neri himself never quite mastered perspective drawing, although he did try.

* This post first appeared here 17 January 2014.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

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 shoe-less, 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 "Tesoro del Mondo" 1598-1699

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.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Art and Science


Jacopo Ligozzi,1518,  fanciful glass vessels,
ink and watercolor on paper.
Antonio Neri's writing on glassmaking and alchemy was distinguished from that of many contemporary authors in that his work was all deeply rooted in hands-on experience. He worked in the early 17th century, when art and science were different sides of the same endeavor to understand the world. His contemporaries were often content to repeat century's old teachings about the four Aristotelian elements; that chemical interactions could be explained through an analysis of the balance between hot and cold, dry and wet. But more and more, these notions were being discarded and replaced. It is common to cite the invention of instruments, and other technical developments; these factors certainly did contribute to advancement. But many different forces worked toward the emergence of early modern science, and one in particular is so obvious that it is easily overlooked: artists.

Working with hot glass was a profession in which attention to nature was essential: artists did not have the luxury of fanciful explanations of physical processes. They were obliged by their work to learn the ways glass mixed, moved and behaved in the furnace, not as they imagined it should, but as it actually did. The only way to achieve the complex forms and vessels for which master glassblowers were renowned was through long experience. Failure to understand the glass and predict its properties accurately resulted in failure of the piece.

Neri was immersed in this environment and the same principles applied to his own work in formulating the glass. Ancient theories had little value if they did not accurately predict nature. Like the glass artists, the way forward for Neri was careful attention and hands-on experience. He learned the value of starting with highly purified ingredients for his glass melts. He learned that too much glass salt resulted in a putrid 'gall' that would need to be skimmed off the molten surface. Substituting salts made from fern plants, for the Kali based ones from the Levant, produced a more lustrous glass, yet it stiffened more quickly for the glassblowers.

A glass artist's work also serves as a kind of narrative. For those familiar with the techniques, a finished piece of glass work can be 'read' like a story: The handles were put on last, before that, perhaps a thin bead of color was applied to the lip of the vessel. And the work started as a blown bubble of glass, shaped and opened with special tools. Each step is an insight into the artist's technique, but also into the way nature itself operates. Each motion was a well practiced negotiation between the artist and the properties of the material.

On one hand, an artist's job was to produce objects contemplated for their physical beauty and cultural significance. On the other hand, the act of producing these objects created an environment where accurate reasoning flourished. By collecting artists and employing them together, the Medici rulers of Tuscany were creating a cauldron effect where experiences collected, stewed and nature's secrets unraveled.

* This post first appeared here on 23 October 2013.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Emerald Green Glass


Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, walking on palm leaves.
 Pietro Lorenzetti 1320
For Western Christians, Easter week begins with "Palm Sunday," a feast day that falls on the Sunday before Easter and celebrates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. His procession is said to have included his followers laying palm tree leaves before him along his path. The connection to seventeenth century priest and glassmaker Antonio Neri is this: In his book L'Arte Vetraria, Neri describes his very best green glass with a colloquial expression; saying the recipe "carries the palm" for all other greens.   

Saint Justina of Padua with a palm frond,
Bartolo Montagna 1490s
In his book, Neri presents a string of recipes for variations of green glass. Finally, in chapter 35, he presents his ultimate green, which he titles: "Another Green, Which 'Carries the Palm' for All Other Greens, Invented by Me." The phrase "carries the palm" alludes to the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem, in which the people welcomed him by laying down cloth and palm branches on the ground in his path. Even before that, the palm branch served as a symbol of victory; in ancient Greece, palm fronds were awarded to victorious athletes. Later in history, Roman lawyers who won a case decorated their doors with palm leaves.

Copper Sulfate (vitriol of copper)
Cristallino was a mid-grade glass made with a soda based plant ash from the Levant which Neri called "rocchetta." For this recipe, he blends it with common glass, and adds red lead oxide to the mix, in effect forming an early version of what we now call lead crystal. He "cleans" the glass by using the well-established technique of flinging the molten glass into a large tub of clean water. This had the effect of "washing out" excess glass salt (flux). In addition, it provided the opportunity to sort through the fragments to remove any undissolved metallic lead. Lead that did not go into the glass had the tendency to collect at the bottom of the clay crucible as lumps of molten metal. It could then eat a hole in the vessel, resulting in a glass-shop disaster, as Neri warns: 
All lead precipitating out of the glass must be removed with diligence, throwing it away, so that it does not make the bottom of the crucible break out, as can happen. Return the glass that was thrown in water to the crucible and leave it to clarify for a day. Then add the color using the powder, made chemically by the dry distillation of vitriol of copper [chapter 31]. Also, add a little crocus of iron, but very little. The result will be a most marvelous beautiful green, the best that I ever made. It will seem just like an emerald of ancient oriental rock, and you can use it in every sort of job.
The "crocus of iron" mentioned above is simply iron oxide or 'rust' as it is more commonly known. The "vitriol of copper" he refers to is copper sulfate. Neri forms it in a laborious process that involves cutting copper sheet into small, coin-sized pieces, mixing it with sulfur, heating in the furnace and then reprocessing it several times. The result is then added to water and the soluble part is further processed, filtered and evaporated. The final product is a pure blue crystalline material that has uses for our alchemist that go far beyond glassmaking, as he alludes to in the final sentence of the 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.
*This post first appeared her in a slightly different form on 25 October 2013.