Dear Readers,

As you may have seen elsewhere, in mid February my wife and I suffered the loss of our home in a fire, in the hills of central Massachusetts. The good news is that we got out safely and had no animals in our care at the time. The fire crews were able to contain the fire from spreading, in what turned into a 3-alarm, 5-hour-long ordeal in subzero temperatures; they did amazing work, and no one was injured. The bad news is that all of my physical historical materials and research of 30 years have gone up in smoke. As a result I have decided to suspend this blog for the time being. It will remain online as a resource for those interested in the history of glass and glassmaking in the seventeenth century and beyond. I do intend to resume writing when I can, but for now my time and energy are required in getting us back on our feet.

Friends are providing temporary shelter for us nearby and our intention is to rebuild as soon as possible. To those who have reached out with a steady hand, to those who have opened their wallets, and offered advice in our time of need, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. In what are already difficult times for all of us, you have made a huge difference in our lives.

Paul Engle
6 March, 2021

Monday, September 30, 2013

Glass Monks

Window of  Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral,
Florence, Italy.
In Florence, at the very end of the street on which Antonio Neri spent his youth, Borgo Pinti, was the residence and estate of the Archbishop. Beyond that were the city walls and the enormous wooden doors of the Porta Pinti gate (115 foot, or 35 meters tall). Just on the other side of the gate, which in Neri’s time was normally closed and guarded, once stood the San Giusto alle Mura monastery, built in the thirteenth century. Despite the similar name, there is no connection between the Ingesuati monks of San Giusto and the modern order known as the Jesuits, which was not formed until 1534 and recognized by the Church in 1540.

The monks at San Giusto were famous for the stained glass windows they made; hence one of numerous theories that the name 'Pinti' may be a contraction of 'dipinti 'or 'dipintori' (paintings or painters). Using their own glass furnaces, the Ingesuati monks provided windows for the Neri family's church Cestello and for Santa Maria del Fiore among other churches. They also ran an art school and were famous for making the color pigments used by painters, producing a coveted ultramarine blue. Their customers included the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Del Sarto, Ghirlandaio and Filippo Lippi. In the introduction to L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri waxes poetic: 

Glass is also a great ornament to God's churches since, among other things, many beautiful windows are made adorned with graceful paintings, in which the metallic colors are so intense and vivid that they seem like so many oriental gems. 
The windows that inspired these lines may well have been made by monks of San Giusto. As a child, Antonio Neri had seen the striking windows in Cestello and in the city cathedral. It would be nice to be able to connect him to the Ingesuati, but in 1529, long before his birth, their entire complex just outside the Pinti Gate was dismantled in defensive preparation for the siege of Florence. The Florentine military cleared away the structures near the outside of the city walls. The monks of San Giusto alle Mura moved to the much smaller Calza Convent on the oltrarno, on the opposite side of town near the Porta Romana gate. They did not rebuild the glassworks at the new location and it is doubtful that any of the glass workers would have still been alive by the time Antonio Neri came of age.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Chalcedony Glass

17th century ribbed bottle,
Brescia, Italy.
One of the more exotic varieties of glass described in Antonio Neri’s book, L'Arte Vetraria, is Chalcedony. 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, 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 'strike' (cool and reheat the piece) several time.

Unfortunately, it is not advisable to attempt replication of Neri's chalcedony glass today, as it contained a cocktail of 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. At the very least, exposure can be expected to cause permanent 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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni di Cosimo I de' Medici
In July of 1621, a man lay dying in his bed, in his palazzo on Murano, the glassmaker's island in Venice. This fifty-four year old had recently become a father and his wife Livia was expecting a second child, but the tumor in his throat meant he would not see his two year-old son Gianfrancesco Maria grow up, nor would he live to hold his newborn daughter in his arms. Don Giovanni de' Medici was the son of Grand Duke Cosimo I and Eleonora degli Albizzi. He had been general of the Venetian army and before that lead Tuscan troops in Flanders, France, Hungary and served as ambassador in Madrid. But he was far more than a soldier; he was an architect who helped design the Chapel of Princes in Florence, he was a strong patron of the arts and he was a devoted alchemist. He plays a somewhat tangential role in the life of glassmaker Antonio Neri, yet their paths cross repeatedly through common associates, interests and locations.

Don Giovanni's palazzo on Murano was the grandest on the island; previously owned by the father of Grand Duchess of Tuscany Bianca Cappello. She
 spent time at the palazzo as a child and was the mother of Antonio Neri's sponsor, Don Antonio de' Medici. King Henry III of France stayed there on his tour of glass factories on the island. Later, the palace would be the residence of the bishop of Torcello and ultimately, in 1861, became what it is today: the famous Museum of glass (Museo del Vetro).  If, in the winter of 1603-4, Neri followed the route through Venice to Antwerp suggested by his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, then a visit to this palazzo would have certainly been in order, although not yet occupied by Don Giovanni.

Early in his career, in the 1590s, Don Giovanni commanded troops against the Ottomans in Hungary and his young nephew Don Antonio was directly under his command. The two men would both set up alchemy laboratories in their respective Florentine residences; Don Antonio in the Casino di San Marco on the north side of town and Don Giovanni at his Casino del Parione (today the Palazzo Corsini al Parione) along the Arno River behind the Santa Trinita Church. Don Giovanni's was only steps away from 
the palazzo Bartolini, Antonio Neri's residence after his ordination, located in front of the church. Santa Trinita was a Benedictine church and the office of Vallombrosan Abbot-General Orazio Morandi. It is unknown if Neri had any association with the church, but Morandi also held a strong fascination with alchemy and wrote that times spent in Don Giovanni's laboratory were among his "most cherished memories." Much later, in 1630, Morandi gave testimony at court concerning a Simon Carlo Rondinelli, saying: 
I have known Signor Rondinelli for twenty years, from the time I was in Florence. I met him often there in the house of Alessandro de’ Neri. The said Rondinelli is very well versed in astrology.*
The timing places Morandi in the Neri family house when Antonio's younger brother, Alessandro (who had inherited the house), was twenty-one years old. It was shortly before Antonio's return from Antwerp.

While Neri was in Antwerp visiting his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, Don Antonio was leading Tuscan troops nearby, in Flanders, on the side of the Spanish against the Dutch independence movement. Nevertheless, he found time to submit his design for the Chapel of Princes in Florence, and to quarry marble for the project and have it shipped back to Tuscany. It is unknown if Neri and Don Giovanni ever shared a meal in Antwerp, but the decorated soldier/polymath did commission a series of paintings there, for the grand duke, to be hung in the new Medici villa 'La Ferdinanda' at Artemino in Prato. The interior decoration of the public spaces in this villa were being executed by artists Passignano and Poccetti, fresh from finishing their recent collaborative masterpieces; the Neri Chapel and Cestello church on Borgo Pinti, financed by Neri's late father.

* Translation by Brendan Dooley “Morandi's last prophecy and the end of Renaissance politics” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), p. 22.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Days That Never Were

In the autumn of 1582, in accordance with a proclamation by Pope Gregory XIII, the day after Thursday, 4 October, would be Friday, 15 October. For the Roman Catholic world, the intervening ten days were removed from the calendar and never took place. The reason had to do with leap years and with Easter. Adding a day to the end of February every fourth year worked well to keep the calendar aligned with the astronomical year. But it was still slightly off, (by about eleven extra minutes per year) and over the centuries, this slippage in the calendar was causing the date of Easter to fall a little earlier and farther away from the traditional spring equinox date. Various gradual measures were considered, but in the end, it was decided to make up for the discrepancy all at once; the ten extra days accumulated over the millennium were deleted from the calendar. In addition, new rules were added for ‘leap centuries.’ This effectively fixed the problem.

Other parts of Europe eventually adopted the changes, some sooner than others. In France, 9 December 1582 was followed by 20 December. A letter sent from Italy to France in November of that year might well appear at its destination with a date that would not occur locally for several days, seeming to arrive before it was sent. In the Netherlands and Germany some provinces made the changes while others held out until 1700. Protestant countries did not generally adopt the new system until much later. Britain and her American colonies did not make the change until 1752 by which time the calendars were out of synchronization by a full eleven days.

When the Calendar was adjusted in Italy, Antonio Neri was six and a half years old; hardly old enough to remember the event. However, he must have experienced some of the strange side effects in his adult life, especially when traveling. In making the journey to visit Emmanuel Ximenes, in Antwerp in 1604, if our priest stuck to the route suggested by his friend, he would have remained in Catholic territory until the very end of his journey. Once in the Low Countries, the date of the month would depend on the city. In Protestant controlled regions, like Utrecht, the date would suddenly jump backwards by ten days from nearby Catholic regions, although the days of the week would be consistent. Anyone crossing the English channel, from Calais France to Dover, for example, would experience a similar effect; it might be early May on one side and late April on the other. In such a crossing, one would have the disconcerting ‘Déjà vu’ experience of living the same date range twice, once as Monday through Friday, for example, and then again as the following Thursday through Monday.

For close observers of nature, like Neri, these incongruities might have emphasized the difference between the natural world and the contrivances of man. Subtle as the distinction may seem, April does not so much signify the rebirth of our gardens, as the rebirth of our gardens is what we have come to call April; a foreshadowing of philosopher-scientist Alfred Korzybski’s  premise that “the map is not the territory.” Fundamental to observing nature clearly is recognizing our own representation of it.

Note: I was not satisfied with the technical explanation in this post, so I have rewritten it. see 3 October  2014.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Neighbors

"Portrait of Giovanni Bologna"
by Hendrick Goltzius
In Florence, directly across the street from the Palazzo Neri, where our glassmaker spent his youth (now the Marzichi-Lenzi), was the residence and workshop of famed sculptor Giambologna. This two-building compound was a 'gift' to the artist from the newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici, in 1587. It was intended to settle debts incurred over the artist's work for the previous grand duke, Francesco. The dwelling, at 26 Borgo Pinti, was located on the same street that was previously inhabited by the likes of Michelangelo, Perugino, Pontormo and Cellini.

Neri's father, the royal physician, had collected art. According to historian Giovanni Cinelli, in 1677, when Antonio Neri's nephew owned the property, among the pieces in the house were:

Two small bronze horses by Giambologna, many works of [Simone] Pignoni and others, among which are two marvelous holdings; a waist-up Ecce Homo by Titian and a Satyr of beautiful ancient bronze which is wonderfully captivating; it is of the Greek manner and expresses an attitude of prompt movement that recalls liveliness, the muscles are very well prepared. Finally, a statue of Cupid flanked in marble in the best Greek style. 
Giambologna had a strong influence on Florentine art and his work was to be found throughout the city, from the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the gardens of the Casino di San Marco, where Neri made glass. He was well known for the fine surface finishes he achieved on marble and for his ability to resolve the technical challenges of portraying multiple figures, especially those involving a complex intertwining of limbs and bodies. The Rape of the Sabine Women, completed when Neri was a boy, is considered his crowning achievement.

The sculptor was born in Douai, Flanders, now in France. He landed in Florence in 1553, after a period working in Rome for Pope Pius IV among others. The Medici never allowed him to leave Tuscany for fear that, once out of their reach, he would be enticed to go to work for another of the European sovereigns, never to return. It is reasonable to speculate that before his own trip to Flanders in 1604, Antonio Neri offered to relay messages or other effects to the family of his seventy-five year old former neighbor. Neri spent seven years with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes in Antwerp. Before his return to Tuscany, in 1611, both Grand Duke Ferdinando and Giambologna had already gone to meet their maker.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Weights and Measures

Ford Madox Brown,  The Manchester Murals:
"The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures, 1556."
Antonio Neri's glass recipes depended on precise amounts specified in units as small as the 'grano,' [grain] named after the weight (mass) of a single grain of wheat or barley. In interpreting his formulas, the glassmaker must understand the quantities he used. For us, there are unfamiliar units like the 'fiasco' and the 'dita.' The dita or digit was simply the width of a finger. A fiasco or flask was the volume of a glass wine bottle, about two-and-a-quarter liters in Florence or two-thirds of a US gallon - about half of British imperial gallon. (As an aside, there are many fanciful stories of how the word 'fiasco' came to be synonymous with failure or disaster, perhaps the most believable is that the losers of competitions or bets were expected to buy the next round of drinks.)

In addition to unfamiliar units, there is the problem of standardization; a pound in Florence weighed different from a pound in other areas as close as Massa or Piedmont. Each Italian city maintained its own set of master weights and volumes to which merchants were expected to adhere. In reality, the differences were minor and may have been more attributable to politics than accuracy. Since antiquity, commodity merchants realized that if their own set of weights used in sales were ever so slightly below the norm, over time a savings would be realized, not large but significant. Towns could apply this principle as well; it paid to set standards slightly above or below neighboring towns from which one was buying or selling various goods. In truth, the differences were not great simply because successful commerce demanded that buyers and sellers could agree and strike a deal.

Even in different countries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, we find close agreement in the various units of measure. Neri's first translator, Christopher Merrett, made an interesting substitution in his 1662 English version of L'Arte Vetraria. In chapter 132, Merrett writes "six pints of water" for Neri's "libre sei di acqua," changing pounds into pints. At first, it seems odd to be converting weight into volume, but this was perfectly valid. At that time in England, the pint was defined as exactly a pound (of wine or beer). Sailors were often each allotted a pint a day; the pint was also one-eighth of a cubic foot. (A cubic foot was equivalent to a gallon.) This system was very convenient for shipping companies who needed to calculate cargo volume and ballast in their trade ships as well as avoid mutiny by running out of beer at sea. Later, in 1824 King George IV increased the gallon from eight to ten pounds of water, invalidating Merrett's substitution.

Other conversions were more problematic. As absolute measurements varied from place to place, the size of a batch would be larger or smaller; not a big worry. However, ratios were of critical importance to a recipe. Just as in baking a cake, an entire batch of glass could be ruined by changing the ratio of materials. This sort of difficulty was especially prevalent with the size of an ounce; the troy and apothecaries system were based on a twelve-ounce pound while the avoirdupois system used a sixteen-ounce pound. When Merrett wrote his translation, England had officially been under the avoirdupois system since Henry VIII and in 1588, Elizabeth I complicated matters further by raising the weight of a pound by about twenty-one percent. Meanwhile, Florence and much of Europe continued to use the troy system.

English glassmakers who wished to use Neri's book as a working document would need to know which system to use. Merrett's direct translation added a hurdle that would confuse the unaware. In order to approximate Neri's intended composition under the prevailing avoirdupois system, Merrett's "ingenious" British readers would need to decrease by 1/5 quantities specified in pounds, and increase ounces by 1/15.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Artificial Gems

17th century girandole pendant.
In the fifth part of Neri's book, he teaches the secrets of making artificial gems "of so much grace, and beauty, that they will surpass the natural stones in everything except hardness." It is not a difficult argument to make that this section alone is responsible for much of the lasting popularity of L'Arte Vetraria. It is easy to see why enterprising artisans would want to make glass imitations that could pass for the real thing. It is also perhaps too tempting to jump to the conclusion that Neri intended his recipes to be used in deception, since there is no evidence whatsoever that this was the case.

Neri gives full credit for his innovative methods in paste gems to Dutch alchemist Isaac Hollandus. Hollandus is an enigmatic figure, whose writings survive, but not much is known of the man, his family, or even if he was living in Neri's time. What is known is that Antonio's dear friend Emmanuel Ximenes was the brother-in-law to Baron Simon Rodriguez d'Evora, a famous diamond dealer and jeweler of choice to royalty throughout Europe. He lived and worked on the same street in Antwerp as Ximenes' palace, only a few steps away from Neri's new temporary home. It was a common request of wealthy patrons to have duplicate jewelry made in paste for travel and security reasons. If a fake necklace or jewel could pass for the real thing, it was well worth the added expense, when the genuine article could remain safe under lock and key.

No artificial gem recipes have ever been found among Hollandus' writings, excepting one for ruby which is then crushed up as part of a prescription for the philosopher's stone. It is quite possible that Neri was applying a more general technique from the Dutchman. The basic material for all of Neri's paste gems is a fine lead crystal. The crux of his innovation lay in the form of lead used. Normally, metallic lead sheet was cut into small pieces, and roasted in a kiln such that it would oxidize into powder, but not melt. The powder was then added to the glass melt. In Neri's method the lead was chemically converted into a water-soluble form, which could then be filtered and purified to a much greater extent. The end result was a far better grade of crystal.


In 1697, Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt translated into French and greatly expanded Christopher Merrett's English edition of Neri. Blancourt gave no credit to the Italian for his work, and two years later, when it was translated back into English by Daniel Brown, the connection to Neri was completely lost, but the credit for paste gems remained with Hollandus. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous general encyclopedias of art and craft were published and the so-called 'Hollandus' paste gem recipes turned up many times. Meanwhile, a properly credited French version of L'Arte Vetraria was completed by Holbach in 1752. This edition was more suited to a scientific audience; he faithfully translated the Italian, but also incorporated the full comments of Merrett as well as those of Kunckel who issued his famous German version of Neri in 1679.

Friday, September 13, 2013

True Colors


The European Roller [Pica Marina]
Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria, is devoted to making glass from raw ingredients found in nature. Many of his finished creations were intended to also resemble the natural world. A number of colors are meant to mimic the appearance of gems and minerals, others are named after plants and animals. Some are easily recognized today, even if they are not as familiar as they were in the seventeenth century.

One of his recipes will make "a wonderful pimpernel green," while others evoke peach and orange blossoms. An entire section of the book is focused on paints that are named after the flowers from which the colors are extracted. Many of these plants have remained common: poppies, irises, violets, lilies, carnations and red roses. Others are less so: the mallow, pomegranate, broom and borage flowers.

In addition to flora, the fauna make a few notable appearances in Neri's book. In chapter 16, in the preparation of iron oxide pigments, he advises that after fifteen days in the furnace, the product will be finished when it takes on the purple color of the peacock. In chapter 73 he gives a method for "tinting rock crystal the color of a viper" and chapter 121 is the method for a glass which is "red like blood."

Named in several chapters is a shade of 'celestial blue,' which Neri likens to the color of the "gazzera marina." Common bird names pose a special challenge for translation in that they, like the birds themselves, never seem to settle in space or time for very long. Vernacular names of a species can change from one century to the next, one region to another, even between adjacent valleys and several species can share the same name. It is with this admonition that we attempt to flush out the elusive gazzera marina.

Consulting a modern Italian dictionary draws the eye to the similar sounding 'gazza marina' (alca torda), known in English as the razorbill. This sea bird inhabits coastal cliffs, but alas, as a close relative of the penguin, it dons only black and white formal attire. Digging deeper we find poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, "At Dawn" carefully tracking the gazzera marina across a salty marsh, in his Halcyon. This time the poet himself throws us off the trail with his description, since no bird sports five digits but the chicken. Turning to etymology, we find another potential match in the magpie (pica pica); it is a credible but unconvincing fit with its blue and white plumage.

Aldrovandi's pica marina

Combing the references of Neri's own sixteenth century, we find the best candidate is the roller (pica marina). This bird was described by naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, a friend of Don Antonio de' Medici's father and guest at the Casino di San Marco. Other contemporary authors list the gazzera marina as a synonym to Aldrovandi's pica marina. Neri's Latin translator Frisius (1668) and his German translator Geissler (1678) agreed, both sighting the "Pica Marina" in their works.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mother Dianora

Agnolo di Cosimo 'Bronzino',
"Portrait of Florentine Noblewoman"
(subject unknown , circa. 1540).
Antonio Neri's mother, Dianora Parenti, 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.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sonnet to a Barber

Possible portrait of Lodovico Domenichi
In November of 1554, poet Lodovico Domenichi wrote a sonnet to his friend, Jacopo Neri. Jacopo was a barber-surgeon from Dicomano in the upper Arno River valley, then living in Florence. Later he would become grandfather to Antonio Neri. Domenichi was serving a sentence of house arrest in a wretched paper mill in Pescia, in the hills north of Florence. He had been found guilty by the inquisition on charges of translating the heretical writing of John Calvin into vernacular Italian, a crime for which the poet could have easily been executed. Luckily, he had friends in high places and after some nervous time spent in the stockade in Pisa, his sentence was reduced and later commuted by Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici.


Jacopo Neri had taken ill with a grave infirmity and when word reached Domenichi, he took pen to paper and composed seventy stanzas in the style of Petrarch. In so doing he bestowed a precious gift, the only one he could under the circumstances; he immortalized his good friend on paper. The sonnet starts:

As I have now come to understand your 
Perilous illness and health,
It is both grief and fondness that I show.  

So may merciful God help you,
Without delay, lest this vile world lose
So much goodness in you, so much virtue.
He goes on to extol Jacopo's kindness towards patients, his willingness to forgive and his admiration among scholars. Along the way, Domenichi describes his own predicament; the cruelties of the mill workers, the muddy floors, his desire to flee and trying to sleep on a bed of frozen straw among the work animals. The rain has been falling for weeks and he is miserable. Recalling happier times he evokes the memories of many mutual friends, including a dwarf named Don Gabriello Franceschi, who delivered sermons at the Cestello church, Neri's family church. Franceschi was from the family into which Jacopo's daughter, Faustina, would later marry. 

There he is called Don Gabriello
Franceschi and I am honored, for good reason,
A giant of men in a small handsome package.
He goes on to describe his saviors; the men who intervened with the Church on his behalf. One was Pompeo della Barba, educated at Pisa and later called to Rome as the personal physician to Pope Pius IV. In the end, Domenichi was pardoned, allowed to leave the damp mill and return to Florence. Within a short time, he was appointed court historian to Cosimo I. Over his career, he published many volumes; translations of works ranging from Xenophon, to Plutarch, to Pliny's Natural History, to a groundbreaking compilation of poems by contemporary women. At the end of his life, Domenichi suffered devastating debilitation, maybe from a stroke, which robbed him of the ability to speak. Even so, he still received regular visits from his old friend Jacopo Neri the barber surgeon. As we turn away from the subject of Lodovico Domenichi, it is hard to resist speculating that a decade after his death, the poet was remembered with fondness by the Neri family in the christening of our glassmaker, whose full name is Antonio Lodovico Neri.

Lodovico Domenichi, "A Mastro Jacopo di Neri, Cerusico, E Barbiere." in Il Secondo libro dell' Opere Burlesche, di M. Francesco Berni.  (Fiorenza: Apresso li Heredi di Bernardo Giunti, 1555), vv. 2. Reprinted many times.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Dear Friends

The library of the University of Leiden (1610)
Christophe Plantin worked here from 1583 to 1585.
One day in July of 1601, in Florence, early in the morning, we imagine two men shaking hands, embracing and saying goodbye. Both knew it might well be the last time they saw each other. The older man climbs into a coach bound for his home in distant Antwerp and signals the driver to begin his journey. That man, Emmanuel Ximenes, had been in Florence to visit his sister, Beatrice, his brother, Niccolò, and several other relatives living in the area. Antonio Neri first met the wealthy banker at the home of Beatrice and her husband, Alamanno Bartolini. The priest lived there after his ordination and, according to nineteenth century historian Francesco Inghirami, functioned as house-master. Both men wished for more time together; they shared a fascination with alchemy and with the work of Swiss-born physician Paracelsus. They had become fast friends and formed a bond that would last until the end of their lives.

As soon as Ximenes arrived home in Flanders he wrote to Neri, on 17 August, 1601, "to the quite magnificent clergyman Mr.Antonio Neri, in the house of Mr. Alamanno Bartolini, in Florence, or where found." He expressed his great pleasure at receiving a booklet of recipes from Neri and declares him "molto caro" [most dear]. He goes on to warn his friend: "With your permission, I will not fail to bother you with my tiresome letters." Over the next two years, the men corresponded frequently. A set of twenty-seven letters written by Ximenes and one by his brother Eduardo, addressed to Neri, survive in the National Library of Florence. The two men discuss a wide variety of subjects including herbal remedies, glassmaking, enameling and in more careful language, the topic for which they were both most passionate: alchemy. They trade information on the results of their experiments and by 5 December, 1602, the banker wrote:

I have seen the tender affection which Your Lordship shows me and demonstrates with the hope to see me before death, which is no different from my own hope. I have desired this from the start… because if we were together, we could easily set to work on some small projects, being that our talents, if I am not deceiving myself, are very well suited...
Neri would ultimately make the journey to Antwerp, but not for another year. That winter he became quite ill in Pisa, postponing his planned visit. Finally, on 2 May, his friend wrote: "Praise God that your indisposition has ended." By the following spring the two men were reunited and Neri would spend the next seven years in a city that was in the eye of a storm. The low-countries (what today is the Netherlands and Belgium) were in the midst of a bloody civil war. The port of Antwerp was blockaded by the Dutch fleet and the countryside was being ravaged by troops from Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The population of Antwerp was a shadow of its former self, but the city was left untouched by both sides, in an accord of political convenience. It had been burned and pillaged as recently as the 1570's, but by the early 1600's Antwerp was simply too valuable a jewel to be sacrificed.

Emmanuel's immediate family was among the wealthiest in Antwerp and strong patrons of the arts. He counted among his close friends humanist printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Other branches of the Ximenes family topped the social ranks in Venice, Hamburg, Lisbon and Florence. Their ancient ancestors were kings of Pamplona, Navarre, Castile and Aragon. Emmanuel's father Rodrigo headed the prestigious Ximenes (Jiménez) Bank in Antwerp. By the end of his visit, Neri would present the prince of Orange with vessels of his chalcedony glass.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Flexible Glass

Tiberius, Third Roman Emperor
(42 BCE - 37 CE)
In the introduction to L'Arte Vetraria, Neri relates the legend of flexible glass. First century historian Pliny and others had already recorded their versions for posterity. Neri writes:
Still others hold that in the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a way of making glass malleable was invented; a thing that was subsequently lost and today is hidden to all. Indeed if such a thing were to be known today, without any doubt it would be more valued than silver or gold for its beauty and incorruptibility, since glass does not give rise to rust or taste or smell or any other adverse quality. 

In Pliny's telling, the hapless artisan was executed on the spot. His workshop was destroyed to prevent the devaluation of the emperor's copper, silver and gold. Consider that this story emerges coincident with the technical development of glassblowing. For the first time in history, artisans could form cups, plates and a variety of glass vessels directly with an iron blowpipe, quickly and inexpensively. Now, glass was available to the masses at affordable prices. The innovation represented nothing short of a revolution in technology. From turning bubbles of glass into vessels, it was perhaps not so hard to imagine that a malleable glass would be next. In this light, it is quite understandable to find a parable about glass upsetting the precious metals market.

We find yet another variation of the story in Richard Knolles' The General Historie of the Turkes (1621). In 1610, just as Neri was preparing to return to Florence, from Antwerp, we are told that "…among other rare presents sent to the king of Spain from the sophy of Persia there were six drinking glasses made of malleable glass so exquisitely tempered that they could not be broken." This version takes place at the same moment in history that Venetian style glassmaking skills were unleashed throughout Europe and just as new trade deals were being formed in the Far East. Glass was again rattling the balance of economic power.

In the 1697 translation of Neri by Blancourt, the story is embellished with a new twist, the rediscovery of malleable glass in France. In the reign of King Louis XIII (the son of Marie de' Medici), a beautiful glass figure was presented to the chief minister Cardinal Richelieu. In this version of the tale, the artisan was rewarded for his efforts with life imprisonment.

The story of flexible glass, in each case, emerges in a period of economic uncertainty caused by glass technology. In each case, the parable is redressed for the times, expressing new fears about economic stability. Tiberius' worry was the invention of glassblowing, for Philip III it was the emigration of Venetian glass masters and for Cardinal Richelieu it was the nascent industrial revolution knocking on his door. Often, these stories are cited as evidence of miraculous technical achievement. Perhaps they are better understood as signposts of social and economic developments in glassmaking.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Della Casa's Notebooks

Spine of volume 3 of Della Casa's notebooks,
Biblioteca Nationale Centrale Firenze.
Thousands of pages of notes relating to Antonio Neri's work in Florence were recorded by fellow alchemist Agnolo della Casa. A significant portion of this nineteen-volume transcript is devoted to Neri's work on transmutation and specifically on the fabled philosopher's stone. The trouble is that he wrote much of it in obscure language, which renders it among the most cryptic in the entire canon of alchemy. Other sections of Della Casa's notebooks contain copies of the works of various adepts including Geber, Ramon Llull and Arnold Villanova. Neri took a keen interest in all of them.

In 1597, Prince Don Antonio de' Medici occupied the dormant Casino di San Marco and made it his new home. His father, the former grand duke, built this combination palace and laboratory on the north side of the city to indulge his own fascination with natural secrets. Don Antonio began to assemble a team that included Neri and Della Casa. The three men were all about the same age, in their early twenties, ready to do great things; ready to reveal nature and change the world.

In their time, it was reasonable to think that one metal could be 'purified' into another and that a single medicine could cure all disease or counteract any poison. These notions had been around since ancient times. In this realm, a skeptical eye was an absolute necessity, but there was no specific evidence that disproved the old stories. Don Antonio reportedly spent a fortune collecting recipes and testing them; he and his men worked to separate the real from the bogus. Swindlers and con men were in plentiful supply; they hawked miracle cures in public squares throughout Europe. Without a firm grasp of the underlying chemistry, the task of understanding a particular compound or chemical reaction could be quite difficult. Even to experienced, careful researchers, there was no guarantee that conclusions were correct.

Don Antonio was convinced that the glassmaking priest had indeed discovered the secret of transmutation. He put Della Casa to work interviewing Neri's acquaintances to see what could be learned. An expert gold refiner, Guido Antonio Milani, reported to Della Casa that in July 1596, Neri had performed before his eyes a transmutation of base metal into "twenty-four carat" gold. He said he pressed the 20-year-old, who in reluctance, confided that he had learned the secret from a German, who performed the gold transmutation with a "tablet of medicine." The German told Neri the medicine was nothing but the simple quintessence of green vitriol and the method to produce it was described by Paracelsus.