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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Transmutation

Hermes Trismegistus,
 floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena
In the introduction to his book, L’Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri is quite direct about his interest in matters other than glassmaking. Speaking about the potential of chemistry in medicines, he writes, "These are matters of nature to which I believe there is no higher calling in the service of humanity." As the son of a renowned physician, and the grandson of a surgeon, it is not surprising that Neri would be occupied with thoughts of healing injuries and curing disease. 

In a 1608  letter to a friend in Florence, Neri wrote that he spent time working in Mechelen in Flanders, at the Hospital of Malines, and describes his great success with medicinal cures of Paracelsus, "To the great wonderment of Antwerp."

Within the realm of alchemy, it was commonly thought that a substance known as the "philosopher's stone" could be used to cure all disease and perhaps even arrest the process of aging. The philosopher's stone was an ancient concept, said to be discovered by an Egyptian priest, Hermes Trismegistus, and then subsequently lost. It was believed to be a substance which manifests such a harmonious balance of the four elements, air, water, earth and fire, that it would spontaneously form a fifth element or "quintessence." Besides curing disease, it was thought to have the power to turn base metals into gold in what Neri thought was the acceleration of a natural maturation process of the metal.

In his manuscripts on alchemy, it is clear that Neri studied the work of many famous alchemists. He expresses disdain for those who pursued the stone seeking personal profit, and was convinced that he himself had found the secret. With special material from a mine, the importance of which he did not realize until later, he says he successfully transmuted gold, but that ultimately, the ability for the method to work is determined by divine providence, which he called "the gift of God." 

Neri held his gold transmutation methods close, but for lesser metals, he did leave us with lucid descriptions. We can see from these, how the subtleties of physics and chemistry conspired to convince honest thoughtful men that transmutation was not only possible, but could be easily verified in the laboratory. In his manuscript Discorso sopra la Chimica, Neri describes his method for turning tin into silver. In the next post, we will take a closer look.

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