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, February 7, 2014

The Golden Nail

Portrait of Leonhard Thurneysser
Frans Floris de Vriendt (1519/20 - 1570)
Of all the stories of transmutation by alchemists, one of the most interesting is the story of the "golden nail" in which Ferdinando de' Medici witnessed, with his own eyes, a demonstration that purported to turn half of a common iron nail into pure gold. The nail in question became a treasured possession of Ferdinando and was displayed for many years at the Galleria dei Lavori, in the Uffizi palace, in Florence. 

It is all but certain that glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri saw the nail, probably many times in his career. In his 1613 manuscript Discorso he says:
Some argue that the possibilities of this art are demonstrated clearly through the experience of the 'nail' [chiodo], which is seen in the Galleria [dei Lavori] of the grand duke of Tuscany, of which one part is solid iron and the other which was immersed in some sort of liquor is recognized to be pure gold.
It is interesting that Neri does not commit here, to the conviction that this "is" transmutation, only that "some argue the possibilities." The story was recounted by numerous chroniclers and became a favorite subject of speculation. Was this a case of a cleaver deception? A century later, it was still being talked about: here is Otto Tachenius, in his Hippocrates Chymicus (1677) quoting then Cardinal, later Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici. 
Mr. Leonhard Thurneysser in my sight and presence, turned an iron nail heated in the fire, and immersed in an oil, into gold; done at Rome the 20th day of November after dinner.
So it would seem that at least the Grand Duke was convinced.

Thurneysser was the son of a goldsmith from Basel, and a devotee to the methods of Paracelsus. He became intrigued with alchemy and made a fortune touring the courts of Europe, putting on demonstrations. When Antonio Neri was about fourteen years old, cir.1590, Thurneysser passed through Florence.* In later testimony by Neri associate Guido Melani, a metals refiner, the priest had confided in him that he himself had learned a gold transmutation recipe from a German, who used the techniques of Paraselsus. It is conceivable that this was Thurneysser. 

Skeptics proposed a very plausible explanation: that a special nail was prepared in advance, half gold soldered to half iron. The entire nail was then recoated with a thin layer of iron, perhaps deposited chemically. In the demonstration, the special nail would find its way into Thurneysser's hand, and with great flourish be heated and then dipped into the secret oil, which was aqua fortis, what we know today as nitric acid. The iron coating on the nail would fizzle and sputter in the acid and dissolve away to reveal the pure gold interior.

Those calling themselves "alchemist" ran the gamut from small time confidence men right through to early modern scientists and everything in between. To complicate things further, when they were found in the same room together, the scientist might not be so motivated to unmask the huckster. Thurneysser's demonstration clearly fired Grand Duke Ferdinando's imagination, and may well have influenced him to make a place at court for Antonio Neri.


* UPDATE: 24 Feb 2014, recent scholarship has cast serious doubt that Thurneysser was ever in Florence. This makes a meeting with Neri unlikely. I hope to make this the subject of a future blog post – stay tuned.

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