Friday, March 7, 2014

Like Fathers, Like Sons

Alchemist(s) -Hans Weiditz , (c. 1520).
Right at the turn of the seventeenth century, Antonio Neri began working for Medici Prince Don Antonio, and soon was making glass. The prince had inherited a palace laboratory from his father, called the Casino di San Marco, which he made into his permanent residence. When the prince moved in, the facility had been sitting dormant for more than a decade. Soon the furnaces and apparatus were again active, and investigators pursued the secrets of nature. His father and mother (the grand duke and duchess) had spent a great deal of time in the Casino when Don Antonio was a boy. Both Francesco I de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello took a keen interest in chemistry and we can imagine the family passion made a deep impression on their son. By 1587, an eleven-year-old Don Antonio could look forward to a time when he would direct his own experiments and rub shoulders with the kings and queens of Europe, as the next grand duke, ruler of Tuscany. 

In the autumn of 1587, young Don Antonio’s star dimmed when he lost both parents in the space of two days. Francesco and Bianca both became ill during a visit by the grand duke’s younger brother Cardinal Ferdinando. Reportedly, there was no love lost between the Cardinal and his brother and sister-in-law. Perhaps for that reason alone, details of the couple’s deaths have been a popular subject of speculation ever since. Rumors circulated that Ferdinando assassinated the two with poison and the episode has been the subject of paintings, novels, ballads and stage productions. The recent work of forensics investigators has now put to rest the false diagnosis of foul play. Pernicious malaria pathogens lurk in Francesco’s remains and accounts by physicians on the scene described identical symptoms for husband and wife. These symptoms are consistent with malaria, traced to an outing they took in the damp forest. The thirty-eight year-old Cardinal Ferdinando relocated to Florence from Rome. He took charge and assumed power as the new grand duke of Tuscany. He challenged the legitimacy of young Don Antonio’s parentage, resulting in the renunciation of the child’s title.

Today, the lineage of Don Antonio de’ Medici is not contested by many, although at the time the rumors worked to Ferdinando’s advantage. In matters of state, Ferdinando went on to become a strong, skilled leader, stabilizing the economy and mending many of the diplomatic rifts created by his older brother Francesco. Ferdinando reigned for most of Antonio Neri’s career, from 1587 until 1609. Later, in recalling the positive reception to his chalcedony glass, Neri evokes Ferdinando’s “blessed memory.”  

As a teenager, Don Antonio was inducted into the Knights of Malta and served mainly as a diplomatic envoy in the Ottoman wars in Hungary. Upon his return, he took up the renovation of the Casino. He outfitted his new residence with living quarters, a musical conservatory and a theatrical stage. To the workshops, he added a printing press. The old glass furnace remained, as did the chemical and medicinal laboratories and the extensive alchemical library. Finally, the prince began to assemble a team of trusted experimenters, among them a recently ordained Catholic priest who had been trained within the Church for a career in alchemy. That priest was Antonio Neri, himself the son of a man with strong interests in chemistry. Neri Neri was the acclaimed doctor that Grand Duke Ferdinando appointed as physician to the entire royal family. 

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