Monday, June 30, 2014

On The Path of Antonio Neri

Antonio Neri, self Portrait,
from Treasure of the World. 1598-1600
(detail, enlarged and rotated).
After a month-long hiatus, I am back at the keyboard and ready to resume telling the story of Early Modern alchemist Antonio Neri a few paragraphs at a time. To my regular readers, thank you for your patience. To those who are new, I hope you will find material here that makes you want to come back for more. 

"Conciatore" is the name used in seventeenth century Florence to describe the specialist who prepared batches of glass from raw materials. Catholic priest Antonio Neri was one of these, and he is best remembered for writing the first printed book on the subject of glass formulation, in 1612, called L'Arte Vetraria [1]. This recipe book contains over a hundred different preparations that range from the commonplace to the spectacular. 

The book would go on to become the bible of glassmakers throughout Europe and what Neri became famous for, but the man himself became something of a mystery. Less than fifty years after his death, his first translator, British Royal Society fellow Christopher Merrett wrote in 1662 "Concerning our author, and this work, I find no other mention of him." This would become the standard line on Neri for next three centuries; an enigmatic figure, fabled to have been chased out of Florence by thugs seeking to learn the secret of the philosophers stone, which purportedly could transmute base metals into gold.

Passages on Neri written by eighteenth century historians Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Francesco Inghirami went unnoticed or ignored and recognition was complicated by the move to distance 'real science' from alchemy. In the early 1960's Venetian glass historian Luigi Zecchin, working with Florentine scholar Enzo Settesoldi, located a birth record which seems to be a match for the glassmaker [2]. They also found the marriage record of his parents, Neri and Dianora, birth records for some of his brothers and a cache of letters to Neri from a rich banker friend, Emmanuel Ximenes. Research was interrupted in 1966 by the disastrous flood that devastated Florence. When the city dried out, the hunt for Neri's trail was resumed, notably by Paolo Galluzzi in a 1982 book on Paracelsianism [3] and in the 1983 thesis and related research by Maria Grazzini, a student of science historian Paolo Rossi.

It was becoming clear that Neri possessed other intriguing dimensions besides that of a glassmaker. He was a dedicated Paracelsian experimentalist who worked in his father's field of medicine as well as in a much broader context of chemical investigation. What makes much of his work so very interesting is that unlike many of his contemporaries, Neri sometimes took pains to write in clear, uncoded language that exposed rather than concealed the alchemist's methods. In this way he serves as a sort of bridge to some of the more obscure alchemical tracts, like the notebooks of his disciple Agnolo della Casa. 

In 2002, I identified two previously overlooked manuscripts by Neri. One is a copy of work done shortly before his death, sighting Pisa as his location. The other, Tesoro del Mondo, [Treasure of the World] is a lavishly illustrated work dedicated to “all of alchemy.” It contains dozens of color illustrations drawn by the priest's own hand. It was started in 1598, when he was just finishing as a student at seminary. Both tracts were mentioned briefly by George Farrer Rodwell in the 1870s, when they were apparently first brought to Scotland and ultimately became part of the Ferguson collection at the University of Glasgow. The Treasure of the World is a bound, handwritten volume currently on public display in Düsseldorf at the Museum Kunstpalast (through 10 August 2014); The Art and Alchemy exhibit there is well worth the trip to this lovely city [4]. 

In 2007 I finished publishing a three part translation of the glass book [5] and in 2011, Pieter Boer and I coauthored a bibliographic survey of all that was known to have been written by, to or about Neri during his lifetime [6]. The astonishing finding was that in fourteen documents by Neri, twenty-seven letters addressed to him and thousands of pages recording his experiments by fellow alchemist Agnolo della Casa, the only references to glass are in his famous book and several paragraphs in the letters. All the other material deals with the subjects most important to Neri himself; chemistry and medicine. 

Last year, Maria Grazzini published a translation of Neri's Discorso Sopra la Chimica [7], in which Neri explains his chemical philosophy, and offers a number of recipes for transmutation in plain language. In the course of her research, Grazzini discovered that the manuscript had been plagiarized in its entirety by the Jesuit polymath Francesco Lana-Terzi as a chapter of his 1670 book Prordromo [8]. Lana-Terzi has become known as the father of aeronautics, for his airship designs.

On this, the four hundredth anniversary of Neri death, the future looks brighter than ever for further study. Later this year Laboratories of Art, ed. Sven Dupré [9], will explore alchemy in the service of Early Modern crafts. It will include a chapter by Marco Beretta about the facility where Neri worked in Florence [10] and another by Fanny Kieffer on the laboratories at the nearby Uffizi palace [11]. Christine Göttler, Sarah Joan Moran and Sven Dupré have a new website devoted to Emmanuel Ximenes, which promises to publish the letters from Ximenes to Neri in English translation [12]. Finally, my book, Conciatore, The Life and Times of 17th century Glassmaker Antonio Neri will also be published [13].


[1] Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, distinta in libri sette, del R. P. Antonio Neri fiorentino. Ne quali si scoprono, effetti maravigliosi, & insegnano segreti bellissimi, del vetro nel fuoco & altre cose curiose. All’ et Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici. Florence, Giunti 1612.

[2] Luigi Zecchin, Vetro e vetrai di Murano: Studi sulla storia del vetro, vv. 3, Venice: Arsenale, 1987.

[3] Paolo Galluzzi, “Motivi Paracelsiana nella Toscana di Cosimo II e di Don Antonio dei Medici: Alchimia, medicina, ‘chimica’ e riforma del sapere,” in Scienze, credenze occulte, livelli di cultura, Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1982, pp. 31–62. [Italian].

[4] Exhibit: Art And Alchemy, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany. (5 April – 10 August 2014)

Exhibit Catalog: Art and Alchemy, The Mystery of Transformation. Museum Kunstpalast, Hirmer, 2014 (English ed. –while they last.)

[5] Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria, The Art of Glass, Paul Engle ed.( Hubbardston, Mass: Heiden & Engle, 2003–2007), vv. 3.

[6] Pieter Boer and Paul Engle, “Antonio Neri: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary References” in Journal of Glass Studies, v. 52 (2010), pp. 51-67.

[7] Maria Grazia Grazzini “Discorso sopra la Chimica: the Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri” in Nuncius, n. 27, 2012. pp. 411-467.

[8] Francesco Lana Terzi, Prodromo ouero saggio di alcune inuentioni nuoue premesso all'arte maestra. Brescia: per il Rizzardi, 1570. [Italian]

[9] Laboratories of Art, Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century, Series: Archimedes, Vol. 37, Springer, 2014

[10] Marco Beretta “Material and Temporal Powers at the Casino di San Marco (1574–1621)” in Laboratories of Art, Archimedes Volume 37, 2014, Springer, pp 129-156.

[11] Fanny Kieffer, “The Laboratories of Art and Alchemy at the Uffizi Gallery in Renaissance Florence: Some Material Aspects,” in Laboratories of Art, Archimedes Volume 37, 2014, Springer, pp 105-127.

[12] Website: The Possessions of the Portuguese Merchant-Banker
Emmanuel Ximenez (1564-1632) in Antwerp

[13] Paul Engle, Conciatore, The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri, Heiden & Engle, 2014. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

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.

This post first appeared on 11 September 2013.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Galleria dei Lavori

Giovanni Stradano  (Jan van der Straet) 
Alchemy Studio, 1571
In 1560, Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Georgio Vassari to begin construction on the Uffizi Palace in Florence. Two wings of the structure frame a long, narrow courtyard leading out to banks of the Arno River. Today it houses one of Europe's premier art museums, but its original design was as the central administration of the Medici government. The lower floor held offices of the regional magistrates, and the upper floor of the west wing (above the mint) held a variety of workshops highlighting Tuscan industry. Cosimo built a glass furnace there, which he staffed with Muranese masters of the art. He won their expertise through long, hard negotiations with the doge of Venice. 

A 1571 painting by Giovanni Stradano is entitled the Alchemy Studio. It shows Cosmo's son, Francesco I, in the Uffizi surrounded by laboratory equipment and workers. Under the watchful eyes of a senior alchemist, he stirs a chemical preparation over a stove with intense concentration. The prolific glassware in this scene drives home the close relationship between glassmaking and scientific investigation.

By 1588 Francesco's brother, Ferdinando I de' Medici, formally declared this space the Galleria dei Lavori or 'gallery of the works'. There is no direct evidence that Antonio Neri gained his education in alchemy at this facility, but it makes a very attractive candidate. Of note to this story is that the German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser passed through Florence in 1590, when Neri was fourteen-years-old and by several accounts preformed a transmutation of an iron 'chiodo' [nail] with a special oil. After the demonstration for Grand Duke Ferdinando, the nail remained on display for some time in the Galleria. Neri mentions the nail in his Discorso and Thurneysser is discussed in a 1601 letter to the priest from his friend Emanuel Ximenes.

* 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.

This post first appeared on 16 August 2013.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Waxing Moon Reprise

In Chapter 5 of L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri shows how to extract salt for glass from fern plants in an evocative recipe. Fern was and still is widely abundant in Tuscany. It presented a ready source material for glassmakers of the region. Neri directs that harvesting of the plants be done in the spring:
Cut this herb from the ground when it is green, between the end of the month of May and mid June. The moon should be waxing and close to its opposition with the sun, because at this point the plant is in its perfection and gives a lot of salt, more than it would at other times and of better nature, strength and whiteness.
At first, it is tempting to dismiss this lunar influence as the product of a fertile imagination, but let us take a closer look. Tidal forces of the moon do in fact subtly affect plants, fish and animals in ways that can be measured. A closer look at Neri’s advice reveals reasoning that is hard to dismiss as mere astrological superstition. When the moon is waxing, tides rise and so do water tables. According to folklore, this is when sap rises from the roots of plants into stems and leaves. Sap carries the dissolved mineral salts required for glass. Neri also stipulates that harvesting should take place during lunar opposition. When the moon is 'opposed' to the sun, it is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. In opposition, the moon is near full and rises as the sun sets. Plants see more light at night, leading to increased photosynthesis and growth.

In contrast, violinmakers from Cremona valued high alpine spruce called moon wood. Trees were felled in the wintertime, when lunar tides were low. This minimized the amount of vibration deadening sap in the wood. In his Natural History, Pliny relates Cato’s advice on felling trees in accordance with the lunar cycle. In fact, centuries-old tradition specified lunar conditions for a host of needs from construction timbers to cheese boxes.

This post first appeared on 5 August 2013.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Weights and Measures

Ford Madox Brown,  The Manchester Murals: 
"The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures, 1556."
In his book L'Arte Vetraria, 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.

This post first appeared on 18 September 2013.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Old Post Road

In the winter of 1603-1604, Antonio Neri left Italy to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes in Antwerp. There is no way to know the exact path he took, but based on the advice in Ximenes' letters and on well-established trade routes; a good estimation can be made. The path he suggested, if Neri was starting from Pisa, took the priest first back east to Florence, then perhaps through Bologna, Ferrara and Padua to Venice. Ximenes offered to make arrangements for Neri to travel from Venice with traders headed to the Frankfurt fair held at mid-lent. There would have been plenty of time for him to celebrate Advent in Florence and Christmas in Venice before his caravan headed north. The group could have left as late as the end of January.

Ximenes suggested that Neri travel with the courier from Florence to Venice. He was referring to the system of coaches that delivered the mail throughout Habsburg Europe, run since the early 1500s by the De Taxis family. While the Medici and other heads of state maintained their own fast couriers for diplomatic and military messaging, the De Taxis had a monopoly on almost every other piece of correspondence, a privilege for the family that was later extended to other parts of the world. They ran an efficient system well into the eighteenth century. An elaborate series of posts were set up at intervals, where tired horses were watered and swapped for fresh steeds and riders so that the journey could continue uninterrupted. Independent travelers could partake in the system for a fee based on equipment required and the weight of luggage. In Neri's time, accounts were settled at each post and travelers could elect to stay over in a town and pick up a later expedition. On well-established popular routes like between Florence and Rome, travelers could pay a flat rate that included lodging and meals. If Neri had traveled light and spoke some German, he might have completed the entire journey in as little as ten days; the time letters from Venice to Flanders took to arrive.

On Embarking from Venice, the party of traders would head west, back to Padua, on to Verona and then north along the ancient trade route through Bolzano to the Brenner Pass. The journey from Venice to Frankfurt was about 600 miles (950 km). Traveling an average of 30 miles per day, they would be on the road for three weeks. Depending on their itinerary, the journey could have varied by a week in either direction. The start of the fair was mid-lent, the date of the traditional feast held three weeks before Easter. In 1604 mid-lent Sunday fell on 28 March.

Brenner is the lowest pass across the central Alps, connecting Bolzano on one side to Innsbruck on the other and was passable year round. The distance of this, most difficult part of the journey, was about 75 miles (120 km), with a vertical climb of 4,495 ft (1,370 m), almost a full mile, but all below the tree line. Assuming a slow pace for pack animals, this segment could still be completed in less than a week, stopping in Bressanone, (Brixen), then at the alpine city of Vipiteno (Sterzing), where perhaps some extra time was taken to rest and view the nearby silver mines. Gries am Brenner was just over the pass on the Austrian side. With the majestic Wipp valley (Wipptal) at their backs, the remaining journey was down hill from there. From Innsbruck, the traders would head towards Augsburg, perhaps with an excursion through Munich, which was then the capital of Bavaria. The route from Augsburg through Wurzburg to Frankfurt was riddled with small towns accustomed to hosting traders since Roman times. After a few weeks on the road, the fair at Frankfurt would have come as a welcome diversion.

At the end of the fair, a week before Easter, Neri would start the final 250 miles (400 km) of his journey. First, he would travel over land with merchants or the Ximenes family servant to the walled city of Cologne on the Rhine River. Next, he would move by water toward the sea. The northern route, along the Rhine, avoided the military conflicts between the Dutch Republic and the Hapsburg Empire. The most dangerous were between Liege and Antwerp. From Rotterdam, the inland waterways led south to Antwerp. Priest Neri may well have arrived in time for Easter Vigil.

This post first appeared on 21 October 2013.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Neri in Pisa Reprise

Majolica vase by Niccolò Sisti, 
decorated in the grotesque style.
Antonio Neri's career in glassmaking took him from the city of his birth, Florence, to Pisa, Antwerp and possibly other places yet to be established, like Rome and Venice. Under the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici, a glass furnace at Pisa became an important source of diplomatic gifts in both glass and ceramics. Antonio Neri worked at this facility in the first years of the seventeenth century. Later, the same foundry would receive an order for exceptionally clear glass to be used by Galileo in his telescopes. It is unknown how that project worked out, but the furnace master Niccolò Sisti made a name for himself supplying glassware to the Vatican, the king of Spain, and many nobles throughout Italy and Europe. Here is What I wrote last 18 October about Neri's tenure in Pisa with Sisti: 

In the early seventeenth century, there were several glass furnaces in Pisa. One was run at the pleasure of Grand Duke Ferdinando by Niccolò Sisti. Raised in Norcia in Perugia, he likely learned his trade at an early age;  Sisti's father, Sisto de' Bonsisti, was said to be an expert in making paste gems. This would account for the son's apparent skill in the medium of glass in addition to his ceramics prowess for which he was previously employed at the Casino di San Marco in Florence. For Neri, working at Sisti's glass house in Pisa played an important role in his glassmaking education. Sisti would serve three Medici grand dukes, Francesco I, Ferdinando I and Cosimo II. When work came to a stop at the Casino di San Marco, after Francesco’s death, Sisti may have opened his own factory in Florence for a short time, but then moved to a new facility in Pisa.

 In 1592, Grand Duke Ferdinando set up a glass shop in the central part of Pisa, along the north bank of the Arno River. This furnace was staffed by Muranese workers and was located in the city center, along the river. Archaeologists have unearthed its remains in the courtyard of what is now 43-44 Lungarno. The operation was capitalized with a loan of five hundred scudi made by Ferdinando I to Sisti, with a special mandate: he was to introduce new forms of pottery to the region. In addition to glass, the furnace at Pisa would produce soft-paste porcelain and majolica ceramics. These were both forms that Sisti had helped to develop when he worked in Florence at the Casino; he was involved in Francesco’s quest to duplicate Chinese porcelain.

In 1602, Neri was to be found working alongside Sisti at the Pisan furnace. According to his own account, this is where he worked on special colors, and collected river stones for glass frit. Here he made kermes based paints, enamels and used ferns as an alternative plant salt for glass. In all likelihood, he would have had access to the nearby botanical gardens and the small adjacent laboratory located just a few blocks from the glass furnace. 

Early in 1604, the priest would make his trip north to Antwerp to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. During Neri's seven year absence, Sisti's projects included cristallo table service for the Vatican, and special glass for the lenses of Galileo's telescopes. Upon Neri's return from Flanders, we again find him working in Pisa, this time on alchemy. In a copy of his last known manuscript, a heading reads, "Techniques copied from an old book here in Pisa."  The university at Pisa was an intellectual center and a repository of technical knowledge. There, Neri had access to a wide range of materials in the libraries. The furnaces and laboratories provided him with hands-on experience, but there can be little doubt that he was a voracious reader as well. On the same page of this manuscript appears the date 26 January 1614. This is the last known specific information on the priest's whereabouts, since he would be dead within the year, at the age of thirty-eight.

Friday, June 13, 2014

We Were Trojans

Giovanni Domenico Tipeolo, 
Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy. 1773
In January of 1600, Antonio Neri finished an ambitious manuscript called Treasure of the World, which was devoted to "all of alchemy." On the first page of text after the contents, above the first recipe, on the first line, written in Neri's own hand, are two solitary words, "fuimus troes"; a celebrated quote in Latin from Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. The words translate to "We were Trojans" or "We Trojans are no more." They lament the fall of a city, sparked by the deception of the great wooden horse concealing enemy soldiers. These were words spoken in grief, in a charged, emotional scene, accepting defeat. We were once proud Trojans, but no more. While the intended significance in Neri’s manuscript may be lost, it is further affirmation of his academic grounding. What rings through the fog of history in these words, is the unmistakable passion behind them.

        Tis come, the inevitable hour,
        The supreme day of Darden power;
        Our history’s ended: Troy’s no more,
        And all her mighty glory o’er. 
            - Aneid 2,324.
            (William King, trans.)

The scene in the Aeneid takes place at night, under the stars. The hero Aeneas  sound asleep, wakes from his bed to the burning pillage of his city. After years under siege, the gates of Troy were breached – not by brute force, but by cunning deception. The streets are in flames, piled with the bodies of slaughtered innocents. Panthus, the priest from the temple of Apollo, with his grandson in tow, runs to Aeneus and exclaims that Troy and the Trojans are no more: "Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium." He entrusts Aeneus with the sacred vessels and icons from the temple. Aeneus fights his way out to safety, carrying his own father on his back. He goes on to wander the Mediterranean. Later he enlists the help of the Etruscans (the ancient Florentines). Together, on the banks of the Tiber River, he fulfills his destiny by founding the city of Rome, or so the story tells.

In its broadest interpretation, those two words written by Virgil in the first century BCE, fuimus troes, have since been used to evoke the human drive to continue after a devastating blow. The loss of their widowed father in 1598 put the Neri children into a similar situation. The following year, Antonio's younger brother Emilio died at the age of sixteen on Christmas day. Two simple words scribbled at the top of a manuscript, yet they evoke the imagery of a man fighting his way out of a burning city, carrying the temple's sacred treasure. Behind all the recipes for glass and medicine and alchemy, there is a man of flesh and blood, one who felt life’s cruelties yet did persevere.

This post first appeared on 30 August 2013.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sonnet to a Barber

Possible portrait of Lodovico Domenichi
Antonio Neri, born in 1576,  is remembered as a glassmaker, yet he considered himself first and foremost an alchemist. His father was the personal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and his grandfather was a barber surgeon, who probably lived in the family house until his death in 1594. There can be little question that Antonio was steeped in chemistry and medicine from a very early age. Here is what I wrote last year on 9 September about the friendship between Antonio's grandfather, Jacopo and Poet 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. This post first appeared 9 September 2013.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Artificial Gems Reprise

Pastes (glass) set in silver openwork (Portugal c. 1750)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Acq. nr. M.68-1962
In many ways, the story of artificial gems traces the story of glass technology itself. From ancient times, when glass could only be produced in very small quantities it was regarded and used as a type of stone that was made through art. Alchemists thought the bright colors produced by metallic pigments in glass were a key to the philosopher's stone, and the transmutation of base metals into gold. As the technical prowess of glassmakers expanded, so did the ability to simulate specific stones, most notably coveted gems. Glass went on to be used as material for utilitarian objects like goblets and as an indispensable part of scientific enquiry. All the while, artificial gems have continued to dazzle us with their beauty. The following post first appeared on 16 September 2003:

In the fifth part of Antonio Neri's 1612 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.

For more reading on Neri's artificial gems see Glass as Pasta and on the work of later investigators see Marieke Hendriksen at The Medicine Chest

Friday, June 6, 2014

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.

This post was first published here, on 6 September 2013.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Note to Readers

"The Spectacles Seller"
after Jan van der (Giovanni Stradano) Straet
engraved by Jan Collaert and Joan Galle (1600-76)

Dear Readers,

I have a couple of minor announcements to make. First, about Conciatore the book; to those that have been waiting, thank you for your long patience. After numerous delays, I am pleased to say that last week I inspected the color proofs from the printer and they look very nice indeed. At this point in the game, to set another release date would only tempt fate; with this project I never seem to be able to meet my own deadlines. For me, it is a situation that defies comprehension, but there is no reason to think it will change. Rest assured though, that we are now in the final stages. I very much hope that you will be pleased with the result. Tell me, is it too early to start flogging the ground for potential reviewers?

Second, by the time you read this Lori and I will be on our way to London and environs for a much anticipated rest and visit with friends. I have scheduled regular posts on this blog, three times per week as usual, with images and teasers on the associated Facebook page. I have chosen a handful of early posts to rerun in my absence. The plan is to return toward the end of the month, when I expect to resume blogging with fresh vitality. For those of you who have already devoured the entire website, I have added a short preface to some of the upcoming posts just to keep you on the hook. I have not preprogrammed anything for my Twitter feed @conciatore_org, as that just seems wrong on so many levels. I will check-in there as often as I can.

My best regards,

-Paul Engle

Monday, June 2, 2014

Della Casa's Notebooks Reprise

Spine of volume 3 of Della Casa's notebooks,
Biblioteca Nationale Centrale Firenze.
At the turn of the seventeenth century, when Priest Antonio Neri was employed in Florence by the Medici prince Don Antonio, he worked closely with another alchemist by the name of Agnolo della Casa. Casa chronicled Neri's work and after his colleague's death in 1614, he undertook a special mission for Don Antonio to interview Neri's other associates and uncover the priest's recipe for the philosopher's stone. Don Antonio went as far as consulting a medium in Venice to contact Neri in the afterlife, but that is a story for another time. Here is what I wrote about della Casa last September:

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.