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, August 4, 2014

The Art of Fire Reprise

Antonio Neri, MS Fergusin 67, 1598-1600,ink and water color.
In L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri describes glass as "a fruit of the art of fire." He apparently liked this evocative phrase enough that he borrowed the words from an earlier volume written in the first half of the sixteenth century by Vannoccio Biringuccio. Biringuccio's De la Pirotechnia was a sort of bible for metal workers, refiners and miners. The author was in charge of an iron mine near Siena and in the late 1520's he became something of a local hero for casting cannons to help Florence defend itself in the great siege.

Neri’s opening line reads:
“Without a doubt, glass is a true fruit of the art of fire, as it can so closely resemble all kinds of rocks and minerals, yet it is a compound, and made by art.”
And here is Biringuccio, half a century earlier in 1540:
“… it [glass] is one of the effects and real fruits of the art of fire, because every product found in the interior of the earth is either stone, metal, or one of the semi-minerals.  Glass is seen to resemble all of them, although in all respects it depends on art.”
In one sense, Neri is paying homage to his distinguished predecessor, but he is also lending a new meaning to Biringuccio's words. The mining expert's short chapter on glass is a survey and a great deal of it is spent on the debate of whether glass should be classified as a 'semi-mineral' because of its similarity to rocks and gems, or as a metal because of its molten properties in the furnace. Neri puts a different spin on the fruits of glassmaking. He is not as worried about classification as he is excited about the material's many uses. He composes a formidable list for us, one that ranges from drinking glasses, to optical lenses, to church windows, to laboratory equipment.

Neri uses Biringuccio's chapter as a format for his own introduction; they both cover much of the same ground, but with a telling difference in tone. Biringuccio is very much 'old school.' His main concerns are taxonomy of the material and the construction of the equipment. For him, the finished products of glassmaking are more ornamental curiosities. He trumpets that glass objects hold more beauty than their metal counterparts, but he warns that we should not give them too much love because they are fragile and therefore, like life itself, ephemeral. Neri, on the other hand, agrees that glass can be beautiful, but he is all about the chemistry and the innovative things that can be done with this versatile material.

The differences in emphasis between the two men nicely illustrate a shift that was taking place throughout society in general. For hundreds of years, the focus of scholars and craftsmen had been on rehabilitating ancient knowledge. Europeans very much saw themselves as recovering from the long slow decline of medieval times. To learn the secrets of a craft, one looked backward, not forward, and the farther back the better. Ancient texts were prized and coveted because they were seen to contain purer wisdom, uncorrupted by centuries in the dark. Both men discuss the ancient origins of glass, recounting that it is mentioned in the Bible and by scholars of the Roman Empire like Pliny. The difference is that Neri's gaze is turning; instead of looking back so much, his eyes are shifting to the present. Biringuccio's Pirotechnia and books like it created a platform from which Neri and his generation could then build on. 

There are many definitions possible for the beginning of modern science. One that is compelling from a broad, non-technical point of view is that modern science began when we spent less time looking backward for answers and more time learning from the world as it is.
This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 7 October 2013.

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