Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making Connections

Plaster Medallion of Neri,
La Specola  (Florentine Natural History Museum).
In the past few weeks, we have investigated the identity of the specific Catholic sect to which priest, alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri belonged. We have seen a glimpse of the number and diversity of possibilities but really only scratched the surface. Today, the Church is often portrayed as a tightly organized, monolithic organization. It is a misleading characterization now and it was even more so in Neri’s early seventeenth century Florence. Religious based organizations were as prolific as weeds and were the way things got done in all aspects of society. The trade guilds ran religious charities, monasteries ran schools, government offices were administered by churches, lay organizations ran hospitals and on and on. It is quite possible, even likely, that Neri was associated with more than one institution over his lifetime, which complicates the picture even more.

Until definitive records turn up—and they may never turn up—Antonio Neri’s religious training, and therefore his education in alchemy will be open to conjecture. Since archdiocese records from the period around his lifetime were destroyed in a fire, evidence is thin and scattered but that is no reason to abandon the search. In fact, getting down into the weeds is one of the best ways to learn about history, from individual characters.

Torbern Bergman, a famous Swedish naturalist who lived in the mid-eighteenth century wrote briefly but knowledgably about Neri and glass. It is interesting to note that Bergman, working with his student and friend Carl Scheele were the first to isolate Manganese in its metallic state. The two men are credited with the discovery and were well aware of its critical importance in glassmaking. This blog has explored Neri’s varied uses of manganese oxide (its main ore) for both coloring and decoloring glass. Bergman conducted extensive experiments trying to fuse various minerals with glass fluxes over an oil lamp with a blowpipe.

Bergman’s exposition on Neri appears in his History of Chemistry in The Middle Ages surveying developments in the chemical arts that had occurred over the previous few centuries. That work was translated into Italian by another interesting character named Giuseppe Tofani. [1] “Tofani,” it turns out, is a pseudonym for, Felice Fontana the man charged with beginning “La Specola,” the Florentine natural history museum, the first of its kind anywhere. To his translation of Bergman, Fontana adds extensive annotations, much of it about Neri. He quotes at least one manuscript, [2] that identifies our priest in several places as “R.P.D. A. Neri” implying [Reverend Priest Dominican*, Antonio Neri]. He also cites references that hint at the connection to the Canons Regular (through Neri’s confessor Benedetto Vanda) and the connection to the Knights of Malta through Neri’s benefactor Prince Don Antonio de’ Medici.

Hanging on the walls of the natural history museum today are a series of old plaster “medallions,” each showing a bas-relief likeness of an early Italian investigator in profile. The origins of some of these are not clear, including the one dedicated to Antonio Neri (see image above), yet it is clear that the museum’s founding director, Fontana, was thoroughly familiar with the alchemist-priest, his associates and his exploits.

One final connection. Fontana’s translation is dedicated to a Knight of Malta named Deodato Dolomieu. Neri’s sponsor, Don Antonio, was a fellow Knight and Neri is placed by one account at their primary church in Florence. Dolomieu was a colorful character. He was a French aristocrat, inducted into the Knights at the tender age of two. At eighteen, he killed a man in a duel and was sentenced to life in prison, a verdict that was commuted by the pope. He learned natural science from an apothecary whose daughter accepted his hand in marriage. He became a dedicated geologist and while on an expedition in the northern mountains of Italy, noticed a “form of limestone that is not attacked by acid,” the mineral and the mountain range are both now named “Dolomite” in his honor.

[1] Bergman, Tofani 1790.
[2] ibid, p. 106.
* 12/12/14 - actually RPD = "Reverendus Pater Dominus" [Lord Reverend Father], a title popular in the Canons Regular.

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