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, March 30, 2015

Isaac Hollandus

J. Hollandus,
Chymische Schriften
(Vienna: 1773)
In early 1603, Glassmaker Antonio Neri traveled from Italy to Flanders, to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. Neri would stay for seven years and in that time he worked on a number of glass related projects including the manufacture of artificial gems using lead crystal glass. An enduring mystery is that in his glass book L'Arte Vetraria, he gives credit to alchemist Isaac Hollandus for a "new chemical method never before used," yet no such recipe for artificial gems has ever been found in the writings of Hollandus.

Neri’s host Emmanuel Ximenes owned several titles by this somewhat obscure figure. Historians conjecture that there were actually two alchemists in the Hollandus family, Isaac and Johannes Isaac. Their relationship is not clear, although they are often assumed to be father and son. We know little about them; some authors date them as early as the fourteenth century. However, a preponderance of evidence point to about the time Neri lived. In his glass book, in the fifth part devoted to artificial gems, Neri writes:

Above all is this wonderful invention. A new way practiced by me, with the doctrine taken from Isaac Hollandus, in which paste jewels of so much grace, beauty and perfection are made, that they seem nearly impossible to describe and hard to believe.

In the 1679 German edition of L'Arte Vetraria, Johannes Kunckel implies that Isaac was dead before Neri came to Antwerp, writing "This is the manner to imitate precious stones, of Isaac Hollandus, (namely, from his posthumous writings) that I [Neri] learned in Flanders" (emphasis added). Yet, coinciding with Neri's visit, playwright Ben Jonson who had just returned to London from the war in Flanders, referenced the pair in his satirical work The Alchemist (1610). There he implies that the elder Hollandus was then dead but survived by "living Isaac." In 1644, the famous Flemish chemist Van Helmont identified Isaac Hollandus as a recent contemporary. In a 1716 treatise, Kunckel paid Hollandus a great compliment and at the same time took a swipe at Helmont saying "and the incomparable Hollandus had more of the fire-art in his little finger as Helmont in his whole body." In another reference, Sir Francis Bacon mentions Hollandus as "by far the greater part of the crowd of chemists."

One Hollandus title in Ximenes' Antwerp library was Opera Mineralia, first published in 1600. The subject of this volume is the philosopher's stone and its production. While there are no artificial gem recipes here per se, there are some intriguing connections between artificial gems and the philosopher's stone, both philosophical and practical. It was thought that the colors of metallic based glass pigments were an indication that the metals were "opened" and became susceptible to alchemical transmutation. Of special interest was the deep red ruby color made by adding gold to the glass melt. In the introduction to a 1797 French translation of Neri's book, artificial ruby or "vitrified gold," is equated to the bible's Electrum of Ezekiel —a red glow seen by the prophet in a vision.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Isaac Hollandus was lauded in industrial arts books as a genius of artificial gems. He may well have been, but the evidence does not support it. All of the specific recipes attributed to Hollandus seem to lead back to Neri's L'Arte Vetraria or its translations. A case can be made that Hollandus' reputation for artificial gems stems from a 1697 plagiarized version of Neri's book. A volume published in France by Haudicquer Blancourt that gives no credit to the priest. Blancourt used Christopher Merrett's English edition as his base and added to the recipes with his own embellishments. The chapter on artificial gems still lauds Hollandus, but its length was now doubled from the seventeen original recipes to thirty-five. The size of this one section jumped from thirteen to nearly two hundred pages, an increase in page-count larger than Neri's entire book. In 1699, Blancourt's version was then translated back into English, again without reference to Neri. There is no doubt that these two editions, with their expanded chapters on paste gems exerted a strong influence on later craftsmen. They may also be the source of the credit given to Hollandus' for paste gems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A number of intriguing questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is the nature of Neri’s association with the Dutch alchemist(s). Was Hollandus or his son alive in the first decade of the seventeenth century and did Neri meet with either of them in person? We can only guess. The Hollandus men are notable, if not enigmatic, characters in the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry. Historians would very much like to know them better. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt of the strong impact Hollandus made on Neri. Isaac holds a singular honor as the one person named in Neri's book to whom he gives specific credit. As research on early modern science has progressed, the importance of communication between practitioners has emerged as a central theme. A meeting of the minds between Neri and Hollandus, if it ever occurred, would rank as a prime example of technology transfer with a definite impact.


For a comprehensive look at Hollandus see: Annelies van Gijsen, "Isaac Hollandus Revisited" in Chymia: science and nature in Medieval and early modern Europe, Miguel Lòpez-Pèrez, Dider Kahn; Mar Rey Bueno, eds., (Newcastle upon TyneUK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), pp. 310–324.
*This post first appeared here 2 April 2014.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Aventurine

Small amphora in aventurine glass ”,
Murano, Salviati.
With all its glitz and sparkle, aventurine (avventurina) stands out as a flamboyant extrovert among the varieties of glass that were developed and perfected on the Venetian island of Murano. Also known as 'goldstone', it consists of a transparent base glass with myriad reflective crystalline "spangles" running throughout. The classical version is a deep golden brown with crystallites composed mainly of metallic copper, with a few related compounds as supporting cast. However, numerous colors have been developed, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, black and white. 

Folklore holds that aventurine was discovered by accident ("a venturi") when unknown monks inadvertently dropped copper or brass shavings into a glass melt as early as the thirteenth century. [1] However, more thorough investigations have recently identified 1620 as a likely date for the first appearance of aventurine glass. [2] No example or written account has been found that dates prior to the seventeenth century. An alternate story accounts for the name aventurine being derived from 'adventure'; referring to the difficulty and uncertainty involved in its production.[3] At first, the formula was a closely held secret among a few glassmakers and subsequently it was lost and then rediscovered not once but  twice.

To complicate matters, natural minerals with a similar appearance were named after the glass, leading to the misconception that they were also discovered after the glass was invented. This is clearly not the case. Early examples of mineral aventurine artifacts date to the Neolithic era [4] and can be found throughout history. First century Roman writer Pliny mentions a type of stone with silvery flecks, a passage that was well known when the glass was developed.  The compositions of these minerals were also identified early; either species of quartz that contain flecks of mica, or a type of feldspar (sunstone).[5] Mineral aventurine turns up as the eyes of Greek statues, in stonework mosaics and later in the 'pietre dure' art perfected by the Medici artisans in Florence around the time Antonio Neri started making glass there. The chances are good that examples of the mineral were known to Neri as well as to the glassmakers on Murano, but a recipe for the glass version does not turn up in Neri’s 1612 book; he was apparently too early by a decade.  

The story of aventurine's accidental discovery by monks may well be apocryphal; nevertheless, it is a great entrée to understanding how the formulation works. First, contrary to what the story implies, aventurine is not the result of dumping metallic confetti into glass. The reflective "spangles" (as early researchers were fond of calling them) are actually uniformly sized, mirror-like crystals that are grown in the glass. In truth, the formula is quite similar to recipes already in use by Neri and others; the difference was in proportions and in how the glass was treated after it was in the furnace. The formula for aventurine calls for the addition of copper, iron and tin oxides, to a base that was a hybrid of soda, potash and lead glass. Neri’s recipe #128 is titled "A Proven Way to Make Rosichiero" [6] and provides for all of these ingredients, albeit in lower concentrations. Rosichiero was a transparent tawny red colored glass that was a staple of furnaces throughout Italy. 

The secret to producing the reflective "spangles" was to mix the glass and heat it in the furnace in a normal way, but then to slowly reduce the heat while creating a low oxygen “reducing” atmosphere. The furnace draught was shut; the glass pot was fitted with a tight lid and then covered with ashes and allowed to cool very slowly.  

Initially, the batch is saturated with copper oxide. This means the glass has dissolved as much copper, iron and tin as it can and any further addition of these powders will simply float to the bottom of the pot.  The exact amount of powdered metals able to dissolve is a function of temperature; the hotter the glass the more that will dissolve and the cooler the glass the less that will dissolve. The key concept here is that as the glass slowly cools, the metals start to come out of solution and crystals start to form. There is some complex chemistry happening at the same time; the reducing atmosphere encourage the metals to stay in a pure un-oxidized form,  Furthermore any oxygen or sulfur  that happens to be present will preferentially combine with the iron, leaving the copper crystals pristine. Once cooled to room temperature, a successful batch would be broken away from the glass pot by workers and divided into smaller pieces. Glass artisans wanting to incorporate the aventurine into their work needed to work quickly. They carefully reheated an appropriate nugget and coated (encase) it in a layer of clear glass; once molten, direct exposure to the air would destroy the glittery effect. 

Over time, it was discovered that various colors could be produced with the addition of different chemicals, but the central principal of growing tiny metallic crystals is the same.


[1]  The earliest instance of this story in print that I can find is fairly late;  Faustino Corsi, Delle pietre antiche: libri quattro (Rome: Salviuccio e figlio, 1828)  pp. 166-167.  
[2] Cesare Moretti (†), Bernard Gratuze and Sandro Hreglich,  “Le verre aventurine (‘ avventurina ‘) : son histoire, les recettes, les analyses, sa fabrication”, ArcheoSciences, 37 | 2013, 135-154.
[3] For instance see  Giulio Salviati, “Venetian Glass” Journal of the Society of Arts (Proceedings), Volume 37 (7 June,1889), p. 630
[4] Neolithic Quartz Aventurine Pendant - 7 Cm/ 2. 76 ", green - 6500 To 2000 Bp – Sahara. Item Id: 106549,  Weight: 83 gm. Sahara - Mauritania - Tagant country.
http://ancientpoint.com/inf/106549-neolithic_quartz_aventurine_pendant___7_cm_2___76____6500_to_2000_bp___sahara.html
[5] Dizionario del cittadino, o sia Ristretto storico, teorico e ..., Volume 1 pp. 38-39.
[6] Antonio Neri, L'Arte Vetraria (Firenze: Giunti, 1612).
[7] Sauzay, A. (1870) Marvels of Glassmaking in All Ages. London, 1870 pp. 173 - 175.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Chalcedony Glass

17th century ribbed bottle,Brescia, Italy.
After a long, brutal, winter, New England might possibly be starting to thaw. On the cusp of April, in hopeful anticipation of spring flowers, it seems appropriate to celebrate Antonio Neri's most colorful creation; chalcedony glass. Through his clever technique, Neri was able to throw every color he knew into one glass pot and come up with, not mud, but the opposite—a swirly rainbow glass that defies verbal description. Somehow, he achieves a balance that blends a full range of colors in a way that seems natural and harmonious. While many glass creations survive from the seventeenth century, none is directly attributable to Neri's glass formulation. But, in my opinion, this piece from Brescia comes close to our alchemist's own description. 

Chalcedony is one of the more exotic varieties of glass described in Antonio Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria. It is also one of the most labor intensive, exacting recipes and consequently a 'high stakes' risk for losing the entire batch after considerable work. Nevertheless, Neri assures us that the end result is worth the trouble; he describes it as:
Adorned with so many graceful and beautiful areas of undulations and enhanced with the play of diverse, lively, flaming colors.
Chalcedony is a natural mineral, known and admired since antiquity. It occurs in a variety of translucent colors and is most valued when swirls of many different colors are present together in the same piece. In the Roman Empire, it was prized for seals and signet rings; its fine-grained structure allowed intricate carving without fractures. Like many other rare natural materials, it was sometimes supposed to have mystical healing properties. 

Chemically, the mineral chalcedony is identical with quartz or silica, the main ingredient of glass. However, unlike the fabricated substance, the mineral is formed of networks of microscopic interlocking crystals that are responsible for its favorable properties. Small amounts of impurities between the crystal grains cause the swirls of color.

Neri presents three variations of chalcedony glass that span his career as a glassmaker. The first he describes as "the way that I made chalcedony in the year 1601, in Florence at the Casino, in the glass furnace there." The last was made "in the Flemish city of Antwerp, in January of the year 1611" where he presented "His Excellency, the Prince of Orange with two vessels of chalcedony [glass] which delighted him greatly."

His friend Emmanuel Ximenes was anxious to learn the secrets of this glass as early as July of 1603, when he wrote: 

The details of the last chalcedony [glass], which you promised to send to me, did not come in the letter: but I had to recant by the time I got to the end […] I see and understand, that Your Lordship is not at leisure, but in fact busy at work in the service of Christianity... 
Neri advises that in order to bring out the swirls of color, the glassblower must cool and reheat the piece several times, a process that today is known as 'striking'.

Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this colorful creation.  It is strongly advised to avoid replication of Neri's chalcedony glass as described in his book of recipes; it contains a cocktail of extremely toxic ingredients. While these are relatively harmless once locked inside the glass, in preparation and especially in the hot molten glass melt, vapors of mercury and arsenic can be deadly. Moderate exposure can be expected to cause neurological and liver damage. (The term "mad as a hatter" comes from the unfortunate side effects of inhaled mercury vapors in the formation of felt hats.) In addition, Neri's extensive uses of strong acid reactions in these preparations make sudden eruptions and severe chemical burns a very real danger.


*This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 27 September 2013.

Monday, March 23, 2015

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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cristallo

Dragon-stem goblet, Venice, Italy, 
(or in the Venetian style), 17th cent.
Corning Museum of Glass 51.3.118.
Venetian cristallo is quite literally the glass that made Murano famous. Ultimately, royal courts and wealthy families throughout Europe coveted glassware of this type. It had the clarity of its namesake mineral, rock crystal, and its working properties were such that one could make extremely thin, yet complex pieces. At a time when glass made from dirty sand and fireplace ash was churned out cheaply and quickly around Europe, cristallo was the absolute pinnacle of the glassmaker's art.

Murano glassmaker Angelo Barovier gets credit for the development of cristallo around the year 1450. However, it is a mistake to think that suddenly, he exclaimed "eureka" and burst out of his workshop with an entirely new invention. The predecessor of cristallo was what Antonio Neri called cristallino, which already incorporated some of the advantages. Barovier may well be responsible for bringing together the ultimate refinements that elevated cristallino to a new level of perfection, but these techniques individually were all available and utilized by glassmakers at least fifty years earlier. 

Barovier had attended lectures by noted alchemist Paola de Pergola, at the School of Rialto. This indicates that he was thinking along the lines of a chemist in putting together a repeatable regimen for an exceptionally clear, bright, workable product. The real genius in cristallo was in controlling the purity and quality of all the materials through Venice's extensive trade network in the Mediterranean. Even if the recipe leaked out, exclusive trade agreements blocked access to the raw materials. Local ordinances tightly controlled source materials used in the furnaces to ensure consistency, from the quartz river pebbles crushed for frit, to the plants used to make the flux, to the manganese which eliminated any slight tinting. Requirements even stipulated the making of the furnace crucibles from a specific variety of clay from Constantinople.

Barovier's innovation would become a tradition that would be carried on by countless glassmakers and ultimately by our Florentine priest, Antonio Neri, more than a century and a half later. Neri describes the Venetian methods, but then goes on to innovate with variations of his own. Numerous family manuscripts in Venice documented the method to make cristallo; what Neri did was to publish these relatively secret techniques and make them available to anyone who could read his book, and many did. 

For silica, the main ingredient in glass, Neri says the craftsmen on Murano specifically used quartz river pebbles (tarso) from the Ticino River in Pavia. He describes special procedures to pulverize the stones without contamination, into a powder "ground as finely as flour." Next, he makes the flux (glass salt), which allows the quartz to melt at lower temperatures. He says to use the ash of the kali plant from Syria (polverino and rocchetta). This plant ash is very rich in sodium carbonates; he extracts and purifies it in a process called lixiviation. Neri purchased the starting material in a charred state, which reduces it weight and volume for shipping. From 300 pounds of ash, he usually produced 80-90 pounds of salt. The ash was boiled in cauldrons full of water, strained, filtered, evaporated and dried leaving the all important glass salt. Into each cauldron, he mixes ten pounds of tartar—the dried dregs scraped from the inside of red wine barrels—a material high in potassium carbonates. Today, we know the soda component is responsible for the favorable property of long working times for artisans before the hot glass stiffens, the potassium adds sparkle. The final ingredient was two pounds of lime (calcium oxide) per one hundred pounds of salt, which is added to the dry salt because it is not water soluble. This stabilized the glass against future degradation by moisture over time. 

200 pounds of powdered quartz mixed thoroughly with 130 pounds of the salt forms the basis of the frit. He raked the powder around in a hot kiln for about five hours, until "nut sized" pieces began to form. Now this cristallo frit,—which Neri calls bollito—was carefully packed to remain dry and allowed to age for three or four months, when it was ready to melt in the furnace. If the glass should have a slight green tint from iron tools, it was corrected with manganese (oxide), specifically mined in the Piedmont region. The cristallo was boiled for up to six days and repeatedly washed by ladeling the hot glass into cold water and then remelting.

The result was a glass that was a pleasure for artisans to work and make finished pieces over which royalty clamored. Cristallo was uniform in consistency, it could be blown into molds or worked freehand into complex shapes, like the iconic "dragon goblet" form, which became a hallmark of the Venetian masters.

In the Cathedral of Santa Maria and Donato on Murano, behind the altar, there is an unusual display of four very large bones found buried under the ancient church. Local folklore tells that the bones belong to a dragon slayed by Saint Donatus of Arezzo, the patron saint of the island.


* This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form on 12 February 2014.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dyed In The Grain

Dyeing wool cloth, from "Des Proprietez des Choses"
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 1482
British Library Royal MS 15.E.iii, folio 269
In his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri presents a number of recipes for paint pigments used to decorate finished glassware. One recipe (#119) is for crimson red, from kermes [kur-meez], prepared by a method of his own invention, which he developed while working in Pisa in 1602–1603.

Since antiquity, throughout Europe and the Near East, kermes was a highly valued red colorant because it formed a pigment that resisted sunlight, humidity and temperature. Kermes red can be found in prehistoric cave paintings, Egyptian scrolls and the robes of cardinals and kings. Words in many languages used to describe bright red, "crimson" and "carmine" among them, are derived from the name "kermes." The pigment is produced from the bodies and eggs of a small type of insect that feeds on the sap of evergreen oak trees throughout the Mediterranean region. In the spring, the female kermes insects and their eggs were harvested. The small eggs surrounding the edges of the insect body resemble kernels of grain, hence the expression "dyed in the grain." For medicinal purposes, kermes pastes were used to disinfect wounds and served as an effective contraceptive. 

To extract the color, Neri starts with a flask of "the very best grappa," which is a potent kind of liquor made by distilling the skins, seeds, stems and pulp of grapes, leftover from wine making. To this, he adds a pound of alum and one ounce of the dried kermes insects, ground finely and sifted. He agitates the mixture, at which point the grappa will "color beautifully" and then lets it sit. After four days, he adds four ounces of alum dissolved in water and pours the mixture into a stocking that has been sewn into the shape of a cone. The stocking hold most of the color, while letting the grappa pass through. 

Alum is another material used since antiquity. It was widely available in Neri's time as a mined mineral, which could actually be several different chemical species with similar properties. Today, chemists know it as a "flocculant"; it neutralizes the electrical charge of finely suspended particles in a liquid, allowing them to stick together and fall to the bottom. This is the secret to Neri's method, although he was not thinking in modern chemical terms, he did know that the alum precipitated the pigment from the liquid allowing it to be collected and dried.

Finally, he scoops the pigment onto pieces of linen stretched over newly fired terracotta tiles and lets it dry. He advises:
Do not spread it too thickly, because then it will not dry quickly. When there is too much moisture it will mildew, and make an ugly color. When a tile has absorbed a lot of moisture, take another new tile. In this manner, it will dry more quickly. When it is dry, remove the coating from the linens. This will be a good lake for painters, as I have made many times in Pisa. Take note that if the color is too strong you should use more roche alum and if it is too weak use less alum so that the color is according to your taste, and desire.
Through the fifteenth century, kermes was among the most sought after pigments, but by Antonio Neri's lifetime, its use was declining in favor of a new insect-based red called cochineal that Portuguese traders brought back from Mexico. Cochineal bugs inhabit the prickly pear cactus. They give a more intense color and eventually replaced kermes throughout Europe.

*This post first appeared here on 26 February 2014.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sara Vincx

Still life with façon de Venise wineglass,
Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661)
Antwerp.
In the 1590s, after the death of her husband, Sara Vincx ran a successful glassmaking business in the city of Antwerp. In the midst of a major war, she presided over a furnace where craftsmen from Murano, Italy made fine cristallo glassware for the elite families in Flanders. Vinx is the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere.

The Dutch Eighty Years' War for independence from Spain was heating up in Flanders; towns were being pillaged and burned to the ground throughout the Low Countries. Even so, Vincx ably managed a crew of expert glass artists and brought her company's wares to market. When competitors tried to duplicate her products, she successfully defended her shop in court. Later, she remarried to Filippo Gridolfi, one of her foremen at the furnace. The two went on to open a show-room on the Meir, the most prestigious sales district of the city. They also welcomed glassmaker Antonio Neri to work at their facility. Neri was living in the city on an extended seven year visit to his friend and fellow alchemical experimenter Emmanuel Ximenes. 

The seven years that Antonio Neri spent in Antwerp were arguably the most formative for his knowledge of glassmaking. While his first exposure to the art was in Italy, a large portion of the skills and recipes exhibited in his recipe book, L'Arte Vetraria, trace to his activities in the Low Countries. Neri writes "This will make a beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished, as I have done many times in Flanders in the city of Antwerp to the marvel of all those that saw it." On tinting rock crystal: "In Antwerp, I made quite a bit of this, some ranged in tint from an opal color that looked very beautiful, to a girasol, similarly nice." On equipment: "In Antwerp, I built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors and when fired for twenty-four hours everything fused and purified." He also speaks of chalcedony glass, paste gems  and ultramarine paint all crafted in Antwerp.
Neri was apparently on good terms with Vincx and Gridolfi, perhaps he was introduced through Ximenes, one of the wealthiest men in the city. In his book Neri describes Gridolfi as "a most courteous gentleman." Vincx and Gridolfi possessed exclusive rights in the region to produce cristallo glass in the Venetian style (façon de Venice) a type of glass that Neri was already quite familiar with from his time making glass in Florence and in Pisa. The license, or patent as it was called, passed down from previous owners, was quite a valuable part of the operation. Employed in their shop was a steady stream of craftsmen from Murano. They made the finest glassware for the upper classes of Antwerp and surrounding areas. Because these craftsmen were bringing the secret techniques with them, they worked outside of the guild system, which would have otherwise required them to share their techniques with other artisans. Through special arrangements with the local authorities, the Venetians were exempt from joining.


Sara Vincx (or Vincks) was the widow of the former owner, Ambrogio de Mongarda. Gridolfi had previously worked in the shop under Mongarda, who had been in the business for twenty years. Vincx was pressed into service by unhappy circumstances. In 1594, Ambrogio returned alone to Venice to recuperate from gout, but by the following year he was dead, leaving Sara to both run the glass shop and care for at least eight young children. Sara Vincx carries a distinction as the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere. She took an active role in the business as attested by lawsuits she filed, and won, against rival shops that violated her patent. Records show she also expanded the furnace and hired two new artisans to increase production.

Despite the war and the blockade of the Scheldt River, which shut down trade by sea for a number of years in Antwerp, the glass furnace there thrived and reached its zenith under Vincx and Gridolfi. Soon after their marriage, seventeen employees were counted working at the shop. They established their own retail presence on the Meir, selling high-end cristallo within steps of the Ximenes palace. Their glass operation enjoyed top-rung status, and no doubt, Antonio Neri's involvement must have bolstered the reputation of the firm even further.

*This post first appeared here in a shorter form on 4 October 2013.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Reticello

Reticello by Aaron Tate (detail),
Photo by David Lindes.
In fine art of the early twentieth century, ‘cubist’ painters and sculptors caused a sensation by pioneering a style that was fluid and emotional yet rigorously geometric. Earlier still, eighteenth century Baroque musicians thrilled audiences with ‘counterpoint’; music that was melodic and harmonious yet structured with an almost mathematical precision. The recurrence of similar themes in widely differing arts is perhaps not so surprising. When successful, these are themes that resonate deeply within us; they amplify what is common to our nature and remind us that we are in the world together. 

In sixteenth century Venice, a form of glasswork emerged that anticipated these juxtapositions to similar popular acclaim. In fact, the technique of ‘reticello’ went on to become an enduring trademark of Murano technical skill and artistry. To this day, well executed pieces of reticello glass are coveted by collectors and displayed with great pride. 

The form is characterized by a transparent glass base which is embedded with a network of crisscrossing threads of opaque glass, forming a lattice of diamond shaped pockets. Classically, white 'latimo' glass was used in a clear 'cristallo' base.The overall effect is reminiscent of fine lace or of fishing net, both of which are strongly evocative in Venetian culture. When executed in the classical technique of the island’s glassblowers, each diamond in the pattern contains a single bubble of trapped air, perfectly centered and uniformly sized. 

In general, the latticework theme in art traces to much earlier times. It is common in Hellenistic and Islamic art. To an extent it is a natural consequence of mosaic making. However the application of the pattern in glassblowing requires a completely different approach and a complex series of steps. First a ‘filigrana’ bubble is formed. To accomplish this, a series of pencil thin glass rods called ‘canes’ are laid side by side, touching each-other, in a pan ('piera' in Venetian, 'pietra'=stone in Italian) and partially fused together in the furnace.[1] Each cane is made of transparent glass with a core of opaque glass (a thread) running its entire length. Glass artist Emilio Santini writes:
On Murano, the "piera" is coated with a thin layer of clay from the laguna marshes. This is rich in salt and does not stick too much on the glass even if overheated. Then they preheat the, piera (called a 'plate' in the US) to dry the clay. While it is still hot but not scorching they lay down the canes so they are partially warmed before they go in the furnace. Remember that they are not annealed [and could easily shatter from thermal shock]. Then two little square metal pieces are placed at the two ends to hold the cane in place. These are called fereti (V) ferretti (I) . Some of these same terms are also used in the US by skillful glass blowers.[2]

On the end of an iron blowpipe, the fused mat of glass rods is wrapped around into a hollow cylinder. Next the open end is gently worked closed. This forms a sealed bubble of glass that can be manipulated by standard glassblowing techniques. Soft from the heat of the furnace, the glass can be given a twist so the parallel threads form a loose spiral. This piece is stored in a ‘garage’ kiln while a second bubble is formed in the same way but with the spiral running in the opposite direction. The first bubble is opened wide at one end, removed from its iron rod and placed in a cradle on the floor which holds it upright. The second bubble is carefully lowered into the open end of the first bubble. The glass artist stands above, with the second bubble inside the first and blows, inflating the inner glass until it comes in contact with the outer bubble.

Because both glass bubbles are formed with canes, they have a ribbed texture both inside and outside. When the two glass bubbles contact each other, the high-points of the ribs meet first, which is where the threads of the two bubbles cross. The valleys of the ribs are where one cane is fused to the next; these areas cross between the bubbles at the center of each diamond in the pattern. The two bubbles fuse together trapping air in the valleys. As the glass is worked and heated these regions form small, perfectly round air bubbles trapped inside the glass. You can see this for yourself by taking two or three fingers of each hand and crossing them against each other. Imagine the threads of opaque glass running down the center of each finger. The air bubbles are trapped where you can see light between your fingers.
Reticello ("fillacello") style flamework pendant,
by Adam Reetz 2015.

The distinctive diamond pattern of reticello has been successfully achieved with other glassmaking techniques. In flameworking, glass is manipulated using only a torch and handtools. The torch is fixed to a bench where the artist either stands or sits. In general, this is a more accessible technique because it does not require a glass furnace. Here, the reticello pattern is accomplished by starting with glass tubing. The crisscross pattern is ‘painted’ onto the outside of the tubing, one line at a time; with very thin rods of glass known as “stringers.” In one version, evenly spaced straight parallel lines are drawn along the length of the tube. The tube is then reheated in the flame and twisted. Next, a second set of lines are drawn twisting in the other direction, forming the diamonds. The ends of the tube are drawn down and one end can be mounted to a rod or tube of glass and further manipulated in the flame. 

In a testament to the continued popularity of reticello, a new colorful variation of the flamework technique has emerged within the past decade, among American flameworkers. [3] This has been playfully dubbed “fillacello.” After painting the fishnet pattern on tubing, and further working the glass, the individual diamonds are “filled” with various colors using stringers. The resulting effect recalls mosaics and the ancient inspirations of reticello.

[1] The iron tool used to move the 'piera' of filigrana cane in and out of the furnace is called a 'pasorale' (V), 'pastorale' (I) = pastoral, named after the staff carried by the pope. It consists of a straight rod with a U-shaped fork in the end. Thanks to Emilio Santini for his kind assistance with Muranese terminology and knowledge of hotshop technique.
[2] Private correspondence, March 2015. Here is a video of the reticello technique as executed by American glass artist Dante Maroni. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ3DDon23Lc
[3] My research point to the first examples of this technique emerging on the west coat of the United States around 2005-07. (Further information on its origin would be greatly appreciated).


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Borgo Pinti (Part 2)

Palazzo Ximenes Panciatichi da Sangallo,
68 Borgo Pinti, Florence.
Antonio Neri spent his childhood on Borgo Pinti in Florence. Although he would come to live and work in different parts of the city, then later in Pisa and Antwerp, it is here on this street that his impression of the world was first formed.

A short distance from the family house on Pinti was the Palazzo Ximenes, occupied by the wealthy Portuguese trader, Sebastiano Ximenes d'Aragona, with his cousin, Niccolò, and their families. The Ximenes ran a powerful trading empire with branches throughout Europe. Antonio Neri's future friend Emmanuel Ximenes was the brother of the above-mentioned Niccolò. Sebastiano was patriarch of the Florentine branch of the family, which had its origins in Castile. In 1593, Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici made Sebastiano the Marquis of Saturnia. Both Emmanuel and Sebastiano were Christian knights of the order of Saint Stephen. However, the family traced its roots to Jewish ancestry in the Kingdom of Aragon, a region covering what is now northeastern Spain.

The same year that Christopher Columbus sailed for the new world, Jews in Spain and Portugal were forced to make the choice of embracing Christianity or forfeit their property and leave the country. Amid the lynch mobs that roamed the streets of Iberian cities, some families, the Ximenes among them, moved to more tolerant regions such as Tuscany and Flanders. Some Jews made a public embrace of Christianity, while in secret continuing to observe in the faith of their heritage. Others made a full conversion, joining confraternities like the Knights of Saint Stephen in an honest display of commitment. Membership in such groups was prestigious,  and helped stave criticism by those who might doubt them as true Christians. 

The Ximenes' house on Pinti was earlier owned by the celebrated architect and sculptor Giuliano da Sangallo, who renovated the Cestello Church – attended by Neri's family – for the Cistercian monks between 1481 and 1526. Sangallo was also the favorite architect of Lorenzo de' Medici. Folklore tells that in the house opposite Sangallo's, on Borgo Pinti, lived the child who would be raised by the Medici and become Clement VII (pope from 1523 to his death in 1534). According to the story, in 1478, after the assassination of Giuliano de' Medici, surviving brother Lorenzo was informed by Sangallo that Giuliano had an illegitimate son by the young woman living across the street. Lorenzo adopted the boy, who was named Giulio. Later, he became a close confidant to Lorenzo's son, Giovanni, later Leo X (pope 1513-1521), the first of four Medici popes. 

At the very end of the road on the left, just before the massive Pinti gate, was the residence of the city's archbishop, Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici, the future Leo XI (pope from 1 to 27 April 1605). This property would become the grandest on the street, a sprawling formal garden overlooked by a massive palazzo, which is now called the Palazzo della Gherardesca. The estate was originally designed by neighbor Giuliano da Sangallo (for Bartolomeo della Scala) around 1480. The Archbishop bought and enlarged the property in 1585, annexing adjacent land purchased from the wool workers guild. 

Appointed archbishop in 1573, Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici was the direct successor to Alessandro Altoviti, the godfather of Antonio Neri's older brother Jacopo. As court physician, there is every reason to believe that Antonio's father, royal physician Neri Neri, was well acquainted with his neighbor, the new archbishop; both men were part of the Medici inner circle. In 1583, Alessandro was made Cardinal. Had Neri Neri managed to live a few years longer, he would have seen his neighbor elected Pope in April of 1605. It was unfortunate for Alessandro that he did not have the doctor at his coronation to advise him against spending the entire day in the cold rain. The Holy Father fell ill and within the month, the last of the Medici Popes would be dead.

*This post first appeared here on 5 March 2014.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Béguines of Mechelen

A Béguine of Antwerp,
from Pierre Hélyot,
L'Histoire des ordres monastiques… 1719 (v.8)
Five years into his stay in Antwerp, on 21 February 1608, Antonio Neri posted a letter to a friend in Florence. The letter was addressed to the house of Zanobi Bartolini—likely the son of Neri’s late former landlord Alamano, also the nephew of Emmanuel Ximenes, Neri’s host in Antwerp. The letter provides strong evidence that however much time Neri devoted to making glass, he also devoted considerable attention to his interest in medicine. 

In this letter, the priest describes his success with medicinal cures. He also references experiments he carried out in Brussels and at the Hospital of Malines, in Mechelen. In particular, he praised Paracelsus’ recipe for ‘theriac of mummy,’ and its superiority to Galen’s ‘theriac magna’. Theriac was an ancient medicinal remedy, often taking the form of a thick honey based syrup. It often contained numerous herbal ingredients. It was thought to be a cure for any poison and used as a way to stave off the plague. Mummy or mumia was a compound composed of just what one might think: the ground up flesh of ancient Egyptian bodies. 

The Hospital of Malines was an ancient one, started in the thirteenth century by a society of lay Catholic women called Béguines. In their 1907 book A History of Nursing, Dock and Nutting note:
Through the whole time of the active career of the Béguines, nursing remained an important branch of their work. One of their most beautiful settlements was at Malines, where there were over 1500 Sisters, not including their dependents. This would appear to have been a nursing center of importance, for Helyot says that the nursing in many hospitals was provided for by orders arising from the Béguines of Malines. […] The building were surrounded with extensive gardens and trees, and had an ample water supply. ‘The sick were nursed there’ he [Helyot] wrote ‘with all the skill, refinement and sweetness that might be expected from the appearance of the place. [1]
The Béguines were not nuns. They did live in communal housing, and did devote themselves to a pious lifestyle, but without formal cloister, without renouncing their possessions, and taking only a temporary vow of chastity, able to leave at any time, for instance to get married. They formed corporations throughout the Low Lands and into France and Germany that were self sustaining and largely independent of local control. These were huge organizations of women, working for themselves, under their own roofs and by their own rules. They produced crafts and textiles, they schooled nurses and they ran hospitals. Because they existed on the fringes of Church control, they were downplayed or even resented within the hierarchy. One result is that their achievements have largely been forgotten by history. When Mathias Hovius, the Archbishop of Mechelen, toured the facilities in 1601 he took the petty action of requiring Béguines who chose to keep lap-dogs to pay a fine to the Church. In 1630, Bishop Malderus of Antwerp defended the women in an extraordinary letter. He wrote,
The Order of the Béguines is truly not a religious order, but a pious society, and compared with the former complete consecration is as a preparatory school in which the piously inclined women of Belgium live after a pattern highly characteristic of the temper and mind and the character of the people. For this people is jealous of its liberty and will be led rather than driven. Although it is beyond a doubt more meritorious to devote one’s self to the service of heaven by vows of perpetual chastity, obedience, and poverty, and though there are many pious women in Belgium who are so disposed, yet most of them shrink from this irrevocable vow. They prefer to remain inviolably chaste rather than to promise to be so; they are willing to obey, but without formally binding themselves to obedience; to rather use their poverty in reasonable outlays for the poor than to give it at once up for good to all; rather voluntarily renounce daily the world than immure themselves once and forever.[2]
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the hospital was used to treat wounded Spanish and Italian soldiers fighting in the war against the Dutch. By 1607, just before Antonio Neri wrote his letter, the staff at the hospital numbered fifty, “including seven doctors, eight surgeons, and three surgeon’s mates.”[3]

As the son of a grand duke’s personal physician and grandson of a surgeon, there can be little doubt that Neri had ample familiarity with medical procedure. It seems likely, given the circumstances, that in Mechelen he was lending his expertise to ease the ravages of war, helping to heal wounded soldiers.

[1] Lavinia L. Dock, Mary Adelaide Nutting, A History of Nursing (Putnam, 1907) v. 1, pp. 268.
[2] Ibid, p. 269.[3] Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), p.141
* This post first appeared here on 26 Mar 2014.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Borgo Pinti

Palazzo Marzichi Lenzi, Florence
Located at 27 Borgo Pinti in Florence, the Neri house still stands today. It is now known as the Palazzo Marzichi-Lenzi, named after later owners. Pinti is an unassuming street on the east side of the city. It stretches northeast in nearly a straight line, anchored in Neri’s time on either end by city gates. One gate leading out to the Tuscan hills, the other into a more ancient part of the city.

Looking northeast toward the hills of Fiesole, the far end of the street was marked by the imposing gate in the city’s final fortress walls, completed in 1333 (now Piazale Donatello). It was the last of six progressive enlargements of the city since the early Roman Empire. Even long after this expansion of the city limits, the land around Pinti remained thinly populated, dotted with fruit trees and grazing fields. What started as a center for the wool industry in Florence, progressed into a haven for artists and sculptors, new construction boomed, and finally, around Antonio’s birth the area became a fashionable district for wealthy courtiers.

At the head of Borgo Pinti stood one of the oldest hospitals in Florence, San Paolo a Pinti,  documented as far back as the eleventh century. By the close of the sixteenth century, the small neighborhood hospital had been largely rendered superfluous by the much larger Santa Maria Nuova. Only a couple of blocks from San Paolo a Pinti, S. M.Nuova is where Antonio’s father Neri Neri would practice medicine. However, San Paolo was still apparently operating as a refuge where poor or infirmed travelers could find medicine and a bed for a couple of nights. The nearest apothecary was that of Luca Mini, located on the Piazza San Pier Maggiore, within easy range of both the hospital and of the Neri residence.

The Neri palazzo at no. 27 was erected in the fifteenth century, converted from what was a convent or a meditation house, which was in turn built upon much older structures dating from the 1300s. These were probably part of the Palazzo Ferrantini complex. The main house is now called the Palazzo Caccini and stands a few door further, at no. 33 Borgo Pinti. In 1439, it hosted the Emperor of Constantinople John VIII Palaiologos, Patriarch Joseph II and his delegation, while attending the Ecumenical Council held in Florence. The Council began eight years earlier in Basil with the intent to address numerous issues, including unification between the Roman and several Eastern Orthodox Catholic churches. After nearly a decade of meetings, moving from one city to the next to accommodate politics and avoid the plague, they finally reached an accord in Florence, signed by the Patriarch, the Emperor and the Pope. However, two days later the elderly Joseph II died, and the agreement languished, never ratified by his fellow orthodox bishops back in Constantinople.  The hosts of the Emperor and Patriarch were the Ferrantini family, wealthy bankers in Florence since the thirteenth century.

Directly across the street was the residence and workshop of sculptor Giambologna, complete with a bronze foundry. Giambologna was a favorite of the Medici, and after a successful period working in a space set up in the Palazzo Vecchio courtyard. The newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici ordered the studio to be built on Borgo Pinti adjacent to the house that the artist had bought.  This was in the winter of 1587-88, just after the deaths of Francesco I and Bianca Capello, when Antonio turned twelve years old. Apparently, the studio, along with a grant of some land in the countryside was recompense for work done for Francesco I.  Giambologna specialized in large complex sculptures, and had a reputation for producing work with impeccable detail and smooth finished surfaces.

In the early 1500s Michelangelo Buonarroti, known to his countrymen as ‘Il Divino’ [the divine one], maintained a house with a spacious workshop somewhere on Borgo Pinti, it was paid for by the city cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, in anticipation of his sculpting the twelve apostles, a commission that was never fulfilled; only St. Matthew was started.  Shortly thereafter Pope Julius II called Michelangelo to work in Rome. In 1508 the sculptor would find himself flat on his back in the Sistine Chapel, holding a paintbrush instead of a chisel. Pinti land-owners Alamanno Salviati and Giuliano da Sangallo together recommended Michelangelo to Julius II.

For Antonio Neri, knowing an army once marched down his street led by the Pope's envoy, residing across the street from sculptor Giambologna, living on property that the Byzantine Emperor occupied for a couple of years; it all sounds spectacular, and it is spectacular. However, we must acknowledge that in the grand scheme of Florence, Antonio Neri's Borgo Pinti is a relatively minor attraction. One can confidently point to any address in Florence and be certain that something of historical significance – potentially of great significance – transpired there. Simply walking the streets, one is ensured of following in the footsteps of great artists, kings, queens, emperors and popes, but also of alchemists, glassmakers, and innumerable other souls whose stories are no less potent.

* This post first appeared here 3 March 2014.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Filigrana

Mezza Filigrana footed vase, circa 1950s,
by Dino Martens (for Aureliano Toso).
Filigrana is a classical glassmaking technique developed in the sixteenth century on the Venetian island of Murano. In the broadest sense, a piece of filigrana -- lets say a vessel -- is composed of transparent glass with very fine vertical threads of color running through it. Traditionally, these threads were opaque white lattimo (milk) glass, running through a colorless high quality product known as cristallo. Because of this, the technique was originally known as “latticino,” a term still in use, but now falling out of favor and being replaced by filigrana (filigree), a name that does not imply any particular color. 

Over the centuries, this and closely related techniques became a kind of trademark for the Murano glass industry. Parallel threads in a loose spiral winding around a vessel from top to bottom form what is perhaps the most basic application of the method. This is known as mezza filigrana (half filigree). The reason for the “half” becomes apparent when we consider its far more famous cousin reticello. With this technique, two sets of threads are used winding in opposite directions to form a fishnet pattern of  diamonds. The name recalls reticella, a traditional Venetian lace. When the work is done properly, tiny air bubbles are trapped inside the glass, one in the center of each diamond of the fishnet pattern.

Even more exotic variations have been developed, which we will discuss another time. First, let's explore how the glass artisan is able to achieve these fine threads in the glass, so perfectly spaced. I should hasten to say that I am not a glassblower and this description is not an instructional, but simply a window into some of the fabulous artistry that takes place in a glass shop. These techniques take hundreds or thousands of hours of practice to master. Even a shallow understanding of the steps that go into a piece of filigrana lead to a far richer appreciation than simply being able to identify it by name.

 “Cane” is a general term for long straight rods of glass. They have many uses in glass artistry and the method by which they are made can be surprising the first time you see it done. It is the same method as was practiced a thousand years ago. A gob of molten glass is removed from the furnace on the end of an iron rod. A second rod is attached by another artisan, with the lump of molten glass between the two rods. They start to pull in opposite directions, slowly at first. They swing and manipulate the hot glass as it cools, forming a mass of relatively uniform diameter. They continue to walk away from each other, the glass pulling thinner as they go. Practiced artisans can end up with a uniform pencil thin straight rod of glass that extends for many meters. It is laid on spaced wooden slats on the floor, allowed to cool and then snapped at regular intervals to form smaller rods.

In the case of filigrana cane, the artisan starts with a smaller gob of opaque glass; let us say lattimo (white). This gob is then dipped into clear glass, which encases it in a heavy transparent layer. When the cane is pulled, the result is a clear rod with a filament of opaque white glass running down the center. Short lengths of cane are laid side by side in a pan. The pan is heated so that adjacent rods start to fuse together into a mat. The glass artist will again take a gather of glass from the furnace around the end of an iron blowpipe and flatten it into a disk, leaving the blowhole unobstructed. The disk, known as a "collar"[2] is touched to the mat of canes at one end and rolled so that the canes wrap around and form a cylinder. The open end of the cylinder is then closed down, in effect forming a bubble on the end of the pipe. The glassblower can then treat this as if it were a bubble formed straight out of the furnace, but of course, this bubble has the threads of lattimo glass running through it. The bubble is then manipulated into a finished piece. [2]


Miniature flameworked vessels (aprox. 3cm tall)
in the style of filigrana, by Emilio Santini. 
Outside of the hot shop, there are methods that use only a torch to duplicate the appearance of filigrana and reticello on a smaller scale. This involves starting with glass tubing and "painting" the threads on using thin "stringers" of glass. It is a completely different technique which requires an entirely different set of skills. In the right hands, the results can be strikingly similar. Now that we have the basics down, we can discuss the more spectacular variations that have been developed, which we will talk about next time.


[1] "Colletto"(Italian) "Coeto" (Venetian), means narrow neck or little neck.
[2] The following Youtube video shows American glass artist William Gudenrath, assisted by Harry Siemens pulling filigrana cane and executing a reticello vase at the Corning Museum of Glass. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCrdewFgObc

Monday, March 2, 2015

Women in Alchemy


Antonio Neri, 1598-1600,
MS Ferguson 67, f. 25r.
It is certain that women have participated in the practice of alchemy since its beginnings, but documentation is scant. Maria Prophetissima, also known as Mary the Jewess, is perhaps the best known female alchemist. None of her writings have survived, but she is thought to have lived around the third century. Legend tells that the "bain-marie" (double boiler) is named after her.

In the seventeenth century, One of Antonio Neri’s manuscripts, entitled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World) depicts three women running chemical equipment. It is possible that these were nuns, trained in the same Church sponsored educational system that produced Neri. Convents were often expected to be self-sufficient and many ran their own pharmacies. Neri had sisters as well as brothers and at least one sister entered a convent located on the north side of Florence, near the laboratory where Antonio practiced alchemy and made glass. The fact that specific names have not been associated with Neri’s three female co-workers should not deter us from celebrating their contribution to the birth of early modern science.

Within a year of his ordination in the Catholic Church, Antonio Neri began an ambitious treatise, illustrated in his own hand, devoted to "all of alchemy." Six of the illustrations in this manuscript, completed in 1600, show women tending equipment. It is not remarkable that some alchemists of the 16th century were women, what is remarkable is to find them in the historical record. Direct depiction of female participation in alchemy is otherwise extremely rare.



Two pictures in the Neri manuscript show female alchemists at
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 35r.
work. In both cases, the technician stands behind a dedicated piece of apparatus, facing forward, giving the impression of propriety in an arranged portrait. In other words, Neri is drawing his co-workers at their stations, practicing their art. The first drawing depicts a furnace and vessels used to make liquid mercury from its ore. The other shows a different type of furnace with a 'tower,' used as an efficient way to cook ceruse (white lead oxide). These images are part of a larger set of two dozen similar drawings that each illustrate the equipment used to prepare a specific product, many include a furnace and glassware. Nine of these show a single individual, (or in one case two men) tending the equipment. Because the manuscript is a recipe book, it contains almost no personal information. However, the context of these illustrations indicated that like their male counterparts, the individuals depicted all have specific responsibilities and specializations within the workplace.



Three other illustrations in the manuscript are notable for their engagement of women. These pictures show details of kitchen and nursing work; what might be termed more traditional female roles in the sixteenth century. Two of these illustrations are devoted to the respective arts of preparing plants and animals. They show women working alongside men performing various tasks. A third illustration shows medicinal fogging tents tended by a woman. Inside one tent, a male patient sits naked on a bench, exposed and breathing fumes pumped in by a large vessel perched over a fire. Similar arrangements are known to have been used to treat skin lesions caused by leprosy and syphilis.
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 37r.
The circumstances in these images present other possibilities to Antonio Neri's work environment. One is that the scenes take place at the Neri household on Borgo Pinti in Florence. Antonio's father was the personal physician to Ferdinando de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. He was also the head of the college of physicians, and presumably ran a thriving private practice. The women may be Neri's siblings or other family members. 

Another possibility is that we may be looking at operations inside the Casino di San Marco soon after prince Don Antonio de' Medici's occupation of the facility. This palace laboratory had a reputation for medical cures that extended throughout Europe. Don Antonio spent extravagant sums to learn alchemical and medicinal secrets. The glass furnace here, which had employed masters from Venice is where Neri began formulating glass. The presence of women among his colleagues indicates a social setting with a camaraderie not displayed in other alchemical works of the period. 

* This post first appeared here on 17 March 2013 in a slightly different form.