|From Diderot's Encyclopedia, machinery to hammer brass into thin sheets.|
Since then, a number of his formulations have become obsolete or fallen into disuse. This has happened for various reasons, typically because the raw ingredients he used fell out of favor. Many are not easily obtainable or reproducible today. Since the state of industrial chemistry is far ahead of where it was in his time, the basic metal oxides are now simply ordered from a catalog and mixed to produce the maker's specific color palate their customers expect. The result is that many of the shades of color Neri produced have not graced the end of a gaffer's blowpipe for centuries; they certainly could be duplicated today, but there is simply no call to do so.
One of the interesting raw ingredients that he used four hundred years ago is tinsel. Yes, this is the ancient relative of what we still use for holiday decoration. Neri advises, "Take orpiment, also known as tinsel and to save money purchase some that has already been used for decorative wreaths and garland." Tremolante is the specific word he uses; it has the same root as the English "tremulous" and "tremble." In modern Italian, it means to flicker or shimmer. The groundbreaking early dictionary first published by the Florentine Accademia della Crusca in the seventeenth century gives Neri credit for the first use of the term in this context, but if it was a common product, the word must certainly have been in use earlier. To confuse matters, Neri describes tinsel as a kind of "orpiment." (orpello) This term was also used to refer to arsenic sulfide, a highly toxic mineral used as a golden paint pigment, but in this recipe he uses the word only to refer to the golden color of tinsel.
Neri's tinsel was made of brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc. While zinc had been isolated as a pure metal, notably by Paracelsus, Neri knew it only by its oxide which he called zelamina. He cut the tinsel into tiny pieces with a scissors and then 'calcined' it, heating it in a covered crucible among live coals for four days. He was careful not to let it reach a temperature that will melt the metal. He removes it from the fire, grinds it into a black powder, then reheats it for another four days. By the end of Neri’s process both the metals would be oxidized. This product, he tells us, makes a blue color in glass reminiscent of the feathers of the "gazzera marina" bird, "holding the middle between aquamarine and the color of the sky when it is very clear and serene" There are several possibilities for the identity of the gazzera marina, the most likely seems to be the European Roller (Coracias garrulus). It is a species that is known for its striking appearance in flight; its brilliant blue breast contrasts against black flight feathers.
* This post first appeared here 23 May 2014.