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

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Blue Tower

"The Blue Tower" Jozef Linnig 1868.
(click image to enlarge)
There are three known facilities where priest Antonio Neri worked as an alchemist formulating glass in the early seventeenth century; in Florence, Pisa and Antwerp. If he did work elsewhere, it must have been for a relatively short period since his time at these three locations accounts well for his entire career. Of the three, he is known best for his work at the Casino di San Marco, on the north side of Florence. It is also the facility about which the most is known, since its owner was Medici prince, Don Antonio. However, a good argument can be made that the facility in Antwerp, about which much less is known, was the one most influential to his career as a glassmaker.

Neri traveled to Antwerp in early 1604 to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes (Pronounced Se-men-ez), where he stayed for seven years. Ximenes was an international trader (known then as a 'banker') from one of the wealthiest families in Flanders. At the time, Antwerp stood at the center of the bloody Dutch war for independence from Habsburg Spain. The population of the city was a shadow of its former self, after being sacked and burned by Spanish troops a couple of decades earlier in what has become known as "the Spanish Fury." A Dutch blockade of Antwerp's seaports had strangled commerce, but for the ultra-wealthy, life went on.  


"Antwerpen, het Arsenaal" Jan Wildens, 17th Cent.
 In his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, [1] Neri names "the most courteous gentleman Filippo Gridolfi" as the owner of the glass factory in Antwerp. Indeed, records show that Gridolfi was the latest in a long line of owners who had been granted exclusive rights to make the exalted Venetian style glass known as cristallo. Under the management of Gridolfi and his wife Sara Vincx, the luxury glass business thrived. In the 1590s, shortly after their marriage, they employed seventeen Venetian workers. 

The most fashionable street in Antwerp was the Meir. This was the address of  Ximene's palace, as well as of his brother in law, Baron Simon Rodrigues d'Evora, who happened to be the most prestigious diamond dealer and jeweler in the region; he was known locally as "the little king." Gridolfi and Vincx had one, and later a second retail space for their glassware here. The factory and furnaces were located a few blocks away, near the fortress wall that ringed the city. Records indicate it was in a district called  the Hopland, near -- or possibly also in -- a huge structure actually built into the defensive wall around Antwerp. Called the "Blauwe Toren" [Blue Tower] for its blue slate roof, this impressive building had at various times functioned as an armory and a storage facility. In this period, a below street level canal led from the basement of the tower directly to the Meir, in later years the canal was filled in. Just on the other side of the city wall was a mote with access to the network of waterways which connected towns and villages throughout the region; this too was eventually turned into usable real estate when the wall was demolished in the nineteenth century. This situation of the glass production facility makes perfect sense. They needed to bring in heavy materials, ship delicate product and occupy a space which was not in danger of burning down the city should disaster strike. 


Blue Tower, 1860. Edmond Fierlants.
Today the foundations of the Blue Tower are preserved just below street level in a busy traffic square. Over the centuries, surrounding structures came and went. A small number of contemporary depictions do exist. Two illustrations that give a flavor of the neighborhood are shown here. One sketch by Jan Wildens  is not in the best of condition, but shows the tower and a few nearby structures from canal level in the seventeenth century. This might well have been typical of the view from a barge making deliveries. The factory would need a steady supply of pure quartz river stones used to make the exceptionally clear cristallo glass. A second view by Jozef Linnig, shows the neighborhood more clearly albeit in 1868. By then a furniture maker was located to the left of the tower, and another structure stood where the canal once was. Also of interest is an early photograph of the tower before it was demolished.

What we know of Neri's experiences in glassmaking come mostly from his book. His activities in Florence included making aquamarine colored glass for beadmaking and chalcedony glass with its multicolored swirls. In Pisa, he made emerald green, pimpernel green and celestial blue glass, he experimented with enamels, constructed a frit kiln and made glass using fern plants. From his early glassmaking activity in Florence, Neri seems to build momentum in Pisa. In these two locations combined he spends at most four years, in Antwerp he spend seven years, and there is no indication that he was slowing down, in fact quite the opposite. There he made artificial gems, a "beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished." He tinted rock crystal "the colors of balas, ruby, topaz, opal and girasol." He "built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors" He made ultramarine, the deep blue pigment valued by painters more highly than gold. Finally in 1609, in Antwerp, at Gridolfi's shop he made "the most beautiful chalcedony that I have ever made in my life" and presented two vessels of this glass to the prince of Orange.

[1] Neri 1612.
* This post first appeared here on 1 October 2014.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni di Cosimo I de' Medici
In July of 1621, a man lay dying in his bed, in his palazzo on Murano, the glassmaker's island in Venice. This fifty-four year old had recently become a father and his wife Livia was expecting a second child, but the tumor in his throat meant he would not see his two year-old son Gianfrancesco Maria grow up, nor would he live to hold his yet unborn daughter in his arms. His death would also trigger a series of unanticipated ugly events. Don Giovanni de' Medici was the son of Grand Duke Cosimo I and Eleonora degli Albizzi. He had been general of the Venetian army and before that led Tuscan troops in Flanders, France, Hungary and served as ambassador in Madrid. But he was far more than a soldier; he was an architect who helped design the Chapel of Princes in Florence, he was a strong patron of the arts and he was a devoted alchemist. He plays a somewhat tangential role in the life of glassmaker Antonio Neri, yet their paths cross repeatedly through common associates, interests and locations.

Don Giovanni's palazzo on Murano was the grandest on the island; previously owned by the father of Grand Duchess of Tuscany Bianca Cappello. She spent time at the palazzo as a child and was the mother of Antonio Neri's sponsor, Don Antonio de' Medici. King Henry III of France stayed there on his tour of glass factories on the island. Later, the palace would be the residence of the bishop of Torcello and ultimately, in 1861, became what it is today: the famous Museum of Glass (Museo del Vetro).[1]  If, in the winter of 1603-4, Neri followed the route through Venice to Antwerp suggested by his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, then a visit to this palazzo would have certainly been in order, although not yet occupied by Don Giovanni.

Early in his career, in the 1590s, Don Giovanni commanded troops against the Ottomans in Hungary and his young nephew Don Antonio was directly under his command. The two men would both set up alchemy laboratories in their respective Florentine residences; Don Antonio in the Casino di San Marco on the north side of town and Don Giovanni at his Casino del Parione (today the Palazzo Corsini al Parione) along the Arno River behind the Santa Trinita Church. Don Giovanni's was only steps away from Antonio Neri's residence, the palazzo Bartolini,  after his ordination. Santa Trinita was a Benedictine church and the office of yet another alchemy enthusiast: Vallombrosan Abbot-General Orazio Morandi. It is unknown if Neri had any association with this church, but Morandi wrote that times spent in Don Giovanni's laboratory were among his "most cherished memories." Much later, in 1630, Morandi gave testimony at court concerning a Simon Carlo Rondinelli, saying: 
I have known Signor Rondinelli for twenty years, from the time I was in Florence. I met him often there in the house of Alessandro de’ Neri. The said Rondinelli is very well versed in astrology.[2]
The timing places Morandi in the Neri family house when Antonio's younger brother, Alessandro (who had inherited the house), was twenty-one years old. It was shortly before Antonio's return from Antwerp.

While Neri was in Antwerp visiting his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, Don Antonio was leading Tuscan troops nearby, in Flanders, on the side of the Spanish against the Dutch independence movement. Nevertheless, he found time to submit his design for the Chapel of Princes in Florence, and to quarry marble for the project and have it shipped back to Tuscany. It is unknown if Neri and Don Giovanni ever shared a meal in Antwerp, but the decorated soldier/polymath did commission a series of paintings there, for the grand duke, to be hung in the new Medici villa 'La Ferdinanda' at Artemino in Prato. The interior decoration of the public spaces in this villa were being executed by artists Passignano and Poccetti, fresh from finishing their recent collaborative masterpieces; the Neri Chapel and Cestello church on Borgo Pinti, financed by Neri's late father.

[1] For a full  treatment of the history of the Palazzo, see Canal 1909 in the Bibliography (to the right).
[2] Translation by Brendan Dooley “Morandi's last prophecy and the end of Renaissance politics” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), p. 22.
*This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on September 25, 2013.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Art and Science

Jacopo Ligozzi,1518,  fanciful glass vessels,
ink and watercolor on paper.
Antonio Neri's writing on glassmaking and alchemy was distinguished from that of many contemporary authors in that his work was all deeply rooted in hands-on experience. He worked in the early 17th century, when art and science were different sides of the same endeavour to understand the world. His contemporaries were often content to repeat century's old teachings about the four Aristotelian elements; that chemical interactions could be explained through an analysis of the balance between hot and cold, dry and wet. But more and more, these notions were being discarded and replaced. It is common to cite the invention of instruments, and other technical developments; these factors certainly did contribute to advancement. But many different forces worked toward the emergence of early modern science, and one in particular is so obvious that it is easily overlooked: artists.

Working with hot glass was a profession in which attention to nature was essential: artists did not have the luxury of fanciful explanations of physical processes. They were obliged by their work to learn the ways glass mixed, moved and behaved in the furnace, not as they imagined it should, but as it actually did. The only way to achieve the complex forms and vessels for which master glassblowers were renowned was through long experience. Failure to understand the glass and predict its properties accurately resulted in failure of the piece.


Neri was immersed in this environment and the same principles applied to his own work in formulating the glass. Ancient theories had little value if they did not accurately predict nature. Like the glass artists, the way forward for Neri was careful attention and hands-on experience. He learned the value of starting with highly purified ingredients for his glass melts. He learned that too much glass salt resulted in a putrid 'gall' that would need to be skimmed off the molten surface. Substituting salts made from fern plants, for the Kali based ones from the Levant, produced a more lustrous glass, yet it stiffened more quickly for the glassblowers.


A glass artist's work also serves as a kind of narrative. For those familiar with the techniques, a finished piece of glass work can be 'read' like a story: The handles were put on last, before that, perhaps a thin bead of color was applied to the lip of the vessel. And the work started as a blown bubble of glass, shaped and opened with special tools. Each step is an insight into the artist's technique, but also into the way nature itself operates. Each motion was a well practiced negotiation between the artist and the properties of the material.


On one hand, an artist's job was to produce objects contemplated for their physical beauty and cultural significance. On the other hand, the act of producing these objects created an environment where accurate reasoning flourished. By collecting artists and employing them together, the Medici rulers of Tuscany were creating a cauldron effect where experiences collected, stewed and nature's secrets unraveled.


* This post first appeared here on 23 October 2013.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Art of Metals

Fig. 1: Antonio Neri, "Ars Preparatio Metallor[um]"
in Tesoro del Mondo, f. 8r.
(click to enlarge)
Recently we examined another of a set of four illustrations drawn by priest Antonio Neri in a manuscript started in 1598.[1] They show various "arts" being practiced involving items found in nature; plants, animals, stone and today's subject: metals. 

Metals and their chemical manipulation concern Neri's work both as a glassmaker and as an alchemist. Most of the colorful pigments he uses in his glassmaking derive from metals; white from tin, green from iron, red from copper and gold, blue from cobalt, although Neri knew this last one only as a mineral called "zaffer." As an alchemist, metals were the subject of medicinal cures and of course were the focus of transmutation—the quest to turn one metal into another. In another manuscript written towards the end of his life, he indicates that he spent time in mines, where it was thought that metals "grew" underground as "veins" which nourished the earth. [2]

After an examination of Neri's "Art of Preparing Metals" we will take a look at another picture on the same subject, this time a painting titled the "Goldsmith's Workshop" by Alessandro Fei. It was executed a few years before Antonio was born, but bears some remarkable similarities in subject matter.

First, the manuscript illustration (fig. 1): At center left, we see a special furnace construction which the label tells us is for "reverberation and calcination." Two crucibles sit inside, exposed to the heat. These are both procedures with which Neri was quite familiar. In the recipes of his glassmaking book, L'Arte Vetraria, [3] he speaks numerous times about what was called "calcination"—the reduction of a metal into what is usually a powdered oxide form. [4] This was a fundamental operation in producing the pigments for glass. "Reverberation" was exposing a material to secondary heat reflected from the inner walls of the furnace chamber; it was a more even heat than that produced by a direct flame.

Above the reverberation furnace is a foundry furnace, used for melting metals. Because of the high temperatures that needed to be achieved, it has a large bellows attached to force air into the fire causing a "blast" effect, which causes the fire to burn faster and hotter. Resting on the hearth is a long pair of pincers used to insert and remove crucibles of molten metal.

To the right, we see a curious arrangement of two glass retorts, each feeding into the other. They sit on purpose built stoves. The chimneys are capped by dome shaped dampers to control the draft and paddle mechanisms in front regulate heat under the glassware. A worker tends the apparatus, and the caption below reads "for extraction of the quintessence." Neri's other writing makes plain that this "quintessence" was a material that exhibits such a harmonious blending of the four essences: air, water, fire and earth that a new fifth essence (supposedly) emerged with extraordinary properties. To the right is a similar stove set-up with a single retort which is labeled "distilling." This station might have been used in preparation of the acids needed to purify metals.

At lower right, a blacksmith is hammering a piece of iron into a sword on an anvil. High-carbon "steel" was being made and used in the Medici court at the time, and that may well be what the smith is working with. Around him are several examples of his art, including two finished swords, a large copper bowl or cauldron, and a covered drinking stein made of tin.

To his left, we find a goldsmith, also hammering on an anvil, fashioning a silver platter. Displayed behind him are a variety of his handiwork, including more platters, gold necklaces and crosses and other ornamentation. A number of tools hang along the bottom of the anvil station, and behind it a small dog is curled up on the floor. 


Fig 2: Alessandro Fei (Barbieri)
"Goldsmith's Workshop" c. 1572.
About twenty-five years before Neri wrote his manuscript, Alessandro Fei painted a similar picture (fig. 2). Here we are treated to a view of a royal foundry housed in the yet to be completed Uffizi palace. [5] There is a remarkable concordance between this painting and Neri's illustration, right down to a small dog, hanging around the goldsmith's bench. 

The central figure of the painting is  Francesco de' Medici, seated in the foreground, inspecting his father's gold crown at a workbench. The dog is playfully engaging with the future Grand Duke, while on the opposite side of the bench, two other men are amiably discussing their work, perhaps silver chasing.To the left of Francesco, a younger man examines a gold ewer in the company of an older goldsmith seated across the table. The artisan is wearing spectacles and (although it is hard to see) he holds a small hammer in his hand. A worker to Francesco’s right is also intently engaged in his work. In the right mid-ground we find a small furnace with a tall chimney leading upward. On the mantle are displayed a number of gold and silver items, including platters, vessels and chains or necklaces. To the left, four men are busy seated around a large workbench. Behind that group, toward the center of the picture, are two men working at an anvil and three more at another bench on the right, accompanied by a second small dog. In an enclosed area in the background we see two large open furnace hearths, with their fireboxes glowing from underneath and men working in close proximity. In the far left background is a group entering the work area, including a figure in a yellow cape accompanied by a third dog.

The one element present in Neri's illustration that is missing in the painting is the glassware. Metalwork was a venerated and mature art long before Neri's era, which is underlined by the similarity of the two scenes, even though they are a quarter century apart, the tools, equipment and work methods are identical for all intents and purposes. There is no doubt that chemistry and distillation apparatus were used by the earlier metals artisans, the fact that Neri chose to emphasize this aspect of the work is a clear indication of his own interest and a foreshadowing of his future involvement in the production of the glass itself.

[1] Neri 1598-1600.
[2] Neri 1613, Grazzini 2012. 
[3] Neri 1612.
[4] In several of Neri's glass recipes the result of "calcination" is a sulfide.
[5] Beretta, 2014.
(Bibliography)
*This post first appeared here on 17 September 2014.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Alchemy of Plants

Antonio Neri, Tesoro del Mondo, f. 9r.
"Arts Preparatio frugu vel Piantar."
In a 1598 manuscript devoted to "all of alchemy", Antonio Neri singled out four particular practices, each of which he made the subject of a detailed illustration. Each is devoted to a different "art"; preparing animals, stone/minerals, plants and metals. The manuscript was produced over a period of two years starting when he was just twenty-two years old. He began writing shortly after his ordination as priest and the work was completed before he was employed making glass for the royal Medici family in Florence. 

Neri is best known for writing the first printed book of glassmaking recipes, so we might expect to find that subject covered in the early manuscript, but nothing appears aside from a single recipe for artificial ruby which makes use of glass. Indeed, the general conclusion of historians is that his involvement in making glass did not start until 1600 or 1601. Absent of any direct citation of that art, the manuscript does show a familiarity with the kind of individual skills required. Among the things Neri would need to know was the ability to make "glass salt" from certain dried plants. Presently we will look into the third of the illustrations mentioned above, which he titled "The Art of Preparing Fruits or Plants." [1] All of the activities depicted here relate to food and drink, yet they could easily be applied toward other purposes.

While there is scant reference to glass in the text, the pictures are filled with examples of specialized vessels for chemical production and investigation. From these figures we know Neri at least received an exposure to the glassmaking profession earlier. He must have started his training in alchemy as a teenager while still studying for the priesthood. This is not hard to imagine since his father was the chief physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and would have a strong grounding in alchemical techniques for producing medicines. Indeed, the first sentence of Antonio's 1612 book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, begins: "I have spent years of my youth laboring around the glassmaking craft, and experimented with many fine and marvelous effects." [2]

At center-left of the illustration at hand, we see a male farmer holding a flail, perhaps going about the business of threshing wheat, which appears in a bale behind him. Figuring prominently above the farmer (upper left) is a large mechanical apparatus that appears to be a gristmill powered by a waterwheel. A conical bag feeds grain or possibly corn from above into the central hole of a horizontal grinding stone supported by a large rectangular box. We can easily imagine that the gears shown on the front of the box control the drive or the gap between the stones. Wheat, of course, was an ancient well established staple. Corn was introduced as a direct result of Columbus' voyage to Cuba and by Neri's time, corn was being widely cultivated throughout southern Europe, northern Africa, and even as far as China.

Returning to the illustration, on the immediate left of the mill is a woman, who we can guess, is fashioning rolls or small loaves of bread from dough made with flour from the mill. Below her, (center right) is a boy using a long paddle to put the balls of dough into a baking oven. In effect, Neri is showing us the full chain of events from harvesting to finished baked goods. 

Further down, another woman works over a large basket of herbs, which appear destined for three large glassware stills to her right. In his book, Neri presents numerous recipes for extracting paint pigments from flowers using similar methods.

At the bottom of the illustration, a third woman stands in a large wooden tub crushing grapes with her bare feet, as grape juice runs into a pan on the right. To her left are three wine barrels standing side-by-side. 

For us, the connection to alchemy might seem tenuous with the possible exception of the distilling stations. For Neri, there was a deep lesson here about the way nature works; in his later manuscript Discorso, he uses the growth of grain as a metaphor for "multiplying" the "seeds" of gold inherent in primordial material left over from the creation of the world. 
This is confirmed by the example of seeds, of which a single grain is capable of producing a hundred or a thousand, as long as you sow them in a commensurate place. Take the further example of fermentation, in which one small part is sufficient to ferment a large mass. Nor is it contradictory to say that the metals do not produce seeds, like herbs and plants, because even though nature by itself has no power to take the seed out of gold, however, aided and encouraged by art, [nature] will do that which it does not do by itself. So that art begins where nature ends, and art will perfect the seed, which in gold is merely begun. [3] 
Given knowledge of how to work in harmony with nature and bring about the right conditions, he was convinced that a small quantity of material could be converted into a large amount of precious metal. The illustration on the art of preparing plants simply showed a different manifestation of the same principle; he is showing how grain multiplies in the fertile earth, it is then transformed through the addition of water and fire into nourishment.

[1] Neri 1598–1600, f. 9r.
[2] Neri 1612, p. ii.
[3] Grazzini 2012, p. 454, (Neri, 1613).
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 10 Sept 2014.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Top Physician

Frontispiece from Ricettario Fiorentino 1597 ed.
In 1580, when Antonio Neri was four years old, just after the birth of his brother Vincenzio, both his father and grandfather were together granted full Florentine citizenship by Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici. In Tuscany, citizen status was an honor conferred to a small fraction of the population and often through inheritance at around the age of thirty. The fact that Neri Neri gained citizenship at the age of forty and did so together with his father, Jacopo, shows it was not legacy, but perhaps their medical prowess that lead to the award. Antonio's father was a celebrated physician, and his grandfather was a well regarded barber surgeon. This period also corresponds to the first appearance of the unique coat of arms that distinguish this branch of the family. The same arms adorn the central panel of the vestibule ceiling at the Neri's residence. Citizen status bestowed the advantage of direct representation in the government and the right to hold public office. It also carried responsibilities to the city, to its leaders and to the Church. One requirement of citizenship was possession of a domicile within Florence. The baptism register listed Antonio and all of his siblings as residents of San Pier Maggiore parish long before the citizenship grant. However, it is in the 1580s that we see the first reference to Neri Neri's ownership of the palazzo at what is now 27 Borgo Pinti. 

Within a few years, Antonio's father's work on cures for paralysis were published. By the end of the decade he was appointed personal physician to the new grand duke, Ferdinando de' Medici, and to the royal family. The 1590's saw Antonio taking vows, and beginning his career in the Church. The road to priesthood ran on a parallel track to an apprenticeship in a trade. The completion of a trial period led to becoming a novice at the age of sixteen, then deacon and finally priest at around twenty-two. Meanwhile, Antonio's father, along with another doctor and two apothecaries was chosen by the entire Florentine College of Physicians to revise and update the famed Ricettario Fiorentino.[1] This book was the gold standard of doctors and pharmacists in Tuscany and throughout much of Europe. The Ricettario was an official reference for medicinal cures and prescriptions. The law required every apothecary to own a copy and to supply its listed formulas to customers. Many regard this volume as the first European pharmacopoeia. It was a systematic standardization of drug recipes and dosages. Throughout the Medici reign, updated editions appeared as knowledge progressed. The book is a major landmark in the history of medicine. The edition authored by Neri's father and colleagues, in 1597, proved so popular that in 1621 it was reissued without change.

There can be no doubt that Antonio's father and his work had a profound influence on the priest. In the introduction to his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria,[2] he proclaims his desire to publish his own work on chemical and medical [spagyric] arts, saying "I believe there is no greater thing in nature in the service of humanity." In his recipes he uses the terminology of physicians; adding chemicals in 'doses' and measuring 'ana' (in equal parts). In a 1608 letter to a friend, [3] Antonio describes his great success with medicinal cures of Paracelsus, "to the great wonderment of Antwerp." The priest also references experiments he carried out in Brussels and at the Hospital of Malines. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, medicine would continue to be practiced in the Neri family for generations to come. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2]Neri 1612.
[3]Neri 1608.
This post was first published here in a slightly different form on 16 October 2013.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Lixiviation

Salsola Kali plant,
used in Mediterranean glassmaking
in the 17th century.
A long time ago, perhaps as long ago as the Stone Age, our ancestors discovered that mixing water with the ashes from the previous night's fire makes a good washing-up liquid. Not the solids, but what dissolves in the water forms a mildly caustic lye solution. It cleans dirty hands, and oily hair. The more concentrated the lye, the more pronounced the cleansing effect. When the solids are strained out and the liquid is evaporated, left behind is a crystalline salt known as potash. This process of extracting the soluble components of charred plant material is known as lixiviation. Potash had several applications in the ancient world that played a critical role in the advancement of civilization. Mix potash with tallow (rendered animal fat) and you have soap, spread it on your fields and you have a good fertilizer, put it in a very hot furnace with powdered sand, and you have glass. In simple everyday human activity, we see the roots of modern chemistry. The English word ‘potash’ is derived directly from the process described above: made in a pot with plant ash. It lends its name to the chemical element potassium, a major constituent and a key ingredient for many glass recipes.

Besides potassium, plant ash can also contain significant quantities of sodium, magnesium and calcium. They occur in different amounts depending on the species and on its habitat. Plants are literally composed of the nutrients in the soil from which they grow. Mineral compounds that dissolve in water are brought in through the roots and become part of the plant. In northern European forests, salt from the ash of oak and beech trees and fern plants was used for potassium glass as far back as the middle ages. In the more arid Mediterranean regions, scrub vegetation from the coastal marshes made both sodium and potassium glass, namely with the soda and kali plants. The soda plant lends its name to sodium and the kali plant lends its name to a group of chemical elements, which we now call the alkali group. Of these two plants, salsola soda is high in sodium and very low in potassium, salsola kali is more equal between the two. The high sodium carbonate content of the soda plant and a few other species is unusual, but soda accounts for most glass made, even today. Most other plants are potassium rich. 

To make glass, the material was lixiviated: boiled, filtered, purified and dried. The raw plant material was lightly charred to reduce moisture content; this prevented rotting and reduced volume and weight significantly for shipping. Neri experimented with the ash of many other plants as well and he does not hesitate to mix salt from different sources to achieve a desired effect. He found suitable glass salts can be made from ferns, blackberries, broad bean (fava) husks, cabbage, thorn bushes, millet, rush and marsh reeds. What Neri did not know was that virtually all of these plants produced a salt that was heavily laden with potassium. Potash glass has a fundamentally different character than soda glass. He knew quite well that fern glass had a different workability and appearance from soda glass, but he was over a century too early to understand why. Highly purified, potash glass sparkles in the light more than soda glass. It is denser, giving better refraction of light, yet it is also more difficult to work since it stiffens quickly on the blowpipe.

* This post first appeared here on 29 September 2014.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Band of Alchemists

"The Alchemist" 1558, Pieter Brugle the Elder.
(Click to enlarge.)
Mention the word 'alchemist' and the images that spring to mind are likely the same ones that have been around for centuries. Perhaps you will imagine something like Pieter Brugle’s 1558 depiction; a fool, whose head is filled with fantasies of conjuring gold. He spends all his earnings on exotic chemicals while his children go shoeless, the cupboard goes bare and his family starves. No? Then perhaps a more classical rendition; a white bearded mystic stirring a cauldron in a deserted castle, summoning unearthly forces, bending the will of nature.    

It is true that outlandish characters like these have existed, but as a fringe element at best.  For every secluded wizard or "get rich quick" schemer there were many more alchemists who lived otherwise unremarkable lives and went to work every day. They interacted with colleagues and used their knowledge to provide valuable services like making painter's pigments or medicines or refining metals. Seventeenth century glassmaker and Catholic priest Antonio Neri fell into the latter category. Another departure from the typical caricature of alchemy is that it was very much a plural endeavor; it was practiced not primarily in isolation but by well connected networks of people, at least in late sixteenth century Florence.
Anibal and Martin

Neri's father was the chief physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and as such probably had something to do with Antonio's education and with the position that he landed in Florence at the renowned "Casino di San Marco," the laboratory of Medici prince Don Antonio, inherited from his father grand duke Francesco. Even before his prestigious appointment, Neri wrote an illustrated manuscript in which he shows a number of young men and some women his own age working at the business of alchemy. A few of them are identified by name and must have been Antonio’s friends: Anibal, Martin, Hiroem and Pietro. [1] 
Female alchemist depicted in Neri's
"Tesoro del Mondo"

The female alchemists depicted in the manuscript are not specifically identified, but a strong possibility is that they were nuns from one of the nearby convents. These facilities often maintained their own pharmacies and ran cottage industries that produced and sold goods to raise funds. Alchemy practiced by women is an area of study which still needs much research, but it is known that convents used alchemical techniques to distill their own medicinal remedies and produced their own paint pigments. The famous painter Suor Plautilla Nelli resided in the Dominican convent across the street from the Medici's Casino laboratory. Sculptor Suor Caterina Eletta was a nun at the same convent around Neri's time and was the daughter of Stefano Rosselli, the royal apothecary, another profession steeped in alchemy. Her uncle Fra Anselmo ran the Dominican's apothecary at San Marco, literally a few steps from the laboratory's front door. Suor Caterina was surrounded by relatives deeply involved in alchemy, how could she not be familiar with the subject?

At Don Antonio's laboratory, the Casino di San Marco, or the Royal Foundry as it also became known, Neri worked closely with Agnolo della Casa, another Florentine of the same age. In fact, all three men, Neri, Della Casa and Don Antonio were all born within a year of each other around 1576. Della Casa took notes on Antonio Neri's experiments in Florence over a period that spanned more than a decade. He filled literally thousands of pages. Much of this material is devoted to transmutation and the philosophers stone, both were subjects dear to Don Antonio de' Medici, their boss. The notebooks also indicate a lively correspondence with other chemical experimenters around Italy and wider Europe. Neri himself carried on a correspondence with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes who lived in Antwerp, a city that would become Antonio's home for seven years. 

The network of alchemy in Florence reached outwards to other experimenters and it also reached forward in time. Knowledge was passed from one generation to the next by schooling children in the art. From another branch of Della Casa's family came two brothers, Ottavio (1596) and Jacinto (Giacinto) Talducci della Casa (1601).  As youngsters they were said to have learned alchemy at the knee of Don Antonio. A century later, historian Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti chronicled that these boys would go on to serve Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici  and continue the work by directing the Real Fonderia when, after Don Antonio's death, it was moved from the Casino to the Boboli Gardens. Ottavio would become director of the Royal Foundry. [2]  
Jacinto Talducci Della Casa

Jacinto became a parish priest a few kilometers east of Florence, but he was pressed back into service as an alchemist after his brother died. He succeeded Ottavio as director of the Royal Foundry under Francesco Redi. Little is known about Jacinto's contributions to chemistry, but it must have been a remarkable life. He saw the germ of experimentalism really take hold; it would continue to grow and become the basis of our own modern science. Jacinto died in 1700 at the age of 99, he was the last surviving member of Don Antonio's band of alchemists and quite likely the last living soul to have personally met Antonio Neri.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 22r, 23r, 24r.
[2] Targioni-Tozzetti 1780, p. 127. Don Antonio de' Medici died in 1621.
* This post first appeared here on 26 September 2014.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Deadly Fumes

Memento mori, 1605.
Nikolaus Alexander  Mair von Landshut.
17th century glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri handled very dangerous materials on a daily basis. He used strong acids, which if splattered could easily burn flesh, or cause blindness. He handled poisonous compounds containing arsenic, mercury and lead. If ingested, or inhaled as fumes these materials caused progressive, irreversible damage to internal organs and especially to the nervous system. There is no question that Neri did take chances with his health, but he was not naive. He knew very well many of the potential dangers and others he could well imagine. In chapter 74 of his book L'Arte Vetraria, he describes a way to tint rock crystal with beautiful colors. He wrote: 
Take orpiment of that really tawny orange-yellow color and pulverize 2 ounces of this along with 2 ounces of powdered crystalline arsenic, 1 ounce of pulverized crude antimony, and 1 ounce of sal ammoniac. […] Perform this entire operation under a large chimney to draw the fumes out of the room. These fumes are not only harmful but also quite deadly. Return to see if the coals have died down, because for the work to come out nicely, they must be burning well and full. For the remainder, leave and let the fire run its course with no one in the room with the work, for it is dangerous; the harsh materials will smoke quite a bit. Leave it to finish all fuming by itself and then extinguish the fire and spread the coals.[1]
In the spring of 1603, Neri was working in Pisa and became seriously ill. The specific cause and symptoms of his ailment are not known. He could have been harmed by one of his own experiments, or just as easily fallen prey to an infection or one of many other maladies prevalent in the early seventeenth century. He postponed his planned visit to Antwerp in order to recuperate. Finally, on 2 May 1603, his friend Emmanuel Ximenes wrote: "Praise God that your indisposition has ended ... if the Pisan air is suited to your recovery then do not change it." [2]

In the winter of 1603-4 Neri embarked on what would become a seven-year-long visit to his friend's palace in Antwerp. There, he would learn many new techniques, and ultimately have special glass vessels made and presented to Philip William, Prince of Orange. Upon his return to Tuscany in 1611, he sat down to write the book for which he is most remembered, L'Arte Vetraria. Two years after publication, in 1614, the priest would be dead. According to the only known account, printed over two centuries later by Francesco Inghirami.
Meanwhile, Neri became gravely ill, so he called the prince to come to him, having the promised the secret [of the philosophers stone]. But the Medici, who was in the countryside, took too much time; the patient died before the prince could be with him. Don Antonio was not quieted and he questioned all of Neri’s friends to see if he could find the information, but his efforts were in vain, as they should be in so groundless a science, although Giacinto Salducci [sic.] said that he had seen great things, specifically a powder that fixed mercury into gold. [3]

[1] Neri 1612, ch. 74.
[2] Ximenes 1601–11, also see Zecchin 1987–89, v. 1, pp. 165–169.
[3] Inghirami 1841–44,v. 13, pp. 457–458 probably based on Targioni-Tozzetti  189.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form on 30 October 2013.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Discovery of Glass

Giovan Maria Butteri,
"The Discovery of Glass"
Studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici
Any self-respecting Roman historian living in the first century could tell you the story that glass was first discovered by Phoenician sailors. They were temporarily grounded at the bay of Haifa, near the Belus River, in the shadow of Mount Carmel, forced ashore by a storm. Needing to eat, they improvised a fire on the beach in order to cook their food. Using natron, a mineral they were carrying as cargo on the ship, they built up a stove. To their amazement, in the heat of the fire, the natron mixed with the beach sand started to melt and liquid glass trickled out.

Actually, starting with Pliny the Elder, the author of most famous version of this story, skepticism abounds about how much of it was true. Nevertheless, if we gently tease apart the loose threads of this yarn we find that it is not without substance. First, there is the location; not just any port in a storm, this region was the site of a thriving glass industry as early as the sixth century BCE, due to the exceptional, pure white sand at the outlet of the Belus river. Archaeologists have excavated ancient glass furnaces at the nearby cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Next, the sodium carbonates in natron do indeed form glass when mixed with fine sand and brought to a high temperature, but this takes strong, concentrated heat, likely more than could be provided by a cook's beach fire. Natron is a hydroscopic mineral – this means it pulls moisture out of the surrounding environment. The water is locked into its solid crystal structure, where it remains until it is released either chemically or through heat. Natron can hold a remarkable amount of water, up to two-thirds of its weight. This is why it was used extensively to preserve mummies in Egypt; it dried out the bodies, quickly preserving them. While the story of the Phoenician sailors deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, it is also easy to see how the decomposition of the natron in the fire, resulting in the release of briny liquor, might be misinterpreted as glass.

In the early 1600s glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri published the first printed book of glass recipes, and in his introduction he too recounts the tale. However, in Neri's telling, natron does not make an appearance. Instead, the sailors use 'kali,' a coastal plant that is rich in alkali salts, to fuel their fire. The salts in kali are substantially similar to natron and, according to the story, triggered a similar result. In this period, Kali ash was a well-known ingredient in glass making. Neri used it in his own recipes, so the substitution is not surprising, but in this respect, Neri's version of the story does appear to be unique in the literature. It is interesting to note that Lodovico Domenichi, who was good friends with Neri's grandfather, tells a version of this story in his Italian translation of Pliny's Natural History. Here the sailors use natron, but in the next paragraph, Domenichi describes how local natives later used the plants to make their own glass.

The above depiction of the discovery of glass was painted by Butteri, one of a select group of painters for the Medici court in Florence. The work was commissioned to hang in the secret "studiolo" of Francesco de' Medici, a concealed barrel vaulted room tucked under a staircase in the Palazzo Vecchio in the early 1570's. It was only accessible through secret passages, one leading from Francesco's bed chamber. Another led from the chamber to an unmarked door on the street and a third passage led from the chamber to the secret treasury room once used by his father, Grand Duke Cosimo I. The walls and ceiling were entirely filled with paintings, the lower ones concealing cabinets full of oddities of nature, precious gems, coins, alchemical concoctions, and other treasures. Presumably, the cabinet behind Butteri's "Discovery of glass" would house some of the intricate Venetian glass vessels for which the craftsmen of Murano had become world famous. Shortly before the room was completed, a small number of these glass masters were allowed to teach their secrets in Florence by special arrangement with the Venetian government.

This post first appeared in a shorter form here on 9 October 2013.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

17th Century Lapidary

Antonio Neri, Tesoro del Mondo, 1598-1600
f. 7v, "Ars Preparatio Lapidum"
In 1598, in his early twenties, before his glassmaking career began, Antonio Neri completed an extraordinary manuscript. Tesoro del Mondo or 'Treasure of the World' was devoted to all aspects of alchemy and was intended for publication, but it never saw a printer's ink. By a minor miracle of providence, the manuscript survives today, in the special collections department of the University of Glasgow Library. The pages include a set of fascinating images, this one (left) among them.   Labeled "The Art of Preparing Stone," the picture shows five men working with various pieces of equipment related to the art. [1]

In the upper-left a lapidary works at a polishing wheel. It turns at low speed, driven by a belt which is powered from below, possibly by a foot pedal. The artisan holds two polishing fixtures against the surface of the disk, while four more stand at the end of the table. Under this workstation is an inscription in Italianate Latin that reads "Accontiare et lustrare pietre praciose" [preparing/dressing and polishing precious stones]. Behind the lapidary are shelves holding finished pieces. They range from small objects that appear to be rings, to cups, vessels and large bowls, presumably all made from stones, gems or minerals. 

Proceeding clockwise to the upper-right side of the image, we arrive at a worker tending a furnace with iron tools. Inside is a crucible sitting in the flames. Below is the firebox, and underneath that is the word "Calcinare" [calcination], which in Neri's parlance refers to the process of breaking down a material into a powder usually through the use of heat. Neri uses this method extensively in his glass formulations; in his book L'Arte Vetraria, [2] almost every colorant discussed is a metal which requires "calcination" before use in the glass melt. In the case of stone, Neri uses the furnace to make the main ingredient of glass. He breaks down quartz stones into powder by repeatedly heating them and then quenching in cold clean water. The rocks fracture into coarse granules which are then ground into a fine powder.

The middle-right of the illustration shows a worker checking on a distilling apparatus. This consists of a small stove and three pieces of glassware.  The "body" holding the raw material to be evaporated or sublimated is capped by a "head" that sports a long snout leading to a "receiver" vessel which collects the finished product.  Stills were useful in producing everything from alcoholic spirits like grappa to acids and reagents. Their specific use in stonework is not clear, possibly in dissolving precious metals from the constituent minerals in stone.

The lower-right portion of the image depicts two men seated at a low bench, each holding specialized tools used to shape "alabaster, marble and porphyry." Finally, in the lower-left we see a specialized mortar and pestle used to grind stone and minerals into a fine powder.

The two benches and the distilling stove all bear a distinctive diamond shaped insignia with a small circle at its center. The two men in the lower portion of the illustration appear to be working on a stone inlay version of this same pattern.  The implication is of an identifying symbol, but a specific affiliation is elusive.

 This technique of creating designs entirely in colorful gems and minerals (pietre dure) is an ancient one revived by the Medici family, specifically by its first three grand dukes.  In the 1560s Cosimo de' Medici employed two such artisans (commessi) in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. By the 1570s a larger group was working out of Francesco de' Medici's new palace, the Casino di San Marco. In 1588 Ferdinando de' Medici moved them into the Galleria dei Lavori [Gallery of Works] at the Uffizi Palace where they were named the "Opificio delle Pietre Dure." [workshop of hard-stone]  There the organization thrived and refined the art of creating inlaid stonework to the point of producing realistic life-like scenes. Their work graces the most opulent spaces in Florence, including the Chapel of Princes and the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Opificio delle Pietre Dure continues to operate to this day. The organization has been charged with the maintenance and conservation of many of Italy's great works of art. They maintain a worldwide reputation for excellence. [3]

It seems well within the realm of possibility that Neri's illustration indeed depicts an early incarnation of the Opificio. The artisans working in Pietre dure were handling precious materials and as such might not be readily accessible to the general public. The fact that Antonio Neri's father was a prestigious member of the Medici royal court all but ensured his entree to the royal workshops.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, f. 7v.
[2] Neri 1612.
[3] Official website: www.opificiodellepietredure.it/
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 3 Sept 2014.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Alchemy in the Kitchen

Tesoro del Mondo, "Ars Preparatio Animalium"
Antonio Neri 1598-1600, f. 10r (MS Ferguson 67).
Between 1598 and 1600, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript filled with alchemical recipes. He entitled it Tesoro del Mondo or "Treasure of the World" and stated that it was a book in draft form, intended for publication. It never did see the ink of a printer's press, but Neri's original did survive intact and today occupies a place of pride in the Ferguson Collection of the University of Glasgow Library. [1]

Tesoro is an ambitious work, devoted to "all of alchemy," containing numerous hand-drawn ink and watercolor illustrations; some of the pictures are allegorical, many others document practitioners working with equipment. Only passing reference is made in this manuscript to glass—its most notable appearance is as experimental vessels. 1598 was two or three years before Antonio's glassmaking career is thought to have started. His life was busy on other fronts. He had just been ordained as a Catholic Priest, undergoing the laying on of hands ceremony, probably by his neighbor on Borgo Pinti, the Florentine archbishop Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici. 1598 was also a year of tragedy for the Neri family; by the summer, his father Neri Neri, personal physician to the grand duke, died of an unknown illness, but not before making arrangements for his family, which included a will. A court magistrate would oversee the now orphaned children's education, inheritance and dowries. They would soon suffer further tragedy in the unexpected death of a brother; sixteen year-old Emilio would leave them on Christmas day of the following year, in Castello outside Florence. 

The losses must have been devastating. In 1598, five of the nine children were still under the age of twenty. Without a mother or father, great responsibility must have fallen on the shoulders of the matriarch of the house, the children's elderly paternal grandmother Maddalena. [2] Even though the Neri's were a wealthy and quite well respected family, these events undoubtedly threw their lives into turmoil. It is in these circumstances that Antonio started his manuscript. The tragic events allude to the reasoning behind a cryptic Latin quote scribbled at the top of a page above the first recipe: "fuimus troes." It means, "We are Trojans no more" From Virgil's Aeneid, referring to the fall of Troy. [3] 

Early in the manuscript there is a series of four illustrations, each showing a different activity, In order, they are titled The Art of Preparation of Stones, Metals, Plants and Animals. [4] Each is filled with multiple workers engaged in various activities pertinent to the specific art. Each highlights interactions between the Aristotelian elements: air, water, earth and fire. There is no specific indication of where any of the four scenes take place, although some educated guesses can be taken. For instance, the stone workers, or lapidaries, almost certainly are an early incarnation of the famed 'Opificio delle pietre dure' working in the Uffizi's Galleria dei Lavori. But we will leave that discussion for another time. 

Of the four illustrations, "Preparing Animals" focuses on activity within a kitchen. (See above, click to enlarge). The scene is intriguing in that it appears to take place in a domestic setting. Labels call out the four Aristotelian elements; birds hanging from the rafters represent air, fish on a grilling rack represent water, a whole carcass on the spit represents earth and fire appears as itself in several locations. I would like to suggest that this setting is none other than the Neri family kitchen and that the practitioners of the art are three of Antonio's siblings. In the middle right, a young boy is engaged in turning the spit (in green). The best candidate would be then eleven year-old Allesandro, the eventual heir to the family, whose own son named Neri would carry on the family practice as a physician. Of the two young women pictured, the three family choices are fourteen year-old Lucretia, Sixteen year-old Maria and twenty-six year-old Lessandra.

Since I am already out on a limb, I will also suggest that the methodology of alchemy lives-on today in kitchens around the world. The process of combining raw ingredients and cooking them together, of experimentation and of iteratively refining a recipe to perfection, this is not so different from what Antonio Neri and his siblings were doing four hundred years ago.


[1] Neri 1598-1600.
[2] Maddalena di Bartolomeo di Niccolò Bartoloz[z]i, married Jacopo Neri, and they gave birth to Antonio’s father Neri Neri. (ASF 599).
[3] Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium, et ingens Gloria Teucrorum. [We Trojans are at an end, Illium has ended and the vast glory of the Trojans], The Aeneid: Book 2, Line 325.  See also the post in this blog (Conciatore.org) dated 13 June 2014.
[4] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 7r, 8r, 9r, 10r.
* This post first appeared here on 27 August 2014,

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Very Good Run

The title page of Antonio Neri's 1612 book
L'Arte Vetraria.
For most of the past five thousand years, the techniques of glassmaking were passed only in strict confidence from master to apprentice. When artisans did commit methods to writing, they were held close as precious possessions, often passed down within families. Inevitably though, some glass recipe compilations did become public, a few were even purposefully shared. But before the advent of printed books and some time after, a manuscript was typically propagated through the laborious and often error-prone process of writing copies out by hand. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a mere four hundred years ago, glassmaking techniques and materials were passed primarily through the apprentice system. 

All of that changed forever, in 1612, when a Florentine priest named Antonio Neri published the first printed book devoted to the ‘art of glassmaking’. In fact, the title he chose was exactly that: L’Arte Vetraria. [1] Neri’s volume was noticed almost immediately by technical types; Galileo owned a copy and supplied one to his friend Federico Cesi, founder of an early scientific society called the Lincei [lynxes]. In his introduction, Neri specifically invites anyone curious and willing to apply themselves to give glassmaking a try, saying, “Unless you purposely foul-up, it will be impossible to fail”. However, the book did not exactly catch fire with the general public. Slowly but surely, copies found their way to the hands of early scientific investigators and also to the hands of glassmakers throughout Europe. As Italian artisans migrated to northern Europe, Neri’s book came with them.

In 1661, a reprint of L’Arte Vetraria was issued in the priest’s native Florence, the next year an English translation was published in London for the Royal Society and the year after that a Venetian edition appeared. Within ten years, illustrated Latin and German translations were published and French and Spanish versions were not far behind. By the year 1800 over two dozen editions circulated around Europe. It had become the de facto bible of glassmakers throughout. There is precious little personal information in the book about Neri, but it does make clear that he started his career at the Medici court, in the laboratory of prince Don Antonio de’ Medici. He went on to work in a glass house in Pisa – one that supplied fine glassware to the Vatican – and then spent the bulk of his career, seven years, in Antwerp

Neri’s book, L’Arte Vetraria, shined brightest in the hands of an artisan. Neri has the rare ability to translate non-verbal skills into written words. Where exact amounts could not be given, he urges the glassmaker to develop an eye for the right color and to take the final intended purpose into account. He warns against the pitfalls of roasting a chemical too much or not purifying an ingredient enough. His book became a platform upon which later glass experimenters added their own findings and it became a kind of working document. This started with the 1662 English translation by London physician Christopher Merrett. Not particularly familiar with glassmaking himself, Merrett canvassed experienced artisans in England and made extensive notes that he appended to Neri’s original. Merrett also rearranged Neri’s text in a format that he felt more appropriate. The Latin edition by Frisius, in Amsterdam, restored Neri’s original format, but also retained Merrett’s observations. In 1679, Johann Kunckel made a German translation that added his own extensive knowledge, producing what is perhaps the most authoritative edition that the book attained.

In 1697, Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt translated Merrett’s English edition into French, but he gave no acknowledgment to Neri or Merrett. Blancourt plagiarized the work, putting his own name as the sole author. He greatly expanded the page count, but added little or no new material. Where Neri stipulated, for instance, that artificial gems of all colors could be made by adding previously discussed pigments to a basic lead glass formula, Blancourt turned each of these into a separate recipe. In doing this, that one particular section grew larger than the entirety of Neri’s original book. Two years later, in 1699, Daniel Brown translated Blancourt’s English-to-French rendition back into English. From there, the formulas – especially the artificial gem recipes – started to appear un-attributed in popular craft encyclopedias; the Neri provenance of these recipes was now erased, but they continued to influence artisans through the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, new translations with correct attribution were published and the book flourished in popularity. Authors built on each other’s annotations; from Neri to Merrett to Kunckel. In 1752, Paul Thiry d’Holbach published a proper French edition that included the accumulated comments of the three annotators. In 1780, Suárez and Núñez completed their Spanish edition, based on Holbach.[2] And the tradition continues today; in 2007, Holbach’s edition was used as the basis for the first ever Japanese translation by Sakata and Ikeda. [3]  

On one hand, this particular lineage of the book is remarkable for the tour of languages; Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Japanese. On the other hand, it spans a remarkable period in history, starting with alchemy and progressing through the volumes to modern science. With each new set of annotations Neri's book starts with a purely empirical set of recipes, using classical alchemy. By Kunckel’s edition, experimentation was more formalized and rigorous; the chemistry behind pigments for coloring glass became an intense subject of scrutiny. By Holbach’s edition, the physical and mechanical properties of glass were being investigated and in turn, glass played an ever-critical role in instrumentation like thermometers, barometers, microscopes, telescopes and a newly invented electrical device called a Leiden jar.

Antoine Lavoisier is considered by many to be the ‘father of modern chemistry’. For all practical purposes, his isolation of oxygen as a discrete element, in 1778, rang the death knell for classical alchemy. About 1799, Lavoisier’s good friend Pierre Loysel wrote what was to be the successor to Neri’s book on glassmaking, Essai sur l’art de la verrerie [Essays on the art of Glassmaking]. [4] While it never attained the fame or currency of Neri’s contribution, it did mark the passing of the mantle to new techniques and a better understanding of the materials. [5] For nearly two centuries before Loysel, Neri’s book and its derivatives held the floor as the authoritative reference for glassmakers throughout Europe and beyond. 187 years is a remarkable run for any book, even more so for a volume devoted to technical advice and recipes. Antonio Neri would have probably preferred to be remembered for his work on alchemical transmutation and medicinal cures, but in the end it was his sensible book on glass formulation that continues to endear him to anyone interested in the art of glass.

[1] Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, distinta in libri sette, del R.[everendo] P.[rete/ padre] Antonio Neri fiorentino. Ne quali si scoprono, effetti maravigliosi, & insegnano segreti bellissimi, del vetro nel fuoco & altre cose curiose. All’Illvst.mo et eccell.mo Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici (Florence: Giunti 1612).
[2] “Sobre el Vidrio Y Los Esmaltes” and “Continuacion Del Arte De Vidrieria” in Memorias instructivas, y curiosas sobre agricultura, comercio, industria, economía, chymica, botanica, historia natural, &c, ... Miguel Gerónimo Suárez y Núñez, ed., tr. (Madrid: Dom Pedro Marin, 1780) v. 4., pp. 185–224 (Mem. 50, prolog); 225–470
[3] L’Arte Vetraria by Antonio Neri, Japanese Translation, Hironobu Sakata, Mayumi Ikeda eds., tr. (Yokohama: Shunpusha, 2007), a translation of Neri 1759 (Holbach).
[4]Pierre Loysel, Essai sur l’art de la verrerie (Paris, 1799/1800).
[5] For more on Loysel and his book see Marco Beretta, “Unveiling Glass’s Mysteries Lavoisier, Loysel and the First Chemical Treatise on Glass (1765–1799),” in Objects of Chemical Inquiry ed. by Ursula Klein and Carsten Reinhardt (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications/USA, 2014)