Friday, October 7, 2016

Antonio Who?

Medallion dedicated to Antonio Neri,
19th cent.(?), Artist unknown.
La Specola (Museum of natural history),
Florence, Italy.
Since there are many new readers of this blog, I thought a short primer might be in order. Posts here are all related in some way to a seventeenth century Italian priest named Antonio Neri. Occasionally the connection is tenuous, but always in the spirit of exploring his work and times as he experienced them. The blog is named Conciatore, which was a term used in sixteenth and seventeenth century Florence, Italy to describe specialists who formulated glass. Until very recently, our star, conciatore Antonio Neri, was known almost exclusively as the enigmatic author of the first printed book devoted to making glass from raw materials. 

The book's original title in 1612 was L'Arte Vetraria, [1] which translates to "the art of glassmaking," although, in 1662 Neri’s first translator, English Physician Christopher Merrett, chose to simplify the title to The Art of Glass. [2] The book would spread throughout Europe and became a bible of glassmaking for two centuries. Neri's original Italian was translated, retranslated and even plagiarized.[3] Over two dozen editions were published before 1900 in English, Latin, French, German Spanish and more recently in Japanese.[4]

There are manuscripts, papyrus scrolls and even cuneiform tablets that contain glass recipes far older than Neri's book. However he was the first into print, and perhaps more significant, his book was specifically devoted to the common man, stating in his introduction that the only qualification necessary to make glass successfully was the possession of a "kind and curious spirit." In a time when trade secrets were closely guarded assets, Neri assures his readers that, "given a bit of experience and practice, as long as you do not purposely foul-up, it will be impossible to fail," (provided, of course that one had access to the raw materials, a glass furnace and tools).

In his English translation, Merrett stated that he had tried and failed to find out anything whatsoever about the author. A mystique grew around Neri and his identity. He was a Catholic Priest and an alchemist. Stories endure to this day that he had been chased out of Florence over the secret to transmutation; changing base metals into gold and silver. While we now know that transmutation is not possible through ordinary chemistry, the story of his harassment does apparently have a basis in fact. 

Some historians felt such a minor character with few achievements to his name was not worthy of serious study and that is the way things stood for a very long time. More recently, careful research into contemporary records, manuscripts and letters has gone a long way to revealing Neri as a quite interesting character. At the beginning of his career, he worked for Medici prince Don Antonio at his palace-laboratory on the north side of Florence. After a couple of years, he moved to Pisa and lent a hand at a secondary Medici glass facility. A bundle of letters has survived from his friend in Antwerp, Emmanuel Ximenes. [5] Ximenes turns out to have been one of the wealthiest men in Flanders. After corresponding for a few years, Neri traveled to visit Ximenes and stayed for seven years, making some of the "best glass of his life." Finally, he returned to Florence and settled down to write his famous book. 

Far from the poor itinerant priest supposed by some, Neri turns out to be from a prominent patrician family. His father was the personal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. His grandfather was a well-respected barber-surgeon and a close friend of poet Lodovico Domenici. His other grandfather (on his mother’s side) was Michelangelo's lawyer. Credible evidence in the Florentine State Archives supports the family's claim to being a distant cousin to Saint Philip Neri. [6]

He had nine siblings, three sisters and six brothers, although one brother died as an infant and another at age sixteen. The Neri children enjoyed a cadre of godparents that included the archbishop of Florence and members of the papal curia. The family went on to produce more physicians, and even marry into the Medici family before a lack of male heirs caused this branch of the Neri's to go extinct.

Over his lifetime, he is known to have written a dozen manuscripts,[7] many but not all of which are now lost.[8] He became a dedicated Paracelsan and thousands of pages of his experimental work survive today in the notebooks of his assistant Agnolo della Casa. In the final couple of years of his life, Antonio left glassmaking behind to devote his full attention to wider pursuits in chemistry and medicine. These were disciplines he had practiced his entire life. In 1614, he died at the age of thirty-eight. His long time sponsor Don Antonio de' Medici launched a full-scale investigation to find the late priest's recipe for the philosopher's stone, which he had been promised. Neri's friends and associates were interviewed and the Medici prince even went as far as consulting a medium in Venice to make contact with Neri in the afterlife, alas to no avail.[9]

Neri is an interesting character in his own right, but he also provides an excellent platform to explore alchemy in the early seventeenth century. He was a dedicated experimentalist in his work, which gave him a foothold in the coming revolution of our understanding of the natural world. He lived and worked at the same time Galileo tutored the future grand duke in Florence. The astronomer had himself been tutored in mathematics in the Cestello monastery on Borgo Pinti, in sight of the Neri household. The attached church is where Neri’s family attended services and where his father was buried. Galileo later supplied a copy of L'Arte Vetraria to Federico Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the first naturalist and 'scientific' societies in Europe.[10]

If you have an interest in the cultural and technical environment that led to our current understanding of chemistry, medicine and more, I urge you to join me here where we regularly strive to catch a glimpse of early modern science through one of its minor characters; glassmaker, alchemist and Catholic priest Antonio Neri. 

[1] Neri 1612, Neri 2003–07. 
[2] Neri 1662.
[3] Neri 1697.
[4] Neri 2007.
[4] Zecchin 1987–89.
[5] ASF 599.
[6] Boer, Engle 2010.
[8] Grazzini 2012.
[9] Galluzzi 1982.

[10] Galileo 1890–1909.
* These references all appear in the "bibliography" page linked on the right.

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