Monday, January 30, 2017


Incalmo vessels by Tapio Wirkkala for Venini.
In this post, we will explore one of the classical techniques of glass art. Along with filigrana, latticino, reticello and pezzato, incalmo is a classical Venetian technique well established in the art, even if poorly understood by many outsiders.

‘Incalmo’, in Venetian dialect literally means “graft” as in joining two plants. That is a pretty good description of how this effect is achieved; think of a vase whose bottom-half is one color and top is another. The glass artist blows two separate bubbles of glass, opens them and joins them together to form a single bubble. It is a difficult operation because the two open lips must be exactly the same size to join properly. The process can be continued to add more colors; virtuoso pieces may include several sections, each a different color. In addition, the position of the iron rod that the artist uses to hold the bubble can be changed while the piece is under construction, leading to asymmetrical effects.
16th century incalmo plate,
unknown artist.
The above description is the classical way of achieving incalmo, but modern materials and equipment allow artists to achieve a similar effect with considerably less skill. For instance, precise diameter glass tubing is now available in a wide variety of colors. This can be cut into rings with a saw, then stacked in a kiln and fused together. From there, this “prefabricated incalmo tube can be worked by traditional methods. Whether or not this meets the definition of true incalmo depends entirely on whether one focuses on the method or on the end result.

9-10th century incalmo vase,
Syria or Iraq.
The name ‘incalmo’, was applied to glass in the first half of the twentieth century by the Venini factory on Murano, in Venice. [1] However, both the word and the method are much older. The Venini artisans revived the technique to great acclaim, but Venetian examples date from the sixteenth century and Islamic examples from ninth century Syria have also survived. It is not hard to imagine that this joining technique was experimented with shortly after glassblowing became common around the first century BCE. However, what is truly amazing is that any of these early examples survived to be sold to customers without breaking in the cooling process. The reason for this is a technical issue that we have not discussed yet.

All glass expands a little when it is heated and shrinks when it cools. Different formulations of glass generally expand by differing amounts. When a single piece incorporates more than one type of glass, and the thermal expansions differ significantly, the result is disaster. After the piece is finished it is placed in a kiln where it slowly cools back to room temperature. Because of the mismatch, one area wants to shrink more than the adjacent area and the glass cracks along the join. The expansion and contraction is microscopic, but it is enough to ruin hours and hours of work, leading to much gnashing of teeth the morning after, when the finished work is inspected. 

The Venini glass masters had the benefit of this knowledge, but for earlier artisans, trial and error must have played a big role in determining which formulas were compatible. Different colors mean different metallic additives and to match expansion other ingredients would need to be adjusted. Today, manufacturers produce glass in a series based on expansion; artists can be relatively sure that two different colors from the same series can be “grafted” and not self-destruct when cooled.

[1] I have not absolutely confirmed this, but authoritative secondary references credit Venini, and I can find no mention to "incalmo" as a glass technique prior to the twentieth century.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Creative Use of Mirrors

The German city of Ulm in the 16th century
Georg Braun, Franz Hogenberg 1570-78
(Click either image to enlarge.)
Along the banks of the Danube River in southern Germany lies the ancient city of Ulm. Besides being the birthplace of Albert Einstein, at the start of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Ulm was near the epicenter of the bloody Peasant’s Revolt. 

In the spring and summer of 1525, peasants and farmers throughout German speaking Europe staged a popular revolt now called the Deutscher Bauernkrieg. [1] At the heart of the matter was an oppressive system of taxation run by the Catholic Church, in which little or none of the revenue was used to improve life locally. Often, action was lead by Protestant clergy, but to little effect against the mercenary armies hired by the aristocracy. It was a very brutal affair; in the end, up to 100,000 of the poorly armed and organized peasants were slaughtered.

This brings us to a curious story of retribution oddly reminiscent of the ancient legend of Archimedes' burning mirror.  Through this account, we can trace the migration of a technical recipe from Ulm over the alps to Venice, then to Sienna and finally to Florence. The recipe is for the metal alloy to make mirrors, and it is told from one friend to another while chatting amiably in Venice, years after the revolt.
Among other things, he said that he had made one [concave mirror] almost half a braccio across [about 13 inches], which extended the clear rays of its brightness more than a quarter of a German league when he caught the sun with it. One day, when for amusement he was standing in a window to watch a review of armed men in the city of Ulm, he bore with the sphere of his mirror for a quarter of an hour on the back of the shoulder armor of one of those soldiers. This not only caused so much heat that it became almost unbearable to the soldier, but it inflamed so that it kindled his jacket  underneath and burned it for him, cooking his flesh to his very great torment. Since he did not understand who caused this, he said that God had miraculously sent that fire on him for his great sins. [2]
The story was told to Vannoccio Biringuccio, who recalls it in 1540 in his Pirotechnia, the first printed book devoted to metallurgy. Specifically, the recipe is a variant of what today we would call white bronze, which as Biringuccio states is similar to the metal used to cast bells. He recites ancient formulations that used three parts copper and one part tin. To this was added 1/18th part of antimony and optionally 1/24th part of fine silver to give it a neutral color. Indeed, other ancient formulations for what was known as speculum metal specify a 3:1 ratio of copper to tin. He continues,
But nowadays most of the masters who make them take three parts of tin and one of copper, and melt these together. When they are melted, for every pound of this material, they throw in one ounce of tartar and half an ounce of powdered arsenic, and let them fume and melt and incorporate well. 
Biringuccio’s version reverses the copper and tin ratio from the classical composition. Compare it with Antonio Neri’s prescription which appears half a century later, it is almost identical:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
To be clear, the tartar, saltpeter and alum act as a surface flux - they form a layer that floats on the liquid metal, preventing oxides from forming, which can foul the melt.  their addition does not change the base alloy composition.

The similarity of the two recipes alone is not enough to draw any conclusions. Biringuccio himself reports that the contemporary artisans favored the tin rich formulation. However, there are other details to consider. The Sienese born Biringuccio was something of a hero in Florence where alchemist Antonio Neri was raised. The famous metallurgist helped cast cannons, mortars and guns for the Florentines to defend themselves in the late 1520s, when the city was under siege, just a few years after Biringuccio’s conversation in Venice with his German Friend from Ulm.

Neri was definitely familiar with Biringuccio’s book Pirotechnia. In fact, the introduction to Neri’s own book on glassmaking,  L’Arte Vetraria, is patterned after the metallurgist’s survey of glassmaking.  In his chapter 14, book 2 Biringuccio wrote:
… it [glass] is one of the effects and real fruits of the art of fire, because every product found in the interior of the earth is either stone, metal, or one of the semi-minerals.  Glass is seen to resemble all of them, although in all respects it depends on art. [3]
And here is the opening to Neri’s introduction a half century later in 1612,
Without a doubt, glass is a true fruit of the art of fire, as it can so closely resemble all kinds of rocks and minerals, yet it is a compound, and made by art. [4]
Both passages go on to cover much of the same ground, albeit with a change in focus reflective of new thinking about chemistry and nature. In one sense, Neri is paying homage to his distinguished predecessor, and there can be little doubt that he read Biringuccio’s book and its technical recipes closely. 

In the years leading to the publication of Neri’s book, he left his home in Florence and traveled to visit a friend in Antwerp. If he had read the book on metallurgy early, perhaps as part of his education, then he was already familiar with the mirror alloy recipe. If he followed the route suggested by his friend, he would have taken the recipe back to Venice, and then over the Alps and likely through Ulm on his way north to the Low Countries, where he would spend the next seven years before returning to Italy. [5]

* This post first appeared in a slightly different form on 25 January 2016.
[1] For more on the German peasant wars of 1524-25 see
[2] Vannoccio Biringuccio, Pirotechnia. Ed., Tr. Cyril Stanley Smith, Martha Teach Gnudi (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 385-390. (Original Italian published in 1540.)
[4] Ibid,  p.126 (in original, ff.41r-44v).
[3] Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria (Florence: Giunti, 1612). p. iv.

[5] Special thanks to Jamie Hall (@PrimitiveMethod) for inspiring this post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Transmutation of Iron

The recovery of copper from vitriolated waters,
from De Re Metallica, 1556, by Agricola (Georg Bauer).
In Discorso, one of the last manuscripts written by Antonio Neri before his death, he reveals several transmutation recipes. One describes turning iron into copper; it is instructive because it uses common materials that we can identify and because the chemistry is now well understood.

Take some iron sheets and lay them in vitriol water, being immersed in that, they will rust. Scrape off this rust, which will be a red powder, melt it in a crucible, and you will have perfect copper. The same effect can be had from various waters that are naturally vitriolated, because they flow through mines of vitriol, such as those of a source some distance from Leiden, and another below the fortress of Smolnik, [now in Slovakia].

Vitriol is an acidic sulfate dissolved in water, it could be made in the laboratory, but it also occurred naturally around mining operations where sulfurous minerals were present. Alchemists knew this solution as "oil of vitriol" and "spirit of vitriol." The mine that Neri references in Smolnik became famous for transmutation. As late as the eighteenth century, scientists and experimenters from around Europe made the pilgrimage to see the effect for themselves and tried to figure out what was happening. It may be a surprise to some readers, but following the above instructions will, in fact, produce copper just as Neri claimed. There is no deception or sleight of hand involved; the explanation is straightforward, but first, Neri treats us to a rare glimpse of his own reasoning on the subject:

Some estimate and not without reason, that this experiment, being used to prove the transmutation of metals, is not suitable for this purpose. They say that the vitriolated waters become such because they are already heavy with the corrosive spirits of sulfur, having passed through the copper or iron mine, these waters corrode copper in the same way aqua fortis corrodes silver. So that really the substance of the copper remains in the water, which attacks the surface of the iron, which always remains iron. However, if that were true then the iron would not get consumed, or if it were consumed it would mix with the substance of the corroded copper in the water, and if it were fused, it would remain a mixture of iron and copper. And yet in this experiment, all the iron is consumed; it is reduced by the vitriolated water into powder, […] which in the fusion is still pure copper, so there should remain no doubt that this is a true transmutation.[1]

Given the state of chemistry at the time, Neri's reasoning is clear and rational. The iron disappears and a copper coating materializes in its place. What better evidence of transmutation could one ask for?

The key to what was actually happening is in the criticism leveled by skeptics. It turns out that they were on the right track, but neither they nor Neri had the full picture. Today, we understand it as a simple ion exchange reaction; blue vitriol water is a transparent saturated solution of copper sulfate (CuSO4), in the presence of solid iron, the liquid dissolves the iron; copper from the vitriol is deposited in its place. The two metals, copper and iron, change places: the iron dissolves, forming green vitriol (FeSO4) and copper is expelled from the solution. The result is a reduction in the amount of the iron, which is replaced by a proportional deposit of pure copper.

On a physical level, this chemical reaction is no different today than it was in the seventeenth century. What has changed is our interpretation of the experiment. What Neri viewed as a transformation of iron into copper, we now see as an exchange. There is, however, a deeper lesson in all this. As an alchemist, Antonio Neri was not being delusional or dishonest; he was careful, observant and applied his knowledge as best he could. This is no different from the way science works today. Both then and now, to be successful in unraveling nature’s secrets, one must become accustomed to a very uncomfortable situation: In the past, careful reasoning by brilliant thinkers has led to utterly wrong conclusions. The fact that much of our world is a mystery is unsettling; that the very process we use to understand it can be so flawed is harder to accept. Even more difficult is that the faculty we all rely on for survival—our own wits—can lead us so far astray.[2]

[1] For more, see Discorso sopra la Chimica: The Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri”, M.G. Grazzini / Nuncius 27 (2012).
[2] This post first appeared here on 31 January 2014.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Golden Sun

The Sun, Robert Fludd
from Utriusque Cosmi (1617),v. 2, p. 19.
Today, Antonio Neri is best known for his 1612 book, L'Arte Vetraria, in which he exposes the secrets of the art of making glass. In publishing his volume, he helped to fuel new discoveries in chemistry and medicine simply by making glass apparatus more available to experimenters. A 1662 translation of his book into English was one of the first acts undertaken by the newly formed Royal Society in London, at the behest of Robert Boyle. Neri himself lived for only two years after his book went to press, in his native Florence, and never saw the seeds of his labor come to fruition. If he had lived, he might well be surprised that his legacy is in glassmaking, and not in the subjects that he himself held most dear.

In his death at the age of thirty-eight, Neri missed a rapid advancement in our basic understanding of nature. In the space of only a few decades the face of science and medicine would start to change irrevocably. Soon, experimenters were finding new chemical elements and began to map out the periodic table, often with apparatus made of glass. For centuries, the ancient Aristotelian concept of air, earth, water and fire as the basic building blocks of the universe had endured. By the end of the seventeenth century, the inadequacies of the old model were becoming clear. 

But Neri was not privy to any of this. In his time, any cracks in the Aristotelian model were minor. Like his sponsor, Medici prince Don Antonio, Neri was an adherent of new doctrines of the physician Paracelsus, who rebelled against the old system, but was still very much a product of it. First and foremost, Neri thought of himself as an alchemist. While history has not generally been kind to his ilk, a true understanding of early modern science rests on the methods and reasoning developed by alchemists like Neri. 

Although alchemy covered a wide range of activities, it will forever be associated most closely with the mistaken notion that base metals such as lead or iron could be transmuted into gold. Once science had established this idea as specious, the race was on to separate "new science" from the old. It became fashionable to cast alchemists into the mold of charlatans, tricksters and self-deceived fools. While many such characters did exist, Neri was not one of them; his work was based on careful reasoning and experimentation. The final irony is that through the kind of advancements that he himself helped to pioneer, the majority of his life's work has fallen by the wayside. What has endured the test of modern science is his treatise on glassmaking.

As early as the age of twenty, Neri was demonstrating transmutation to expert gold refiners. As late as the year before his death he was writing authoritatively and coherently on the subject. To understand how this is possible – to be rational and methodical, and at the same time completely wrong – is to get a sense of the true difficulties involved in science. Based on what he was taught, what he read, and his own experimentation, Neri thought metals and other materials "matured" over time. He thought that more "imperfect" metals like lead and iron were part of a continuum that ended with the "perfect" metal gold. Furthermore, he thought that primordial "seeds of gold" left over from the creation of the earth could be mined and isolated. Like wheat and other plants, given the correct nurturing, and conditions, this seed material could be encouraged to mature into vast quantities of gold. Writing in his 1613 manuscript Discorso, he says,
The response is that the chemical art lets the gold proceed from that present and immediate cause, because this is the seed of gold, which acts naturally when art cooperates. The chemist does nothing but extract the seed from gold and apply it to suitable bodies, with which it is united to render the fruit multiplied in the same way that the farmer does. He does not produce the fruit, but provides and prepares the earth and the seed, uniting them in such a way so that they bear fruit.*
Neri thought that ultimately, for gold transmutation to be successful one needed the blessing of the Creator. He documented his process in a heavily coded (and incomprehensible) recipe he called "Donum Dei" (the most precious gift of God). This name traces to alchemical writings from as early as the fifteenth century. He maintained that those who might harm society with this knowledge or wished to profit personally or swindle others would be denied the blessing and therefore be unsuccessful. 

The remarkable thing here is that Neri's understanding of chemistry was supported at every turn by experimentation. His recorded methods, for transforming lesser metals into one-another, were repeatable and stood the test of scrutiny by contemporary experts. In the light of modern chemistry, these transformations depended on subtle physical processes and chemical reactions that would not be understood for another century or more. By performing these experiments under controlled conditions, he was taking the first steps in what would become modern science. Eventually, it would be understood that while chemical compounds can be created and destroyed by various manipulations, individual elements cannot. Today we know that iron, lead and gold were formed in the cores of ancient stars, not too different from our sun. Lighter elements are successively transformed into heavier ones under a star's "nurturing" conditions. While he lived in a period in which he had no chance of getting the particular details correct, in a poetic sense Neri was not far from the truth.

* See Maria Grazia Grazzini, “Discorso sopra la Chimica: The Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri” Nuncius 27 (2012) 311–367.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Like Snow from Heaven

28th December 2005 in Florence
Photo by Marco De La Pierre
In its simplest incarnation, glass is nothing more than crushed quartz or sand mixed with 'glass salt'. This salt is the alkali carbonates of sodium or potassium. Essentially, the ash of certain plants that reduces to oxide in the furnace and dramatically lowers the melting point of the sand.

In Pliny's ancient account of the discovery of glass, the process takes place in a single step. The ingredients came together accidentally in a fire and "glass trickled out." The problem is that pure quartz does not react with the salt until it gets very hot and even then, it does so reluctantly. In a wood-fired furnace, quartz stones, even small pebbles or sand would melt with excruciating slowness. As Neri advises, "... this would only succeed after a protracted period of time and a great amount of trouble." 

'Fritting' is an intermediate step that speeds the process considerably. Glassmakers reduce the quartz to a fine powder and then mix it with the alkali salt. In the heat of a kiln, the entire content of each stone is thus exposed to the salt right from the beginning. This roasting process starts a chemical reaction between the ingredients. In the late Renaissance, the combination was then cooled and 'aged' for several months before use. When made from pure quartz river stones and the best Levantine ash, the result was what Neri calls 'bollito,' "white and pure like snow from heaven."

A third ingredient of glass, critical to its long-term stability is lime, or calcium oxide. Without the lime, glass is susceptible to attack by water. The water actually dissolves the glass, or less dramatically makes it subject to 'glass disease' or 'crizzling', a condition where the glass slowly decomposes due to humidity in the air. Waterglass is a product made without the lime. On Murano and elsewhere, it was dissolved in water and painted onto the shells of eggs to seal and preserve them. In Neri's era, lime was produced by roasting seashells. It was a key ingredient of cement, and as such was readily available. It had been a major commodity throughout the Mediterranean since the Roman Empire. Neri advises to add lime to all his glass recipes, but it is not so clear that he himself understood why it was so important.

*This post first appeared here on 11 October 2013.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Montaigne in Florence

Michel Montaigne
Anonymous (17th century).
Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) was the proprietor of a vineyard and later a mayor of Bordeaux, France. However, his claim to fame in history is as popularizer of the writing form known as the essay. In 1580, a few months after publishing his first collection, he embarked on a grand tour of Italy by way of Austria, ending in Rome. He did this despite suffering from painful kidney stones or perhaps partly because of it; in addition to the usual tourist stops, he also sought out spas and purveyors of medicinal cures to help with his condition. Montaigne kept a travel diary, which he dictated to a servant accompanying him on the journey. 

Among his stops was a visit to Florence, where he dined with Grand Duke Francisco I de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello at the palace laboratory known as the Casino di San Marco. At the time, their son Don Antonio was a four year old toddler as was, 
in another quarter of the city, future glassmaker Antonio Neri. Within a few years both Francesco and Bianca would be dead, both stricken with pernicious malaria. Don Antonio would be sidelined as the future grand duke by his uncle, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici. Don Antonio would inherit the laboratory complex and devote his time to the secrets of nature, where Antonio Neri would be employed as an alchemist.

What makes Montaigne’s journal remarkable is his clear, direct observation; his account is an unapologetic window into the thoughts and observations of a sixteenth century traveler. Here some excerpts from his account: 

Florence, seventeen miles, a place smaller than Ferrara, situated in a valley, surrounded by richly cultivated hills. The river Arno passes through the town, and is crossed by several bridges. We saw no fosse round the walls. Today he (Montaigne) passed two stones, and a quantity of gravel, without having had any other notice of it than a slight pain in the lower part of his stomach. The same day we went to see the Grand Duke's stables, which are very large, with arched roofs; there are very few horses of any value here: at least, there were not, when we went over them. We were shown a sheep of a very strange form; together with a camel, several lions and bears, and an animal as big as a large mastiff, but of the form of a cat, all striped black and white, which they called a tiger.  
We looked over the church of St. Lawrence, where the flags are still hanging, which we lost under Marshal Strozzi, in Tuscany. In this church, there are several excellent pictures, and some statues by Michael Angelo. We went to see the cathedral, a magnificent structure, the steeple of which is faced with black and white marble; it is one of the finest and most sumptuous churches in the world. […] 
The same day we went to see the duke's palace. This prince spends a good deal of his time in making imitations of oriental precious stones and chrystal: he has a great taste for alchemy and the mechanical arts, especially architecture, of which he has a more than ordinary knowledge. Next day, M. de Montaigne ascended, the first of us, to the top of the cathedral, where there is a ball of gilt brass, which, from below, seems about the size of your head, though when you get up to it you find it capable of holding forty persons. […]  
Messrs. d'Estissac and Montaigne went to dine with the grand duke, for such is his title here. His wife occupied the post of honour; the duke sat on her right, next to him sat the duchess's sister-in-law, and next to her husband, the duchess's brother. The duchess is a handsome woman, according to the Italian notion of beauty, with a countenance at once agreeable and dignified, and a bosom of the most ample proportions. M. de Montaigne had not been with her long, before he thoroughly understood how she had managed to wheedle the duke into entire subjection to her will, and he had no doubt she would be able to retain him at her feet for a long time to come. The duke is a dark stout man, about my height, with large limbs, and a countenance full of kindliness: he always takes his cap off when he meets any one, which, to my mind, is a very agreeable feature in his character. He looks like a healthy man of forty. On the other side of the table were the cardinal, and a young man of about eighteen, the duke's two brothers. When the duke or his wife want to drink, they have presented to them a glass of wine and a decanter of water, in a sort of bason; they take the wine, and pour as much of it as they do not want into the bason, filling the glass up with water; and when they have drunk it, they replace the glass in the bason, which a page holds for them. The duke took a good deal of water; the duchess hardly any. The fault of the Germans is to make use of glasses out of all proportion too large; here they are in the extreme the other way, for the glasses are absurdly small. I do not understand why this city should be called, par excellence, the Beautiful: it is handsome, no doubt, but not more so than Bologna, and very little more so than Ferrara; while Venice, beyond all comparison, superior to it, in this respect. No doubt the view of the city and its suburbs, from the top of the cathedral, has an imposing effect, owing to the immense space which the suburbs occupy, covering, as they do, the sides and summit of all the neighbouring hills for two or three leagues round; and the houses being so close to each other that they look almost like streets. The city is paved with Hat stones, but in no sort of method or order. […] 
[T]he style of living at the boarding-houses is miserable, though they charge for gentlemen more than twelve crowns a month. There is nothing to amuse you here, or to exercise either body or mind; there is neither fencing, nor riding, nor literature. Pewter is very scarce all about here; you are seldom served in any tiling but coloured earthenware, and that generally dirty. Thursday morning, 24th November, we left this place, and proceeded through a country which did not appear to us very fertile, though it was cultivated on all sides, and thickly inhabited. The road was rough and stony, and, though we went on without stopping, it was not till very late that we got to Sienna, thirty-two miles, four posts.
 Montaigne 1842: Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works of Michael de Montaigne: Comprising the Essays ... ed., William Hazlitt (London: Templeman, 1842). pp. 564-566.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reflections on the Mirror

Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
L’Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's 1612 book, would eventually become the glassmakers' bible throughout Europe. By 1900 it had been translated into six different languages; Italian, English, Latin, German, French, and Spanish (and in this century Japanese). Because of its seminal importance in the spread of glass technology, often overlooked are a few recipes at the back of the book, which have only a tenuous connection to the main subject.

Among these is a metallurgical formula for making convex mirrors. Neri gives instructions for producing what we would now call a "white bronze" that may be cast into a rounded form and polished to take on a highly reflective surface finish. This "spherical" form of mirror was popular throughout the Renaissance. It reflected a wide-angle view of the space in which it was hung, but at the cost of distorting the image. Nevertheless, upon looking into such a mirror, objects are still quite recognizable. 

Here is Neri's prescription:
A Mixture to Make [Mirror] Spheres:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
Of note is the fact that the word Neri uses for this alloy, acciaio, translates to "steel." Over the intervening four centuries, the meaning of this term has been refined so that today it denotes not simply a hard white metal, but a specific range of alloys containing iron and carbon. 

This recipe and a few others in the book show the breadth of Neri's experience in arts other than glassmaking. It is a conclusion greatly amplified by a perusal of his other manuscripts on alchemy and medicine. There is good evidence that our priest was a voracious reader, however he was also quite cautious about repeating techniques only after he had verified them personally. Besides, artisans never wrote down much of this knowledge – only passed in confidence between trusted parties – since, in a very concrete way, superior knowledge represented a competitive advantage over ones rivals. Even if Neri was in the business of divulging secrets, it is safe to assume that many of the artisans and craftsmen he interacted with were decidedly not. 

Two centuries before Neri, the beginning of the fifteenth century saw the invention of moveable type printing in Germany, but also the mastery of perspective illustration in Italy. The contribution of printing to early modern science is well documented, less obvious is the role playerd by artists and perspective illustration. Moveable type made possible the mass production of books; what did get committed to paper now stood a much better chance of survival and transmission. Perspective illustration played a more nuanced role, one that ultimately brings the convex mirror back into the discussion.

In Venice and especially in Florence (Neri's hometown), perspective drawing became the rage among artists, largely due to the Italian translation of a book entitled Deli Aspecti, or "Alhazen's Book of Optics." Suddenly, paintings were made to look three-dimensional, with a realistic sense of depth to them. The new techniques were largely kept in Italy, but interest spread across Europe. Patrons placed great value on work depicting scenes in correct perspective, and in excruciatingly accurate detail. 

Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (detail).

In Flanders, in 1434, Jan van Eyck produced "The Arnolfini Portrait," (above). Behind the main subjects, hanging on the wall is a convex mirror. The reflection in the mirror shows the backs of the two subjects, but also two other figures further back, one of which is thought to be the artist himself, and beyond him a strong light source. The image in the mirror is distorted exactly as one would experience in real life. 

There is growing speculation that among the secrets of "realist" (or naturalist) painters was a growing arsenal of optical tools and lenses used to map out and understand the attributes of perspective. The mirror, in the Arnolfini Portrait was a sort of boast of the artist's proficiency in recreating reality on the canvas.

The point is that here is a case where art led science into new realms. Painters started to take great pains in reproducing reality "as it is" on canvas. Soon minor experimenters like Neri and major luminaries like Galileo were taking great pains to do the same. They strove to observe nature "as it is," not as was prescribed in ancient texts, or dictated by authority. Once that process started, awareness of the world grew and there was no turning back.

Finally, it is amusing to note that in his many manuscript illustrations, Antonio Neri himself never quite mastered perspective drawing, although he did try.

* This post first appeared here 17 January 2014.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Enamels in the 17th Century

Enameled Pendant, Pope Gregory IX
Attr. Italian, mid 17th  century
In the sixth part of his book, L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri presents his recipes for enamels. These are a form of glass meant to be applied in thin layers like paint, and fired quickly. In the early seventeenth century, enamels were used to decorate both glass and gold. Neri does not present any methods specifically addressing technique or application, but he does leave a number of recipes. He also praises the talent of a good friend, who worked on glass in 1601, at the Casino di San Marco in Florence.  "At that time, the task of scheduling furnace work fell to the outstanding Mr. Nicolò Landi, my close friend and a man of rare talent in enamel work at the oil lamp."

The recipes Neri presents in his book are geared towards metalwork, as he says, "In which I show the way to make all of the goldsmiths' enamels to fire over gold in various colors. Included are the rules, the colorant materials and the methods to make the fires for such enamels with exquisite diligence. I present the demonstrations as clearly as possible for this subject." He continues,
Now, this is not only a difficult art but also necessary. We see ornate enameled metals in many colors, and they make a pleasant and noble sight; they entice others to look and take notice. In addition, enameling is one of the main segments of the glass field, and quite necessary. It seems to me to cause universal gratitude and pleasure, so I will endeavor to describe many ways to make all sorts of enamels, which are special materials in the art of glassmaking. They form one of its noble domains, not common, but a particular niche, and because this work is not lacking in substance, and is pleasant, useful, and necessary, I have made this present sixth book, for the satisfaction and benefit of everyone.
Neri's interest in enamels seems to start with  Nicolò Landi. Within a couple of years, in 1603, the glassmaker’s friend Emmanuel Ximenes wrote from Antwerp to Neri in Pisa about the suitability of an enamel he had received from the priest, purposefully overloaded with color. "As far as the red glass, […] I am doing a test in enameling gold, because having such a thin layer of enamel, if it is not very full of pigment it would remain a pale color. […] If it will not grieve Your lordship, I would love to find out the composition."

The implication is that Ximenes was working with his brother in law Baron Simon Rodriguez d'Evora, a famous jeweler and diamond dealer. Soon, Neri would join them in Antwerp, however, the evidence points to a working relationship with goldsmiths before his visit.  "In Pisa, I made them [enamels] without [measuring] weights, but by rough estimate." In fact, Neri mentions goldsmiths in virtually every enamel recipe in the book, and unlike other chapters, he makes no mention of Antwerp, but only of Pisa.

As in all his endeavors, Neri pays close attention to ground truth; he is not as interested in presenting a tidy cut-and-dried recipe as he is in describing what is actually happening with the materials.
You should add the material in four doses, stirring [the melt] thoroughly each time, and leaving the glass to incorporate the powder. The way to check that the color pleases you is by proofing it, and watching to see if it is sufficiently loaded. Stop adding powder and proceed to make a goldsmith's proof [on metal]; always examine the colors to get to know them by eye, as I have always done, because in this matter, I cannot give specific doses. Sometimes the powder will tint more, other times less, therefore you must practice with your eyes to understand the colors.
* This post first appeared here 23 December 2013

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Glassware in Alchemy

Antonio Neri (1598-1600),
"Libro intitulato Il tesoro del mondo" f. 38
In the introduction of L'Arte Vetraria, his 1612 book on glassmaking, Antonio Neri discusses the technical and scientific uses of glass. He rattles off an impressive list of items, many of which are still in everyday use in chemistry and medicine:
Beyond the ease and low cost with which it is made, and the fact that it can be made anywhere, glass is more delicate, clean, and attractive  than any material currently known to the world. It is very useful to the arts of distillation and spagyrics, not to mention indispensable to the preparation of medicines for man that would be nearly impossible to make without glass. Furthermore, many kinds of vessels and instruments are produced with it;   cucurbits,  alembics,  receivers,  pelicans,  lenses, retorts, antenitors,  condenser coils, vials, tiles, pouring-vessels (nasse),  ampules, philosophic eggs  and balls. Countless other types of glass vessels are invented every day to compose and produce elixirs, secret potions, quintessences, salts, sulfurs, vitriols, mercuries, tinctures, elemental separations, all metallic things, and many others that are discovered daily. Also, glass containers are made for aqua fortis and aqua regia, which are so essential for refiners (partitori) and masters of the prince’s mints to purify gold and silver and to bring them to perfection. So many benefits for the service of humanity come from glass, which seem nearly impossible to make without it.
The glass book, as it was published by Neri, did not contain any illustrations. If we hunt around in the alchemical literature and in museums, we can find examples of the apparatus and vessels on his list, but still, we might feel disappointed at not seeing the specific pieces with which our glassmaker was referencing. As it happens, we actually can see a number of these pieces, exactly as Neri experienced them. Over a decade before writing  the glass book, when he had just completed Catholic seminary and become an ordained priest, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript devoted to "all of alchemy" in which he shows us many of the same glass vessels. Here he lists and shows us (in the illustration, from left to right, top to bottom) a double vase, a urinal (yes, that kind of urinal), a pair of Florence flasks (the Italians now call this a pallone di Kjeldahl), a philosophic egg, another flask which Neri calls a "bozza longa," an alembic (or still-head), a retort, a bottle,  mouth-to-mouth urinals, a receiver (for a still or retort), a saucer, and assorted cups and ampules. Since many of these terms changed from place to place and over time, we can use this chart to get a much better idea of exactly what Neri was doing in his recipes. The use of urinals in his chemistry kit shows simple practicality; these were standard items made by glass factories. If a low-cost, readily available item could be used in the laboratory, so much the better.

Many of the items Neri lists were used in distillation, which was a basic technique of alchemists. A still could be set up in any number of variations, depending on the intended product, which could range from alcoholic spirits to powerful acids and other reagents. The "athanor" was a stove specially engineered to gently heat a large flask, called the "cucurbit," which contained whatever was to be distilled. The apparatus would include an "alembic"; a cap that fits on top of the cucurbit with a snout-like tube running downward from its top. The idea was that volatile ingredients would evaporate inside the cucurbit, rise up, condense in the alembic and run down its snout, to be collected in a "receiver" vessel. Sometimes, for convenience, all three pieces (cucurbit, alembic and receiver) are together referred to as the alembic. The process could be sped up significantly by adding a condenser coil, what Neri calls a "serpentine." As steam built up in the cucurbit, it was routed through its snout to a coiled tube that might be submerged in cold water. This way, the steam would condense more rapidly, sending more liquid to the receiver. Neri uses this method to produce acids in order to dissolve metal pigments for his glass, but the same basic technique is still applied today in producing industrial chemicals, medicines, perfumes and alcoholic drinks such as moonshine, brandy, vodka, rum and whisky. However, in the distillation of alcohol, metal (usually copper) containers are preferred. Neri was often producing chemicals that would react with metal, glass provided a very good solution to this problem but as he discusses at length, great pains must be taken to ensure that the glass vessels do not crack or break when heated or cooled too suddenly.

* This post first appeared here on 27 December 2015.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Glass: A poem by Henry Schoolcraft

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a piece appearing in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of the NAGC Bulletin. Many thanks for their permission to share it here. A copy of the complete article is available through inter-library loan from the numerous public and art museum libraries which subscribe to this journal, (including the Rakow Library at The Corning Museum of Glass). The Bulletin can also be obtained directly from its publisher, the National American Glass Club.

Glass: A poem by Henry Schoolcraft

In the final years of the 1700s, a third generation family that was living in New York’s Hudson River Valley welcomed a new son, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864). They welcomed him into a newly formed country, brimming with promise and expectation, the United States of America. His father was the superintendant of a new window glass factory near Albany. The family boasted a long line of military men, but perhaps more importantly, a long line of adaptable, self-motivated, life-long learners and young Henry was no exception.  

With the help of his father and like-minded family friends, Henry parlayed a rural education into private instruction in Latin, a premier collection of scientific books, and a museum quality mineral collection.  In 1809, at the age of 16, he started a hand-written literary magazine called “The Cricket” in which he published short pieces of prose and poetry among a circle of friends. His time at Union College was cut short by the opportunity to manage a glass factory further west on the shores of Seneca Lake, near Geneva, New York.

Along with his father, Henry went on to become one of the most sought after glass factory guru’s in New England. In 1814, he was running the Vermont Glassworks on the shore of Lake Dunmore. He had set up an experimental furnace with Prof. Frederick Hall from the college in nearby Middlebury.  Henry used the facility to research glass composition for a hefty book he was writing on the subject. Managing by day, experimenting by night, he still found time for his literary pursuits. It was here, in the autumn of 1814, that he composed a remarkable poem titled “Glass” in which he compares commonplace personalities of the early 19th century to the vitreous material of which he was so familiar.

Until now the poem has never been published beyond the first few stanzas.  “Glass” runs for 268 lines of rhyming couplets in a lose meter. The handwritten manuscript is archived at the Library of Congress. It begins with an assessment of mankind: [1]

Mankind resemble glass; they are, like it,

For use or fashion, show or service fit;

Some bright and fair, some dull and more obscure,

These prized as good, those, estimed poor;
To grace a kitchen, or a parlour made,

As use is most consulted, or parade;

But all as various; and eke they are,

As frail, as brittle, and as keen a ware.

Their bases differ, as our chemists say,
This made of sand, that fashioned out of clay

Yet shall we, in both compositions find,

Similitude in beauty, use and kind.

To man, tis true some small objections lie

In point of texture and transparency,
But though we grant him, in material blind,

Yet lacks he not, transparency of mind

And we no surer faults in each detect

By rays of light, than rays of intellect.

So nice the processes, the art requires,
So pure th’ ingredients, so intense the fires,

Where tumours grow, where phthysic’s fitful breath,

Forbodes the public faith, a sudden death.

Felons, freckles, frightful fire warts,

Are all disclosed as clear as limpid quartz.

His voice and pen are graced with equal skill,

To lash, report, or advocate a bill.

Speak without nostrums, clear his throat when lost,

But ever loudest, when they shuffle most.

Alike to him, the subject, time or stage,
Fierce to discuss, and ready to engage

If finance—there Blaberius is at home

If raising troops, he votes with general glum.

In peace he’s noisy, but if wars involve’

He blasts the foe by one august “Resolve.”
Prate, prate, prate, prate! the error of the land,

His voice, by every vulgar breeze is fanned

Nor learn from Witherspoon his course to run,

The simple cause, “to stop when he has done.”

(Read full poem)

(Line numbers are referenced in parenthesis) 

The exact manuscript title as written by Schoolcraft is: GLASS, | A Satire Poem. | Lake Dumnore, 1814.

(4) Estimed: Vernacular loanword from the French, estime; valued.

(7) Eke: also.

(10) “Feet of clay” is an expression referring to a weakness or character flaw. The phrase derives from the interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, by the prophet Daniel as recounted in the “Book of Daniel.” (Daniel 2:31–33, 2:41–43).

(21) Phthisic: a wasting illness of the lungs, such as asthma or tuberculosis; phthisis. Any wasting disease. A person suffering from phthisis.

(23) Felon: a carbuncle or other localized infection of the skin. Fire warts: “The hand that reached farthest down on the shovel is burned forever with calloused fire warts.” William E. Bain, Frisco Folks: Stories and Pictures of the Great Steam Days of the Frisco Road (St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company) (Denver: Sage Books, 1961), p. 96.

(25) In the ms, “Graced” is struck out and replaced by a word that is smeared and illegible to me.

(27) Nostrum: a medicine, especially one that is not considered effective, prepared by an unqualified person.
(31) Blaberius: possible Latinization for ‘one who blabbers’. Also blaberus: a genus of giant Central American cockroach.
(35) Prate: to talk foolishly or tediously about something.
(37) Witherspoon: John Knox Witherspoon (1723–1794).

[1] Paul Engle, “Glass, A Poem by Henry Schoolcraft” in Glass Club Bulletin, of The National American Glass Club, No. 230, Autumn/Winter 2016, pp. 5-14.