Friday, September 29, 2017

A Gift for the Innocent

One of the distinctive roundels designed
by Andrea della Robbia for the facade of the
Ospedale degli Innocenti.
In early 1597, Antonio Neri turned twenty-one. He was in his final year of training for the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The war with the Ottoman Empire in Hungary was winding down and men were returning to Florence from the front lines, among them Don Antonio de' Medici, Neri's future benefactor. At this time, there is no indication of Neri's future activity as a glassmaker, but he certainly had been deeply involved in learning alchemy for several years. It is not surprising since his father was the personal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici and his grandfather was a celebrated barber-surgeon. He probably grew up seeing the chemical arts practiced on a daily basis. 

This same year, Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was commissioned along with three colleagues from the physician's guild to make a complete revision of the Ricettario Fiorentino. [1] This was the physician and apothecary's reference used throughout Europe and in Tuscany it carried the weight of law; every medical professional was required to own a copy and adhere to its prescriptions. The first edition had been published almost a century earlier; it was revised periodically to keep it current with the latest thinking and remedies. 

Reviewing the book's recipes is of course interesting. The final prescription, for example, is one for the age-old remedy of chicken soup. However, the preparation of this particular recipe with its raw juices would certainly make most modern patients turn a bit green.  An attempt to look beyond the technical methods is also intriguing; we are rewarded with a glimpse into the personalities of the men who wrote the book. One of the authors in particular has a story that illustrates how shrewd maneuvering can be used for good, even in times when self-serving and corruption were endemic.

The four authors' names do not appear in the book itself, but they are documented in a letter from the college of physicians acknowledging the directive of the grand duke and pledging to purge the text of any preparations that could be dangerous. [2] In addition to Neri Neri and Francesco Rosselli (son of the royal apothecary), the other two co-authors were Giovanni Galletti and Giovan Battista Benadù. [3] Giovanni Galletti, is difficult to pin down. His family resided in Florence and he exchanged letters with a Filippo Galletti in Rome, who may have been a brother or cousin. Adding intrigue to the connection, Filippo was working as a confidential correspondent—read: a spy—for Ferdinando I de' Medici around 1600. [4] The fourth co-author, Benadù, a physician and surgeon from Fivizzano, north of Pisa, died in 1603. [5] His will provided for an annual gift to Santa Maria Nuova hospital [6] and another to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a gift that amazingly supported the orphanage into the nineteenth century. [7]

Little information exists about these men, it would seem impossible to extract any meaningful insight into their personalities, but perhaps we can take a small step in that direction. Neri Neri's coauthor, Benadù, administered his financial gift to the Ospedale degli Innocenti with a large dose of shrewdness. The measures he took to ensure the purposeful use of his money, even after his death, reveal a man who cared a great deal about the less fortunate. In the 1400s, the wealthy silk merchants’ guild started Innocenti to be responsible for the welfare of abandoned children. By the late 1500s, the orphanage struggled under a mountain of debt. Grand Duke Ferdinando made a concerted effort to improve the situation and it became a well run, efficient institution, although throughout its history, it was not without problems. Over centuries of operation, it had seen the abuse of children and exploitation by both parents and the government. Famine hit Tuscany on a regular basis and less of it was due to natural causes than one might imagine. The grand dukes tended to make large trade deals, with Spain and other states, which depleted supplies and drove the local price of grain beyond what poorer families could afford. In those hard times, the Ospedale degli Innocenti experienced overflows of abandoned children. It was discovered under Cosimo I de' Medici's rule that some desperate families had found creative ways to take advantage. Destitute mothers left their infants at Innocenti, where children were assured of a square meal, a warm bed and an education. The same mothers then sold their milk to the orphanage, in effect collecting a wage to wet nurse their own children.

Florentine accountants invented double entry bookkeeping, and the Medici gave that innovation a good workout. They pioneered the use of municipal bonds, the purchase of which was sometimes made compulsory. At the time, they were a novel approach to fund a city’s development, and selling bonds under the banner of the orphanage was an early bit of marketing genius. It is unfortunate that the money often did not stay with the orphanage, but the obligation to pay off these debts did. The Medici often raided the accounts to pay for other projects both civic and personal. Under Ferdinando, the situation improved, but was far from stable. Through a clever maneuver, Benadù ensured his money went to the orphanage alone and not to bondholders. He left an inheritance for the day-to-day operation of Innocenti, putting control in the hands of the monks at the Badia Fiorentina monastery, where it was beyond the reach of greedy hands.

The 1597 edition of Ricettario Fiorentino produced by Neri Neri, Francesco Rosselli and their colleagues proved so popular that Grand Duke Francesco II [8] ordered it reprinted without changes in 1623. [9]

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597. 
[2] Corradi 1887, p. 55.
[3] Giovan Battista di Nicolao Benadù (?–1603), not to be confused with Priest Giovanni Benadù from Lucca.
[4] For more on the Galletti family cf. Crollalanza 1878, p. 222. About Filippo Galletti cf. Zapperi 1994, pp. 50, 71; Liebreich 2005, pp. 67, 281. For letters to Giovanni, see ASR 1591.
[5] He set up a trust fund for his sisters and their female relatives, which was still functioning in the twentieth century. Cf. Arrigoni 1882, p. 34.
[6] Lamioni 1994, p. 530.
[7] Cardini 1968, p. 190. The Innocenti records identify Benadù as both physician and surgeon and his monetary gift played a supporting role in the continued operation of the facility (AOI 1603.) As mentioned above.
[8] Ferdinando II de’ Medici (1610–1670).
[9]  Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1623.
* This post first appeared here 15 Oct. 2014.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Purse of Envy

Antonio Neri, "The Mineral Gold" Tesoro del Mondo,
(MS Ferguson 67, GB 0247,
Glasgow University Library, Special Collections,
1598-1600), f. 5r.
As a young alchemist, Antonio Neri faced a decision that had confronted virtually all accomplished artisans since the dawn of time and continues to do so today; whether or not to freely share hard-won technical knowledge with others. The indications are that Neri's thinking on the subject evolved over his lifetime. Testimony given by Florentine metals refiner Guido Melani indicate that as a twenty-year-old, Neri was willing to share his most precious secrets, albeit reluctantly.

Melani reported that in July 1596, Neri performed a transmutation of base metal into "twenty-four carat" gold. Upon being pressed, Neri confided that he had learned the secret from a German, who performed the gold transmutation with a "tablet of medicine." The German told him the medicine was nothing but the simple quintessence of green vitriol and the method to produce it was described by Paracelsus.[1] (An ion exchange reaction that we now know takes up iron and deposits copper in its place).

The motivations for keeping techniques secret are obvious; potential monetary reward and personal prestige. Aside from the immediate gratitude of confidants, the motivation for sharing technical secrets can be more subtle; the satisfaction of serving a greater good by advancing the art. It is indeed an ancient and very human dilemma. Five centuries before Neri, in the early 1100s a glassmaking Benedictine monk wrote on the subject. In Hesse, Germany, Theophilus Presbyter penned these lines in his De Diversis Artibus [On Various Arts]. "Do not hide His [God's] gifts in the purse of envy, nor conceal them in the storeroom of a selfish heart" and "Do not hide away the talent given to you by God, but, working and teaching openly and with humility, … faithfully reveal it to those who desire to learn."[2] Although it is doubtful that this particular writing was ever seen by Neri, his access to the most extensive libraries in Italy, along with his knowledge of Latin and the writings of other alchemists ensured a comprehensive understanding of his subject and the politics surrounding it.

Two centuries after Neri's death, historian Francesco Inghirami published details of an incident, which if true, might have contributed to a change of heart with our priest:
He [Neri] claimed he had found the secret of making the famous philosopher's stone and it was said he had discovered it among some of his confidants.  Some thugs learnt of this and attacked him at night, in order to obtain the secret by force. He shrewdly gave them a certain recipe he had in his pocket and explained the figures written on it, claiming it to be the secret oil required. But that night, Neri left Florence and traveled to various parts of Europe.[3]
Nevertheless, in his travels to Antwerp it is clear that Priest Neri continued to share his knowledge of glassmaking, in the shop of Filippo Gridolfi, and of course, upon his return to Florence seven years later in the publication of his famous book, L' Arte Vetraria.[4] In contrast, on the subject of transmuting gold and silver, Neri had decided to take his secrets with him to the grave, a decision that he justifies in a manuscript, Discorso, which he completed shortly before his death:
We must also consider the danger to its possessor if it became known to others and particularly to the princes. For that reason even if someone knows and practices this art, he is obliged to keep it hidden and to conceal it; and I know of what I speak.[5]
Neri outlines his fears that such a momentous discovery, if generally known could lead to abuse of power, a collapse of the monetary system, and general chaos in society. In spite of his deep reservations, we see a final glimmer of his innate desire to share. He did, in fact, leave behind his recipe for the philosopher's stone, but in coded, obscure language that has never to this day been deciphered. As he put it: "I wrote the words so strangers will not understand." 

[1]  Galluzzi 1982, p. 53; Grazzini 1983, pp. 214–216. 
[2]  For modern English translation see Theophilus 1979. 
[3]  Inghirami 1841–44, v. 13, pp. 457–458. 
[4]  Neri 1612.
[5]  Grazzini 2012, pp. 329, 356.
*This post first appeared here on 6 November 2013.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Antonio Neri 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 rig

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Duke's Mouthwash

Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549-1609),
Scipione Pulzone (1544 - 1598), Private collection.
Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was royal physician to the family of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. As such, he regularly interacted with other members of court, ranging from the archbishop of Florence, to his colleagues in medicine, including the royal apothecary (speziale), Stefano Rosselli. Rosselli shared more than a professional relationship with Neri Neri. They both admired the work of an ancient Greek physician named Dioscorides; Rosselli was something of an authority on his methods. In addition, he ran the 'Speziale al Giglio' shop, once owned by Tommaso del Giglio, who's chapel Neri Neri took over at Cestello church. Rosselli's son, Francesco, and Neri Neri were among the four chosen to revise and update the famed Ricettario Fiorentino,[1] the official reference for medicinal cures in Tuscany. 

On 21 September 1589, Rosselli started to compile his own book of recipes to pass down to his two sons, Francesco and Vincenzo, who would go on to continue the pharmacy.[2] The book begins with a poison remedy credited to none other than Cosimo de' Medici. Recipe no. 9 is the grand duke’s antispasmodic oil, presented by Niccolò Sisti, with whom Antonio Neri would later work at the glass house in Pisa. No. 20 is the duke's oil for deafness, also presented by Sisti. No. 41 is a poison antidote revealed to Francesco de' Medici by the Archduke of Austria. It was tested on a prisoner at the Bargello prison, a "volunteer" who was intentionally poisoned as part of the experiment, then revived with the antidote in the presence of Stefano Rosselli and Baccio Baldini, the long time physician to Cosimo I. Supposedly, the prisoner's reward for surviving was early release.

Recipe No. 30 carries perhaps a bit less risk; it is titled "Acqua da gengie di messer Nerj Nerj" (Mouth wash of Neri Neri):
Take a quarter of a bushel of mastic buds,a quarter of a bushel of myrtle buds, a quarter of a bushel of red roses, three ounces of alum, a half ounce of salt and a quarter ounce of hard rose honey. Mash the herbs with a mortar and pestle and put them in nine pounds of Greek wine for twenty-four hours, then boil in a bain-marie and reduce to two-thirds. In this, we bathe the gums: it makes them dry and firm.
MasticPistacia lentiscus. Native to the Mediterranean, its resin used for millennia to settle upset stomachs.
MyrtleMyrtus communis. An Aromatic herb used by the ancients, effective treatment for sinusitis.
Alum: Used by the ancients as a treatment for canker sores.
Rose HoneyMiele rosato. Honey infused with rose petals, an astringent still used to sooth children’s teething pains. It is produced both as a solid and a liquid. 
Greek Wine: Vino Greco. Italian wine made in the style of sweet Greek wines. In 1673, English botanist John Ray describes it as being made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The date that Stefano Rosselli started his book of secrets is interesting because it is the same day that Neri Neri, with the grand duke's two other physicians, Cini and Da Barga, were busy making medicinal wine based on Dioscorides' ancient recipes. Perhaps they all met that day at Rosselli's shop, for his advice. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2] Rosselli 1996; an Italian transcription and French translation of Rosselli's recipes, with a very entertaining introduction.

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Don Giovanni de' Medici

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.

Friday, September 15, 2017

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. This same environment is what fueled early modern science.

Alchemical glassware. Antonio Neri  
"Libro intitulato Il tesoro del mondo" 

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 finished work also serves as a kind of narrative. For those familiar with the techniques, a piece of glass 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.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Art of Metals

Fig. 1: Antonio Neri, "Ars Preparatio Metallor[um]"
in Tesoro del Mondo, f. 8r.
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 conversion 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.
*This post first appeared here on 17 September 2014.

Monday, September 11, 2017

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.

Friday, September 8, 2017

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.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


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.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Band of Alchemists

"The Alchemist" 1558, Pieter Brugle the Elder.
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.