Monday, April 30, 2018

Neri in Pisa

Majolica vase by Niccolò Sisti,
decorated in the grotesque style.
Antonio Neri's career in glassmaking took him from the city of his birth, Florence, to Pisa, Antwerp and possibly other places yet to be confirmed, such as Rome and Venice. Under the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici, a glass furnace at Pisa became an important source of diplomatic gifts in both glass and ceramics. Antonio Neri worked at this facility in the first years of the seventeenth century. Later, the same foundry would receive an order for exceptionally clear glass to be used by Galileo in his telescopes. It is unknown how that particular project worked out, but the furnace master, Niccolò Sisti, made a name for himself supplying glassware to the Vatican, the king of Spain and many nobles throughout Italy and Europe. Undoubtedly, Neri's glass career was strongly influenced by his tenure in Pisa with Sisti. 

In the early seventeenth century, there were several glass furnaces in Pisa. One was run at the pleasure of Grand Duke Ferdinando by Niccolò Sisti. Raised in Norcia in Perugia, he likely learned his trade at an early age;  Sisti's father, Sisto de' Bonsisti, was said to be an expert in making paste gems. This would account for the son's apparent skill in the medium of glass in addition to his ceramics prowess for which he was previously employed at the Casino di San Marco in Florence. For Neri, working at Sisti's glass house in Pisa played an important role in his glassmaking education. Sisti would serve three Medici grand dukes, Francesco I, Ferdinando I and Cosimo II. When work came to a stop at the Casino di San Marco, after Francesco’s death, Sisti may have opened his own factory in Florence for a short time, but then moved to a new facility in Pisa.

 In 1592, Grand Duke Ferdinando set up a glass shop in the central part of Pisa, along the north bank of the Arno River. This furnace was staffed by Muranese workers and was located in the city center, along the river. Archaeologists have unearthed its remains in the courtyard of what is now 43-44 Lungarno. The operation was capitalized with a loan of five hundred scudi made by Ferdinando I to Sisti, with a special mandate: he was to introduce new forms of pottery to the region. In addition to glass, the furnace at Pisa would produce soft-paste porcelain and majolica ceramics. These were both forms that Sisti had helped to develop when he worked in Florence at the Casino; he was involved in Francesco’s quest to duplicate Chinese porcelain.

In 1602, Neri was to be found working alongside Sisti at the Pisan furnace. According to his own account, this is where he worked on special colors, and collected river stones for glass frit. Here he made kermes based paints, enamels and used ferns as an alternative plant salt for glass. In all likelihood, he would have had access to the nearby botanical gardens and the small adjacent laboratory located just a few blocks from the glass furnace. 

Early in 1604, the priest would make his trip north to Antwerp to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. During Neri's seven year absence, Sisti's projects included cristallo table service for the Vatican, and special glass for the lenses of Galileo's telescopes. Upon Neri's return from Flanders, we again find him working in Pisa, this time on alchemy. In a copy of his last known manuscript, a heading reads, "Techniques copied from an old book here in Pisa."  The university at Pisa was an intellectual center and a repository of technical knowledge. There, Neri had access to a wide range of materials in the libraries. The furnaces and laboratories provided him with hands-on experience, but there can be little doubt that he was a voracious reader as well. On the same page of this manuscript appears the date 26 January 1614. This is the last known specific information on the priest's whereabouts, since he would be dead within the year, at the age of thirty-eight.

*This post first appeared here in a shorter form on 18 October 2013.


  1. Dear Paul,

    Have you ever found any mention of a Jewish alchemist/glassmaker named Maggino di Gabriello in the documents?
    He is supposed to have run a furnace in Pisa for the Medici, sometime at the end of the 16th century, which eventually was given to Sisti in 1591 after Maggino went bankrupt. I am interested in this character who was a real all-rounder when it comes to finding a way to make money with alchemical procedures. Plus, somewhere in some godforsaken box are the archaeological artefacts that were discovered and that belong to the furnace where Maggino and later Sisti operated and I'm looking for it!


    1. Thanks for your question!
      The short answer is that if I did run into Maggino's name it did not mean anything to me at the time. But I am fascinated to lean from you his connection to the facility later run by Sisti. If you contact me privately (paul at conciatore dot org) I may have some leads for you - I have several thoughts. I strongly encourage you to continue you research on this. Please stay in touch!

  2. Hello! Recently, I purchased a lamp that is strikingly similar to vase in this photo (it’s almost certainly a vase, converted into a lamp) and I am fascinated with finding more about its provenance. Your post has given me tremendous insight on areas that I might investigate further-thank you so much! Looking forward to digging deeper into your blog, as well as this style of ceramics! Kristina

    1. Kristina, your vase sounds wonderful! Unfortunately, I am pretty weak on ceramics history :-( So I don’t think I would be able to contribute much that would be useful for you. I would suggest either the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, or Victoria and Albert In London. I don’t have a specific contact but you should have no problem getting a response through their websites. It sounds like a fun project!