Dear Readers,

As you may have seen elsewhere, in mid February my wife and I suffered the loss of our home in a fire, in the hills of central Massachusetts. The good news is that we got out safely and had no animals in our care at the time. The fire crews were able to contain the fire from spreading, in what turned into a 3-alarm, 5-hour-long ordeal in subzero temperatures; they did amazing work, and no one was injured. The bad news is that all of my physical historical materials and research of 30 years have gone up in smoke. As a result I have decided to suspend this blog for the time being. It will remain online as a resource for those interested in the history of glass and glassmaking in the seventeenth century and beyond. I do intend to resume writing when I can, but for now my time and energy are required in getting us back on our feet.

Friends are providing temporary shelter for us nearby and our intention is to rebuild as soon as possible. To those who have reached out with a steady hand, to those who have opened their wallets, and offered advice in our time of need, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. In what are already difficult times for all of us, you have made a huge difference in our lives.

Paul Engle
6 March, 2021

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Glass Blowers

Berkshire Glass Works cane from 1878 –
Charles Flint collectionThese were novelty items 
made by glassworkers after hours.
(hollow, filled with the fine quality sand of the area)
Since early days, the technical aspects of making and manipulating hot glass have remained a closed and secretive business. Down through the ages, those with inside knowledge of this art have been highly valued and highly sought after. Even with the circulation of technical manuscripts and the ultimate publication of the technology in Antonio Neri’s 1612 book L’Arte Vetraria. The beating heart of the craft remained at the furnace among those with hands-on experience. [1] These artisans could and often did make the difference between success and failure in a business that was notorious for sending substantial fortunes up in smoke.  


In some places, strict laws forbade glass workers from leaving their employ and forbade outsiders from attempts to lure them away. Recruiting seasoned talent could be a delicate if not clandestine undertaking. This was as true in the ancient world as it was through the Renaissance and it also played a significant role in the 18th and 19th century for the nascent American glass industry.

Many have heard of the legendary prohibition forbidding Renaissance Venetian glass workers from travel abroad. The fear was that they might divulge secrets of their craft to outsiders, thereby compromising the virtual monopoly on high quality luxury glassware made on the fabled island of Murano. Many also have heard that the penalty for violating these rules was death at the public gallows located between the columns at Saint Mark's square.  While there were laws on the books that listed possible penalties as severe as death, the records show that no glass worker was ever executed for leaving and many did leave. In fact, glass workers were sometimes part of state brokered deals to exchange technology.

These Venetian laws have also led many to the incorrect conclusion that the glassmakers were held captive and treated like prisoners. Nothing could be farther from the truth; glass workers were treated like rock-stars of their time. The daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into the nobility, a privilege granted to no other Venetian guild. [2]

Early American efforts to recruit experienced glass workers provide some amusing stories. In 1894, William G. Harding, a principal in the Berkshire Glass Works in Massachusetts wrote a detailed history of glassmaking in the region.  Harding’s research was meticulous, drawn from factory records, official legal filings and personal correspondence. Two stories in particular relate the great lengths pursued in recruiting experienced European glass workers to New England.


The first concerns Robert Hew[e]s, who despite repeated failures in starting a glassworks in the late 1700s, finally partnered in Boston with one Charles F. Kupfer newly arrived from the Duchy of Brunswick in Germany. Together they formed Boston Crown Works on Essex street.  Kupfer immediately returned to Germany to recruit workers, as harding records,
“Mr. Kupfer upon his arrival at his old home, found it no easy matter to get his blowers. The works belonged to the Duke of Brunswick, and it was a penal offense either for the men to leave, or for him to entice them away. He was obliged to conceal his designs and operate in the dark, but succeeded in escaping in the night with a set of workmen and sailed from a German port before being overtaken. After a long voyage they landed in Boston and met with a Royal reception. So much interest in the new enterprise had been awakened in the citizens of Boston, that they turned out en masse…” [3]


The other story of clandestine recruiting related by Harding concerns a venture started in Sand Lake, about 10 miles east of Albany, New York around 1806.
“They had to import their skilled workmen. Mr. William Richmond, a Scotchman, was the Superintendent of their works. He went abroad to procure workmen. Disguised as a mendicant [monk/priest], with a patch upon one eye and playing upon a bag-pipe, he wandered through the glass district of Dumbarton in Scotland and engaged his blowers to cross the Sea. With great difficulty they secreted their tools on Ship-board, for it was a penal offense for glass-workers to leave Scotland as well as Germany.” [4]


[1] Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, distinta in libri sette, del R.[everendo] P.[rete/ padre] Antonio Neri fiorentino. Ne quali si scoprono, effetti maravigliosi, & insegnano segreti bellissimi, del vetro nel fuoco & altre cose curiose. All’Illvst.mo et eccell.mo Sig., Il Sig, Don Antonio Medici (Florence: Giunti 1612).
[2] A daugher of a glassmaker could marry into the nobility, which was a great honour for a family, but strategically, the son of a glassmaker had no such privilege, meaning that there were no inheritance rights for the family.
[3] Collections of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, (Pittsfield: Sun Printing, 1894),  p. 37-39
Note that Robert Hews is also known as 'Hewes' in other sources.
[4] op cit. p. 39-40.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A matter of Plagiarism

Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687)
Conciatore is pleased to reprise the guest-post of independent researcher Maria Grazzini. Maria studied Antonio Neri under the late Professor Paolo Rossi, philosopher and historian of science at the University of Florence. In 2012, Dr. Grazzini published an annotated English translation of Neri's manuscript in the journal Nuncias. [1] In the course of her research, she discovered a plagiarized version of the manuscript, published by 
a famous Jesuit professor in Brescia. His version matches Neri's handwritten manuscript of 1614 word for word. Here is what Maria had to say on the subject:

The seventeenth century Jesuit scientist Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687) is famous for his design of a "flying boat"; he has been immortalized as the father of aeronautical engineering. What is not generally known is that he plagiarized the entire text of Antonio Neri's manuscript Discorso.

The original was never published by Neri, perhaps due to his premature death, but even as a manuscript, it must have circulated widely. It would be interesting to know the history of its diffusion, in order to understand how it became the subject of plagiarism. Lana Terzi, well known in the Italian Academia of the late seventeenth century, published his  in 1670. [2] The entire chapter 20 of his Prodromo is an exact reproduction of Neri's. Lana Terzi was fascinated by experimentation and manual arts. The Jesuit order refused their members permission to write about magic and alchemy; Jesuits with such esoteric interests could never write books directly devoted to these subjects, however, they could write works on the different aspects of natural philosophy. In this broader context chemical philosophy could be admitted.


Title page of Lana Terzi's Prodromo
Neri was popular in his own time for his glassmaking knowledge. His L'Arte Vetraria  was widely read and its reprints and translations appeared over the centuries. [3] Nevertheless, Neri enjoyed a considerable reputation among his contemporaries also for his 'chemical philosophy'. Discorso is a complete treatise on the subjects of chemistry and philosophy, to all appearance not different from many others written during the sixteenth century. It holds a similar structure, with an introduction defining the subject and the description of procedures. The final part lists possible objections raised against the validity of chemistry and gives Neri's timely responses. In this sense Discorso belongs to the alchemical traditions and Neri shows his deep knowledge of the Paracelsian doctrine and literature. Even so, the main features of the new 'scientific' mindset are present in Neri's treatise: the study of "the great book of nature" and the value of experimental practice. The traditional reliance on the authority of ancient wisdom loses its legitimacy. "We should not so easily give credence to all the histories," Neri claims, but we should "prove the possibility of this art of transmutation with certain […] experiences". Knowledge is acquired "with the practice of many experiences." It does not come from a divine revelation or from the study of many books.
There is no contradiction between the alchemist Neri and the glass-conciatore Neri; the will of gaining a deep knowledge of nature, based on the observation and experimentation, is common to both. Neri is always 'the technician' and never 'the philosopher'. Alchemy, the "Great Art," is the result of a deep study of nature and its aim is not to give an imitation of nature, but to make it perfect.

The 'modernity' of Neri can also be understood in his way of talking about chemical philosophy. He does not pretend to teach eternal truths, but only to indicate the way to achieve greater knowledge, by "understanding the modus operandi of nature." Consequently, the writer does not use the form of a dogmatic essay, but that of a conversational chat, or 'discourse'.

It would be interesting to discover how Lana Terzi came into possession of Neri's manuscript. Perhaps he was attracted by the mixture of old and new which was also a predominant theme of his time, when different models of knowledge coexisted and intertwined. Discorso offered him the chance of introducing the topic of alchemy without being accused of magism.

-M. G. Grazzini

[1] Grazzini 2012.
[2] Lana Terzi 1670.
[3] Neri 1612, 1613.
* this post first appeared here on 20 November 2013.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Turquoise Glass

Turquoise glass stamp
of calif Mustadi  c.1170.
It is estimated that turquoise is among the earliest gems ever mined. With colors that vary from pastel green to a bright sky blue, it has adorned Egyptian sarcophaguses of 5000 years ago, 3000-year-old Chinese art, Aztec death masks and the domes of Persian palaces. 

When traders brought it to Europe from the Mideast, it became known as "turks" or "turquoise" after the old French for "Turkish." While it has never been mined in Turkey, the most highly valued Persian stones were imported there and used extensively for trade. Polished pieces were famously mounted on Turkish equestrian saddles, in the belief that the material conferred sure-footedness and protection from injury during a fall.

As one of the first gems to be collected and traded, turquoise was also one of the first to be imitated. Egyptian faience blue is an early forerunner of glass. It is more porous than glass, but it contains all the same ingredients and could be cast into forms that look just like solid turquoise. In the seventeenth century, the genuine mineral and its imitation continued to hold importance. In Antonio Neri's book L'Arte Vetraria, the subject is mentioned several times; he offers one recipe to restore faded stones by soaking them in almond oil. For turquoise colored enamels he presents two different shades. On the subject of glass, he notes that "Sky Blue, or more properly turquoise, is a principal color in the art of glassmaking" and "I have made this color often, because it is very necessary in beadmaking and is the most esteemed and prized color in the art."

To make his imitation turquoise glass, Neri starts with a batch of high quality transparent aquamarine blue, to which he adds a specially prepared variety of common salt. "Add it little by little, until the aquamarine color loses its transparency and diaphany becoming opaque."

Take the sea salt known as black salt or rather coarse salt, since the ordinary white salt that they make in Volterra would not be good. Put this salt in a frit kiln or oven to calcine, in order to release all moisture and turn white. Next, grind it well into a fine white powder. This salt now calcined should be stored for the use of making sky blue or rather turquoise color as described below.

Sea salt is mostly composed of sodium chloride, which is like table salt that we use for food. However, it can include significant additional minerals, as implied by Neri’s description of it as "black salt." Additional elements can include sulfur, potassium, manganese and more. Regrettably, he leaves us with no further clues to its identity, nor does he explain why the recipe would not work as well with the salt available from Volterra. He goes on to advise that the mix should be used quickly, because if left to sit in the furnace, the glass would start to revert to an ugly transparent color. The remedy for this is to add more salt. He finishes with some practical advice for glassmakers about adding salt to molten glass:

The furnace conciatore should take careful note here, when you add this salt, if it is not well calcined it always bursts. Therefore, you should be cautious and shield your eyes and vision, because there is a danger you could be hurt. Add the doses of salt little by little putting in a bit at a time pausing from one time to the next until you see the desired color. With this, I do not rely on either dose or weight, but only on my eyes. When I see that the glass reaches the desired level of color, I stop adding salt. This all comes with experience. 

* This post first appeared her in a slightly shorter form on 9 April, 2014.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Cardinal's Ceiling

From "Tesoro del Mondo" (Treasure of the World)
Antonio Neri 1598-1600
In the years 1598-1600, newly ordained Florentine priest and alchemist Antonio Neri was hard at work on a manuscript which he titled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World). [1]  One illustration near the front shows an allegorical map in which six roads all lead to the Vatican at its center. A Latin inscription translates as, "The different ways to Rome" followed by "Qui pot[est] capere capiator 'He that can take, let him take it.' Taken in context, this Biblical reference ( Matthew 19:12) apparently refers to the various alchemical 'paths' leading to the philosopher's stone, but the choice of imagery suggests that Neri spent time in the city of seven hills. [2] It is a tantalizing clue to his travels, although there is no direct confirmation. 

If Rome did figure in the young Neri's itinerary, a visit to Cardinal Francisco Maria Del Monte would have been de rigueur. The Medici family ruled Neri's home region of Tuscany and Cardinal Del Monte was the Medici's informal ambassador in Rome. He was a dedicated patron of the arts, an amateur alchemist, a collector of glass and a trusted successor to Grand Duke Ferdinando in the College of Cardinals. More significantly, he was a close friend and advisor to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio de' Medici ever since that prince was a child.  Del Monte's biographer Zygmunt Waźbiński offers, "It is very likely that Cardinal Del Monte, with his interest in glass, had known then (in 1598) the [future] author [Neri] of L'Arte Vetraria." [3]
Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597
Casino Ludovisi.

As the sixteenth century ended and a new one dawned, Del Monte sheltered the rough-and-tumble painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he set up with an in-house studio and an allowance. However, in 1606, the master of Realism fled Rome after reportedly murdering a tavern waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the vaulted ceiling of Del Monte's own alchemy laboratory. Looking out over Rome, on the panoramic Pincio, in the Villa that later became the Casino Ludovisi and is now known as the Casino dell'Aurora, Caravaggio put his brush to work. According to early biographer of artists, Gian Pietro Bellori, he executed the oil painting on the vaulted ceiling of the small alchemical laboratory (now a corridor) sometime between 1597 and 1600. [4] Depicted in the mural are the three brothers Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: the masters of the universe. The image is a double allegory of the three basic chemical substances of Paracelsus (salt, sulfur and mercury) and the four Aristotelian elements (air, earth, water and fire). Jupiter with the eagle stands for sulfur and air, Neptune with the seahorse stands for mercury and water and Pluto with the three-headed dog Cerberus stands for salt and earth. Jupiter is reaching out to move the central celestial sphere in which the sun (fire) revolves around the earth. [5] 

The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests discretely, including his friend Galileo–Del Monte and his older brother Guidobaldo helped land Galileo the chair of mathematics at the university in Pisa. It would be interesting to hear the astronomer’s comments on Caravaggio's tribute to heliocentrism.


[1] Neri 1598-1600, f.xxviii-v.  (see bibliography).
[2] For more on the alchemical interpretation of this illustration see Grazzini 2012.
[3] Neri 1612.
[4] Bellori 1672, pp. 197-216.
[5] Wallach 1975, pp. 101-112.

* this post first appeared in a slightly different form on 4 July 2014.

Monday, May 21, 2018

San Giusto alle Mura

Window of  Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral,
Florence, Italy.
In Florence, at the very end of the street on which Antonio Neri spent his youth, Borgo Pinti, was the residence and estate of the Archbishop. Beyond were the city walls and the enormous wooden doors of the Porta Pinti gate (115 foot, or 35 meters tall). Just on the other side of the gate, which in Neri’s time was normally closed and guarded, once stood the San Giusto alle Mura monastery, built in the thirteenth century. Despite the similar name, there is no connection between the Ingesuati monks of San Giusto and the modern order known as the Jesuits, which was not formed until 1534 and recognized by the Church in 1540.

The monks at San Giusto were famous for the stained glass windows they made; hence one of numerous theories that the street name 'Pinti' may be a contraction of 'dipinti 'or 'dipintori' (paintings or painters). Using their own glass furnaces, the Ingesuati monks provided windows for the Neri family's church Cestello and for Santa Maria del Fiore among other churches. They also ran an art school and were famous for making the color pigments used by painters, producing a coveted ultramarine blue. Their customers included the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Del Sarto, Ghirlandaio and Filippo Lippi. 

Apparently, the Ingesuati's artistic devotion was not matched by their religious observance. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari recalls the less than complimentary sentiments of the monk's own in-house chaplain, a certain Servite monk named Fra Martino. He notes that the monks do not read Mass, and that they, "do nothing but say paternosters ['our Father...'], make glass windows, distill herbs for sweet waters, dig their gardens, and perform other works of similar kind, but do not study or cultivate letters."

Antonio Neri has a slightly more positive opinion about the value of stained glass windows. In the introduction to L'Arte Vetraria, he waxes poetic: 
Glass is also a great ornament to God's churches since, among other things, many beautiful windows are made, adorned with graceful paintings, in which the metallic colors are so intense and vivid that they seem like so many oriental gems. 
The windows that inspired these lines may well have been made by monks of San Giusto. As a child, Antonio Neri had seen the striking windows in Cestello and in the city cathedral. It would be nice to be able to connect him to the Ingesuati, but in 1529, long before his birth, their entire complex just outside the Pinti Gate was dismantled in defensive preparation for the siege of Florence. The Florentine military cleared away the structures near the outside of the city walls. The monks of San Giusto alle Mura moved to the much smaller Calza Convent on the oltrarno, on the opposite side of town near the Porta Romana gate. They did not rebuild the glassworks at the new location and it is doubtful that any of the glass workers would have still been alive by the time Antonio Neri came of age.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form as "Glass Monks" on 30 September 2013.

Friday, May 18, 2018

True Colors

The European Roller [Pica Marina]
Antonio Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria, is devoted to making glass from raw ingredients found in nature. Many of his finished creations were intended to also resemble the natural world. A number of colors are meant to mimic the appearance of gems and minerals, others are named after plants and animals. Some are easily recognized today, even if they are not as familiar as they were in the seventeenth century. One of his recipes will make "a wonderful pimpernel green," while others evoke peach and orange blossoms. An entire section of the book is focused on paints that are named after the flowers from which the colors are extracted. Many of these plants have remained common: poppies, irises, violets, lilies, carnations and red roses. Others are less so: the mallow, pomegranate, broom and borage flowers.

In addition to flora, the fauna make a few notable appearances in Neri's book. In chapter 16, in the preparation of iron oxide pigments, he advises that after fifteen days in the furnace, the product will be finished when it takes on the purple color of the peacock. In chapter 73 he gives a method for "tinting rock crystal the color of a viper" and chapter 121 is the method for a glass which is "red like blood."

Named in several chapters is a shade of 'celestial blue,' which Neri likens to the color of the "gazzera marina." Common bird names pose a special challenge for translation in that they, like the birds themselves, never seem to settle in space or time for very long. Vernacular names of a species can change from one century to the next, one region to another, even between adjacent valleys and several species can share the same name. It is with this admonition that we attempt to flush out the elusive gazzera marina.

Consulting a modern Italian dictionary draws the eye to the similar sounding 'gazza marina' (alca torda), known in English as the razorbill. This sea bird inhabits coastal cliffs, but alas, as a close relative of the penguin, it dons only black and white formal attire. Digging deeper we find poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, "At Dawn" carefully tracking the gazzera marina across a salty marsh, in his Halcyon. This time the poet himself throws us off the trail with his description, since no bird sports five digits but the chicken. Turning to etymology, we find another potential match in the magpie (pica pica); it is a credible but unconvincing fit with its blue and white plumage.
Aldrovandi's pica marina
Combing the references of Neri's own sixteenth century, we find the best candidate is the roller (pica marina). This bird was described by naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, a friend of Don Antonio de' Medici's father and guest at the Casino di San Marco, where Neri later worked. Other contemporary authors list the gazzera marina as a synonym to Aldrovandi's pica marina. Neri's Latin translator Frisius (1668) and his German translator Geissler (1678) agreed, both sighting the "Pica Marina" in their works.

This post first appeared here on 13 Sept 2013.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Galleria dei Lavori

Giovanni Stradano  (Jan van der Straet) 
Alchemy Studio, 1571
(Inside the Uffizi Galleria dei Lavori)

In 1560, Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Georgio Vassari to begin construction on the Uffizi Palace in Florence. Two wings of the structure frame a long, narrow courtyard leading out to banks of the Arno River. Today it houses one of Europe's premier art museums, but its original design was as the central administration of the Medici government. The lower floor held offices of the regional magistrates, and the upper floor of the west wing (above the mint) held a variety of workshops highlighting Tuscan industry. Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici built a glass furnace there, which he staffed with Muranese masters of the art. He won their expertise through long, hard negotiations with the doge of Venice. 

A 1571 painting by Giovanni Stradano is entitled the Alchemy Studio. It shows Cosmo's son, Francesco I, in the Uffizi surrounded by laboratory equipment and workers. Under the watchful eyes of a senior alchemist, he stirs a chemical preparation over a stove with intense concentration. The prolific glassware in this scene drives home the close relationship between glassmaking and scientific investigation.

By 1588 Francesco's brother, Ferdinando I de' Medici, formally declared this space the Galleria dei Lavori or 'gallery of the works'. There is no direct evidence that Antonio Neri gained his education in alchemy at this facility, but it makes a very attractive candidate. Of note to this story is that a demonstration was performed for Ferdinando de' Medici in Rome that purported to turn half of an iron nail into gold; the work of German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser. In the 1590s, when Neri was being schooled, several accounts describe that the nail (chiodo) remained on display for some time in the Galleria. Neri mentions the nail in his Discorso and Thurneysser is discussed in a 1601 letter to the priest from his friend Emanuel Ximenes.

After Neri's death in 1614, his Medici sponsor, don Antonio commenced a search for the glassmaker's secret of transmutation, which Neri had promised. In testimony given by a royal goldsmith, who had, in July of 1596, witnessed a demonstration in which "gold" was made by Neri, he pressed the glassmaker, who told him that the transmutation was a technique learned from a German, done with ordinary vitriol.  

It is interesting to note that when iron is soaked in a solution of "blue vitriol" now known as copper sulfate, an ion exchange reaction takes place, where the liquid deposits copper and takes up iron from the nail. It would be well into the 18th century before this chemistry was adequately understood. What the royal goldsmith would have seen is  a dull iron nail turn the color of yellow metal before their eyes. Perhaps the goldsmith was not given the opportunity to further test the sample. 

This post first appeared on 16 August 2013.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Weights and Measures

Ford Madox Brown,  The Manchester Murals: 
"The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures, 1556."
In his book L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's glass recipes depended on precise amounts specified in units as small as the 'grano,' [grain] named after the weight (mass) of a single grain of wheat or barley. In interpreting his formulas, the glassmaker must understand the quantities he used. For us, there are unfamiliar units like the 'fiasco' and the 'dita.' The dita or digit was simply the width of a finger. A fiasco or flask was the volume of a glass wine bottle, about two-and-a-quarter liters in Florence or two-thirds of a US gallon - about half of British imperial gallon. (As an aside, there are many fanciful stories of how the word 'fiasco' came to be synonymous with failure or disaster, perhaps the most believable is that the losers of competitions or bets were expected to buy the next round of drinks.)

In addition to unfamiliar units, there is the problem of standardization; a pound in Florence weighed different from a pound in other areas as close as Massa or Piedmont. Each Italian city maintained its own set of master weights and volumes to which merchants were expected to adhere. In reality, the differences were minor and may have been more attributable to politics than accuracy. Since antiquity, commodity merchants realized that if their own set of weights used in sales were ever so slightly below the norm, over time a savings would be realized, not large but significant. Towns could apply this principle as well; it paid to set standards slightly above or below neighboring towns from which one was buying or selling various goods. In truth, the differences were not great simply because successful commerce demanded that buyers and sellers could agree and strike a deal.

Even in different countries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, we find close agreement in the various units of measure. Neri's first translator, Christopher Merrett, made an interesting substitution in his 1662 English version of L'Arte Vetraria. In chapter 132, Merrett writes "six pints of water" for Neri's "libre sei di acqua," changing pounds into pints. At first, it seems odd to be converting weight into volume, but this was perfectly valid. At that time in England, the pint was defined as exactly a pound (of wine or beer). Sailors were often each allotted a pint a day; the pint was also one-eighth of a cubic foot. (A cubic foot was equivalent to a gallon.) This system was very convenient for shipping companies who needed to calculate cargo volume and ballast in their trade ships as well as avoid mutiny caused by running out of beer at sea. Later, in 1824 King George IV increased the gallon from eight to ten pounds of water, invalidating Merrett's substitution.

Other conversions were more problematic. As absolute measurements varied from place to place, the size of a batch would be larger or smaller; not a big worry. However, ratios were of critical importance to a recipe. Just as in baking a cake, an entire batch of glass could be ruined by changing the ratio of materials. This sort of difficulty was especially prevalent with the size of an ounce; the troy and apothecaries system were based on a twelve-ounce pound while the avoirdupois system used a sixteen-ounce pound. When Merrett wrote his translation, England had officially been under the avoirdupois system since Henry VIII (although, In 1588, Elizabeth I complicated matters further by raising the weight of a pound by about twenty-one percent.) Meanwhile, Florence and much of Europe continued to use the troy system.

English glassmakers who wished to use Neri's book as a working document would need to know which system to use. Merrett's direct translation added a hurdle that would confuse the unaware. In order to approximate Neri's intended composition under the prevailing avoirdupois system, Merrett's "ingenious" (as he called them) British readers would need to decrease by 1/5 quantities specified in pounds, and increase ounces by 1/15.

This post first appeared on 18 September 2013.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Thévenot in India

Antique gold Arsi finger ring,
 Rajasthan India.
This is the third and final installment of a series that has followed seventeenth century French tourist Jean de Thévenot from Europe to the Levant and then into Syria. Now he travels to India. We have specifically looked into his diary with an eye toward passages that mention glass or glassmaking. While our intrepid traveler had no special connection to this art, he did possess a keen, inquisitive mind; collectively, his observations about glass give us a glimpse into the state of affairs in the Middle and Far East in the mid 1600s. 


We left off with Thévenot as he headed up the Tigris River toward Baghdad, in the autumn of 1663. While he was anxious to see Mughal India, actually getting there presented some difficulty due to hostilities between the Dutch, British and Portuguese, which extended to their trade operations around the world. After a first attempt was aborted, he made a strategic retreat to Isfahan and bided some time with shorter excursions from there. Finally, in the autumn of 1665 he booked passage on the originally English ship “Hopewell” recently purchased by an Armenian trader and captained by an Italian. [1] The ship departed from Basra and made port at Surat, India in January of 1666.

The city of Agra is in the Northwestern part of India, a thousand kilometers from Surat and the coast; it is known most famously as the home the Taj Mahal. When Thévenot passed through, he noted of the women “They wear a great many [rings], and as they love to see themselves, they have always one with a looking-glass set in it, instead of a stone, which is an inch in diameter.” [2]

These rings, set with a mirror, are known as “arsi” and can still be found in some areas around the country. Indeed, Sharma and Seth note in their 1997 book on contemporary regional costumes and ornaments that mirror rings were popular in the northern most reaches of India. In the western Himalayas at Chamba and as throughout India, they are still worn today. “Arsi or arsu means a mirror. An ornament with this name is a ring fitted with a round mirror or a looking-glass. It is usually worn on the thumb of the right hand. With the help of arsi, the hill woman can look at herself in the mirror and feel assured of her beauty in such places like fairs and festivals. Thus she can stealthily have a glance in the mirror whenever she desires, even in the company of males without feeling awkward.” [3]

Another reference states that in the seventeenth century arsi rings were worn by both men as well as women, but I have been unable to confirm this. In any event, they appear to have been wildly popular. On an earlier expedition through Aleppo, Syria, Thévenot observed “five or six hundred cases of [mirrored] glass” being shipped down the Euphrates River. When he expressed surprise at the rough handling, he was told “that it mattered not, though it were all broken into pieces, because the Indian men and women buy it only to have little pieces set in rings, which serve them for looking-glasses to see themselves in.” [4]

Thévenot’s first landing was in Surat on the west coast of India, about 300km north of Mumbai. In 1688, Captain Alexander Hamilton landed at the same port and recorded, “The [Muslim] women wear gold rings on their fingers, and sometimes one on their thumbs, with a small looking-glass set in it.” [5] Other travelers also noticed the rings:  In the 1660’s Frenchman Souchu de Rennefort observed similarly, “They wear also many [rings] on their fingers, and among the rest, one with a small looking-glass in it, which serves them to contemplate themselves.” [6]

The earliest account I have been able to find recounts not a glass mirror but one of metal. On 25 September 1637, ambassadors from the Danish duke of Holstein were visiting the King of Persia and were entertained by six dancing women from India. The women were accompanied by their husbands who played musical instruments. “Some of them had bracelets of pearl, others of silver, but they had all rings on their fingers, and among the rest, they had upon the thumb, upon which in the place where the stone should be, there was a piece of steel, about the bigness of a crown-piece of silver, and so well polished that it served them for a looking-glass.” [7]

As these accounts suggest, vanity may well have been the motivation for the popularity of the arsi rings, but it is worth noting that mirrors did play a role in some religious practices. Wikipedia states, “The Nizhal Thangals and Pathis have, in their sanctuary, a mirror to reflect the images [of] worshippers. […] The mirror's placement symbolizes that God is inside oneself and it is of no use to seek God elsewhere.” [8] In some Muslim weddings of Southern India, a traditional ritual is called ‘Arsi-Mushaf’ or “the mirror ring and the Quran,” in which the newly betrothed observe each other through a mirror.

Thévenot stayed in India for over a year and crossed the country to its East Coast. Finally, he returned to Surat, sailed to Persia and traveled north back to Shiraz. He spent the summer of 1667 at Isfahan, after suffering an accidental gunshot wound. In the autumn, he started north for Tabriz, but died on the way at Meyaneh on 28 November 1667.


[1] Armenians in Asian Trade in the Early Modern Era, ed. Sushil; Kevonian Chaudhury (Keram). (France: Les Editions de la MSH, 2008) p. 106.
[2]Jean de Thévenot: The Travels Of Monsieur De Thévenot Into The Levant: In Three ..., Volume 3
 (London: Archibald Lovell Faithorne, 1687)v. 3,  p. 38.
[3] Kamal Prashad Sharma, Surinder Mohan Seth: Costumes and Ornaments of Chamba (New Delhi: Indus Publishing,1997), p.113
[4] Jean de Thévenot: “The Travels of Monsieur Thévenot Into The Levant” (London: H. Clark, 1687), v.2, p.40.
[5] Alexander Hamilton, A New Account of the East Indies: Giving an Exact and Copious ..., Volume 1(London: C. Hitch; and A. Millar, 1744) v. 1, p. 165
[6] Gabriel Dellon, Jodocus Crull, Souchu de Rennefort: A voyage to the East-Indies: giving an account of the isles of Madagascar (London: D. Browne, 1698) p. 25
[7] Adam Olearius, John Davies, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the ... (London: Thomas Dring, and John Starkey, 1662), p.277


[8] Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayyavazhi_rituals

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Thévenot Continues East

Stained glass windows of the Nasir al-Mulk 'Pink Mosque', Shiraz, Iran
Photo by Domiri Mohammad Reza Ganji.
(Click to enlarge)
Previously, we followed the progress of seventeenth century tourist Jean de Thévenot, noting his comments about glass as he traveled. He sailed from Rome to Malta to Constantinople to Egypt. He then continued overland through Syria and sailed down the Euphrates River toward the Persian Gulf.  At Basra he turned around and headed north, picking up the Tigris River to Baghdad where he continued eastward to Persia. In Isfahan he described numerous species of plants, animals and insects. Further south he took note of a city where glassmaking captured his attention:


The people of Schiras [Shiraz, Iran] are very witty and the city hath given birth to most of the best poets of Persia. There is much glass made there, and several glass-shops are in town, though they work not constantly in their glass-houses, but let the fire go out after they have employed a certain quantity of materials. They make their glass of a white stone, almost as hard as marble, which they get in a hill four days journey from Schiraz and it is very clear: especially they make great bottles as clear and delicate as in any other place in the world; but it is wonderfully strange how they can blow the great bottles they call ‘Caraba,’ which are as thick as one finger and hold nearly thirty quarts of wine; these bottles are covered with the straw of canes. [1]

Preceding Thévenot in Shiraz by a number of years (1627) was the British traveler, Sir Thomas Herbert, who stated that there was “…no part of the Orient showing better or richer wine.” [2] The mutually beneficial association between the production of wine and glass is one that appears in numerous locations throughout history. That both crafts should occur here, at the center of activity for this region’s premier vineyards should be no surprise. 

The region’s ‘Shirazi’ wines have been connected by various legends to the French Rhone variety now known as ‘Shiraz,’ but the vineyards in Iran are now defunct, and no definite conclusions have been reached, except that if a kinship exists, it is a very ancient one. In other quarters, Marco Polo mentioned Persian wines [3] and Omar Khayyam praised them throughout his Rubaiyat. [4]

At the same time that Thévenot passed through the region, so did fellow Parisian Jean Chardin (Sir John Chardin) who spent about eighteen months visiting (1666-7). It is unknown if the two travelers met. In his own published diary Chardin stated  “The art of glass-making; there are glass houses all over Persia, but most of the glass is full of flaws […] The glass of Chiras [Shiraz] is the finest in the country” and he went on to say that “Moreover, the art of glass-making was brought into Persia within these four score [80] years. A beggarly and covetous Italian taught it at Chiras for the sum of fifty crowns.” [5]

This last passage is often quoted in reference books without comment, to the point that it has become quite famous. At the risk of stating the obvious, the notion that one man, a foreigner, down on his luck, could single handedly bootstrap an entire industry that would fully mature throughout Persia in eighty years is absurd on its face. Beyond that, it is something of an insult to a culture that current scholarship credits with key developments in the invention of glass more than five thousand years ago. [6] Chardin’s condescendence toward Persian artisans and craft in general is well demonstrated throughout his book. His claim is plain enough, however if we want to be charitable, we could speculate that he misunderstood his source, who actually told him that the Italian was responsible for showing European style glassmaking to a well established technical community in Shiraz. Historian Stefano Carboni identifies a fifteenth century downturn and says “in Iran the industry was revived with the help of European, mostly Venetian, craftsmen in Isfahan and Shiraz from the seventeenth century.” [7]

[1] Thévenot v.2, p. 125, 126
[2] Thomas Herbert  “A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile, Begunne Anno 1626.” (London: Stansby and Bloome, 1634), p. 133.
 By Thomas Herbert   also see http://www.saddleflasks.com  “An extensive reference site devoted to Late Persian glass.”
[3] By Marco Polo, “The travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian,” trans. by William Marsden (London: J.M. Dent, 1926), p. 41 (bk.1 ch. 15).
[4] Omar Khayyam, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” trans. by Edward Fitzgerald (Boston: Branden Books, 1989), for example, stanzas VI, XI, XII, XLI, LVI.
[5] John Chardin “Sir John Chardin's Travels in Persia” (New York: Cosimo, 2010) p.275  (abridged English translation of 1724 original).
[6] For instance, see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_glass http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/glass ,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sasanian_glass .
[7]  Stefano Carboni, “Glassware” in Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia edited by Josef W. Meri (New York, Routledge, 2005) v. 1, p. 298.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Travels to the East

Jean de Thévenot, from
"Relation d'un voyage fait au Levant" (1664)
In 1652, at the age of eighteen, a wealthy Frenchman named Jean de Thévenot finished his studies at the University of Paris. He celebrated his achievement with a grand tour that would take him, not just through Europe, but unexpectedly half-way around the world, where among other things he would find glass being made. 

In Rome, he befriended fellow Parisian, Barthélemy d'Herbelot, where they conspired to travel together to the Levant. 

Circumstances detained d'Herbelot and after waiting five months in Malta, Thévenot gave-up on his companion and set out on his own to Constantinople. Four years later, in 1659. He returned home only to prepare for an even more epic adventure, one that would last until his 1667 death in Azerbaijan from an accidental pistol shot. 

Thévenot kept a travel diary, he picked up languages easily and endeavored to blend-in to local culture as much as possible. Throughout his travels he made keen observations of people, customs and of the natural world around him. He published a volume of his adventures to great acclaim, two more would follow after his death. In 1687 his work was translated into English, when it found a whole new audience. 

Of special interest to us are his numerous observations about the glass trade. This was a subject to which he had no special interest or connection, but his natural curiosity and communication skills open a window into an otherwise poorly documented piece of the glass history puzzle.

On Malta, even before embarking for the Far East, he notes that “sore eyes” are a problem because of the bright sun on the white (limestone) earth of the island “which makes many commanders and knights wear green spectacles”; certainly an early incarnation of sunglasses. [1] In Constantinople (today Istanbul) he visited the great mosque Hagia Sophia and remarked “it is full of lamps and curiosities in glass balls, of which one for instance, contains  a little galley, well rigged, another a model of the mosque in wood and the rest a great many pretty knacks of that nature.” [2] Having booked passage out of Alexandria, Egypt on an English gun boat, he explains that the sailors kept track of their speed with a “little slat and very thin piece of wood tied to a line and when they throw it into the sea, they turn a half-minute sand glass […] every seven fathoms of the line making a mile in an hour.” [3] This is the origin of the nautical unit of speed known as the 'knot', the method of paying out line spaced with knots tied in the line at intervals of  8 fathoms - 47 feet 3 inches (14.4 m). This method of reckoning progress with a line was used well into the nineteenth century, the units are still used today, both for boats and aircraft.  A vessel travelling at 1 knot along a meridian travels approximately one minute of geographic latitude in one hour. [4]

In Damascus, Syria, he visited the great mosque there (Umayyda). Some natives kindly offered to take him in, disguised with a turban on his head, but he declines, fearing that if discovered, he will be forced to choose between his life and his Christian faith. Nevertheless he walks around the tremendous structure and observes that “The pavement is all of lovely stones that shine like lookinglass” and he continues “I went up to the terrace-walks, to the windows of that mosque, which are made like the windows of our churches and have panes of glass set in plaster, which are wrought into figures.” [5]

West of Aleppo, Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates River, Thévenot explains that, “barks loaded with glass (of which I will presently speak,) go to Bassora [Basra].” A ‘bark’ or ‘barque’ was a small three masted sailing ship. “While I was at Aleppo, the Sheik Bandar hired a bark to carry five or six hundred cases of glass, which he sent to the Indies.” And “I wondered to see that they who baled up these chests for the Sheik Bandar, tumbled them so rudely that they broke all the glass; but they told me, that it mattered not, though it were all broken into pieces, because the Indian men and women buy it only to have little pieces set in rings, which serve them for lookinglasses to see themselves in. That glass is all over laid with quicksilver on one side and is a very salable commodity in the Indies and profitable to the merchants.” [6]

One implication from this passage is that the named Sheik Bandar ran a glassmaking operation in Aleppo. It is interesting to note that Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri had an uncle, his father’s brother Francesco, who was a merchant living in the Tuscan enclave inside Aleppo about sixty years earlier.

In the next installment we will continue to follow the thread of glassmaking references in the chronicles of Thévenot’s travels which take him to Persia, where he finds a glassmaking center.

[1] Jean de Thévenot, “The Travels of Monsieur Thevenot Into The Levant” (London: H. Clark, 1687) v.1, p. 6.
[2] Ibid, p. 22.
[3] Ibid, p. 268.
[4] See Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knot_(unit).
[5] Ibid, v.2, p 17.


[6] Ibid, p.40.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Deeper Accomplishment

From Antonio Neri, "Treasure of the World"
MS Ferguson 67, f. 22r.
For the past four centuries, Antonio Neri has been best known as the author of L'Arte Vetraria, the first printed book solely devoted to the art of glass formulation. It is a work committed to the subject of refining raw materials and combining them into a range of glasses, over a rainbow of colors. 'First into print' is a notable distinction, but one that Neri surpasses with ease by a deeper accomplishment. His book provides a rare glimpse of skilled practical knowledge. This was an era when prized techniques were frequently lost to subsequent generations; lost because artisans so often spared the pen. Their precious knowledge went purposely unrecorded, passing in strict confidence from master to apprentice working side by side. Neri preserved the old techniques like no other document has.

That 'first into print' is what we remember him for highlights an age-old problem that dogs historians. It is a simplification that puts a convenient handle on Neri, but at the same time, it de-emphasizes the fact that he was not working alone. It plays into a narrative that history, in general, happens in a parade of discrete jumps due to the brilliant discoveries of individuals working in isolation. This is reinforced by the mythology surrounding Neri – that he was a mysterious lone alchemist, wandering around Europe, evading those who would steal the secret of the philosopher’s stone. A similar narrative is applied to one historical figure after another, a form that is so appealing that it fills many history books of our schoolchildren and dictates the story lines of popular media productions (of a certain ilk) about the history of science and technology.

This is not to deny the limelight to anyone. Neri is a comparatively minor contributor and in my humble opinion definitely deserves recognition and even celebration. The danger is that by reducing history to a list of lone individuals making breakthrough discoveries, we distort the truth of how things are done and more to the point; we miss out on the far richer adventure of what really happens.

Never mind that Neri's book chronicles the work of hundreds or thousands of glassmakers that came before him or that he probably would have been far more grateful to be remembered for his work in alchemy and medicine. What sticks is 'first into print.' The reality is that he had the substantial resources of the Renaissance Medici court at his disposal. There is strong evidence based on his own manuscripts and drawings that he worked among a group of at least a dozen colleagues of both sexes, exchanging ideas, experimenting and urging each other on; a mode that no scientist would deny is far closer to the way discovery and innovation really happen.

This cultural defect in our perception of history is by no means a recent development. Even in Neri's own time, the early seventeenth century, the 'lone man' paradigm was well established. He and his contemporaries thought along similar lines about alchemists Arnold Villanova, Ramon Llull and Paracelsus. likewise for physicians that his father idolized like Galen and Dioscorides.

For the first time in history, we each have a tremendous chunk of the past at our fingertips in the form of the internet. It is a golden opportunity, not to be fed history, but to discover it for yourself and perhaps for the rest of us. There is no shortage of connections yet to be made and libraries around the world are availing their treasures freely to anyone with an interest. For a great adventure and an exercise in critical thinking, pick a discovery attributed to your favorite figure in history and ask the question "on whose shoulders was she standing?"



*This post first appeared here on 21 March 2014.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

We Were Trojans

Giovanni Domenico Tipeolo, 
Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy. 1773
In January of 1600, Antonio Neri finished an ambitious manuscript called Treasure of the World, which was devoted to "all of alchemy." On the first page of text after the contents, above the first recipe, on the first line, written in Neri's own hand, are two solitary words, "fuimus troes"; a celebrated quote in Latin from Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. The words translate to "We were Trojans" or more specifically "We Trojans are no more." They lament the fall of a city, sparked by the deception of the great wooden horse concealing enemy soldiers. These were words spoken in grief, in a charged, emotional scene, accepting defeat. We were once proud Trojans, but no more. While the intended significance in Neri’s manuscript may be lost, it is further affirmation of his academic grounding. What rings through the fog of history in these words, is the unmistakable passion behind them.

        Tis come, the inevitable hour,
        The supreme day of Darden power;
        Our history’s ended: Troy’s no more,
        And all her mighty glory o’er. 
            - Aneid 2,324.
            (William King, trans.)

The scene in the Aeneid takes place at night, under the stars. The hero Aeneas  sound asleep, wakes from his bed to the burning pillage of his city. After years under siege, the gates of Troy were breached – not by brute force, but by cunning deception. The streets are in flames, piled with the bodies of slaughtered innocents. Panthus, the priest from the temple of Apollo, with his grandson in tow, runs to Aeneus and exclaims that Troy and the Trojans are no more: "Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium." He entrusts Aeneus with the sacred vessels and icons from the temple. Aeneus fights his way out to safety, carrying his own father on his back. He goes on to wander the Mediterranean. Later he enlists the help of the Etruscans (the ancient Florentines). Together, on the banks of the Tiber River, he fulfills his destiny by founding the city of Rome, or so the story tells.

In its broadest interpretation, those two words written by Virgil in the first century BCE, fuimus troes, have since been used to evoke the human drive to continue after a devastating blow. The loss of their widowed father in 1598 put the Neri children into a similar situation. The following year, Antonio's younger brother Emilio died at the age of sixteen on Christmas day. Two simple words scribbled at the top of a manuscript, yet they evoke the imagery of a man fighting his way out of a burning city, carrying the temple's sacred treasure. Behind all the recipes for glass and medicine and alchemy, there is a man of flesh and blood, one who felt life’s cruelties yet did persevere.

This post first appeared on 30 August 2013.