Monday, July 30, 2018

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.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Deadly Fumes

Memento mori, 1605.
Nikolaus Alexander  Mair von Landshut.
17th century glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri handled very dangerous materials on a daily basis. He used strong acids, which if splattered could easily burn flesh, or cause blindness. He handled poisonous compounds containing arsenic, mercury and lead. If ingested, or inhaled as fumes these materials caused progressive, irreversible damage to internal organs and especially to the nervous system. There is no question that Neri did take chances with his health, but he was not naive. He knew very well many of the potential dangers and others he could well imagine. In chapter 74 of his book L'Arte Vetraria, he describes a way to tint rock crystal with beautiful colors. He wrote: 
Take orpiment of that really tawny orange-yellow color and pulverize 2 ounces of this along with 2 ounces of powdered crystalline arsenic, 1 ounce of pulverized crude antimony, and 1 ounce of sal ammoniac. […] Perform this entire operation under a large chimney to draw the fumes out of the room. These fumes are not only harmful but also quite deadly. Return to see if the coals have died down, because for the work to come out nicely, they must be burning well and full. For the remainder, leave and let the fire run its course with no one in the room with the work, for it is dangerous; the harsh materials will smoke quite a bit. Leave it to finish all fuming by itself and then extinguish the fire and spread the coals.[1]
In the spring of 1603, Neri was working in Pisa and became seriously ill. The specific cause and symptoms of his ailment are not known. He could have been harmed by one of his own experiments, or just as easily fallen prey to an infection or one of many other maladies prevalent in the early seventeenth century. He postponed his planned visit to Antwerp in order to recuperate. Finally, on 2 May 1603, his friend Emmanuel Ximenes wrote: "Praise God that your indisposition has ended ... if the Pisan air is suited to your recovery then do not change it." [2]

In the winter of 1603-4 Neri embarked on what would become a seven-year-long visit to his friend's palace in Antwerp. There, he would learn many new techniques, and ultimately have special glass vessels made and presented to Philip William, Prince of Orange. Upon his return to Tuscany in 1611, he sat down to write the book for which he is most remembered, L'Arte Vetraria. Two years after publication, in 1614, the priest would be dead. According to the only known account, printed over two centuries later by Francesco Inghirami.
Meanwhile, Neri became gravely ill, so he called the prince to come to him, having the promised the secret [of the philosophers stone]. But the Medici, who was in the countryside, took too much time; the patient died before the prince could be with him. Don Antonio was not quieted and he questioned all of Neri’s friends to see if he could find the information, but his efforts were in vain, as they should be in so groundless a science, although Giacinto Salducci [sic.] said that he had seen great things, specifically a powder that fixed mercury into gold. [3]

[1] Neri 1612, ch. 74.
[2] Ximenes 1601–11, also see Zecchin 1987–89, v. 1, pp. 165–169.
[3] Inghirami 1841–44,v. 13, pp. 457–458 probably based on Targioni-Tozzetti  189.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form on 30 October 2013.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Encomium for a Female Glassblower

Woman flameworking glass
(Attribution Unknown, late 19th cent.)
In 1743, Britain was ruled by George II, although the Jacobites in Scotland were plotting to install Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne. That year, Samuel Johnson was a 33 year old struggling writer and his still-to-be famed biographer James Boswell was just a toddler in Edinburgh. Also in Edinburgh, in 1743, exhibiting for a short time only, was Mrs. Johnston, an itinerant fancy glassblower.

‘Fancy' glassblowing refers to the process of working, not at a furnace, but at a table over an oil lamp with rods of glass. The artist formed the glass into small objects; rigged ships, animals, flowers, religious icons, beads and other ornaments. Glass spinning was a related process in which the heat of the lamp flame was used to draw an extremely fine continuous filament of glass that was collected on a large spinning wheel. The result was a mass of almost silk-like floss that was soft and flexible; nothing like the brittle glass of a cup or a window pane. Spinning demonstrations never failed to fascinate audiences and were a staple of fancy glass blowing acts well into the twentieth century.

Artists would often take suggestions from spectators on what to make and then form the piece on the spot. A common technique was to repeatedly touch a thin rod of glass, called a stringer, along the piece under construction forming a series of little loops in the flame. Rows of loops build up a surface that resembles knitting and a skilled artist can form finished pieces quickly. Eventually, both spinning and the knitting techniques became known generically as ‘spun glass’.

Although not well chronicled, this type of demonstration was performed at fairs and other shows as far back as the fifteenth century, and probably earlier. Because of their popularity with women and children, female fancy glass workers were not only well accepted, but commanded a premium at these events.

Below is a lovely correspondence appearing in the local Edinburgh newspaper in January of 1743. The writer is so taken by Mrs. Johnston’s demonstration that he or she was moved to compose a poem. In terms of documenting eighteenth century glass artists, it simply does not get any better:

“To The Publishers of the Caledonian Mercury. Reading a former letter of Leonora’s, curiosity inclined me to see Mrs Johnston the glass spinner, and was agreeably surprised to find the encomiums given her fall short of the character she justly deserves; so I hope the gentlemen, as well as the ladies, will solicit in the behalf of the celebrated artist, as is due her merit.  Therefore,

Let Britain quite enjoy its transport round,
Or Johnston’s praise to all the nation sound;
For me, to humble distance I’ll retire,
There gaze, and with secret joy admire:
My native Scotland such a one can boast,
On whom the praises of the world are lost,
For her own works do justly praise her most.

By giving this a place in your paper, you will oblige, yours, etcetera  -- Torisment. [1]

Two weeks later, appearing in the same paper is Mrs. Johnston’s reaction:

“When a person is obliged to persons unknown, the best way is to return them thanks in the most public manner: therefore Mrs. Johnston, the glass blower and spinner, returns thanks to all the gentlemen and ladies who have honored her with their presence; but more especially the gentleman and lady who did her that honour in the public paper: She cannot show her gratitude in any other way than by her best prayers for their felicity, which she shall always think herself to do both for them and all other her benefactors. Her stay being short in this kingdom, she performs now for the small price of sixpence per piece. [2]

[1] The Caledonian Mercury, Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 Jan 1743, p. 3.
[2] Op. cit., 24 Jan 1743, p. 3.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Discovery of Glass

Giovan Maria Butteri,
"The Discovery of Glass"
Studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici
Any self-respecting Roman historian living in the first century could tell you the story that glass was first discovered by Phoenician sailors. They were temporarily grounded at the bay of Haifa, near the Belus River, in the shadow of Mount Carmel, forced ashore by a storm. Needing to eat, they improvised a fire on the beach in order to cook their food. Using natron, a mineral they were carrying as cargo on the ship, they built up a stove. To their amazement, in the heat of the fire, the natron mixed with the beach sand started to melt and liquid glass trickled out.

Actually, starting with Pliny the Elder, the author of most famous version of this story, skepticism abounds about how much of it was true. Nevertheless, if we gently tease apart the loose threads of this yarn we find that it is not without substance. First, there is the location; not just any port in a storm, this region was the site of a thriving glass industry as early as the sixth century BCE, due to the exceptional, pure white sand at the outlet of the Belus river. Archaeologists have excavated ancient glass furnaces at the nearby cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Next, the sodium carbonates in natron do indeed form glass when mixed with fine sand and brought to a high temperature, but this takes strong, concentrated heat, likely more than could be provided by a cook's beach fire. Natron is a hydroscopic mineral – this means it pulls moisture out of the surrounding environment. The water is locked into its solid crystal structure, where it remains until it is released either chemically or through heat. Natron can hold a remarkable amount of water, up to two-thirds of its weight. This is why it was used extensively to preserve mummies in Egypt; it dried out the bodies, quickly preserving them. While the story of the Phoenician sailors deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, it is also easy to see how the decomposition of the natron in the fire, resulting in the release of briny liquor, might be misinterpreted as glass.

In the early 1600s glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri published the first printed book of glass recipes, and in his introduction he too recounts the tale. However, in Neri's telling, natron does not make an appearance. Instead, the sailors use 'kali,' a coastal plant that is rich in alkali salts, to fuel their fire. The salts in kali are substantially similar to natron and, according to the story, triggered a similar result. In this period, Kali ash was a well-known ingredient in glass making. Neri used it in his own recipes, so the substitution is not surprising, but in this respect, Neri's version of the story does appear to be unique in the literature. It is interesting to note that Lodovico Domenichi, who was good friends with Neri's grandfather, tells a version of this story in his Italian translation of Pliny's Natural History. Here the sailors use natron, but in the next paragraph, Domenichi describes how local natives later used the plants to make their own glass.

The above depiction of the discovery of glass was painted by Butteri, one of a select group of painters for the Medici court in Florence. The work was commissioned to hang in the secret "studiolo" of Francesco de' Medici, a concealed barrel vaulted room tucked under a staircase in the Palazzo Vecchio in the early 1570's. It was only accessible through secret passages, one leading from Francesco's bed chamber. Another led from the chamber to an unmarked door on the street and a third passage led from the chamber to the secret treasury room once used by his father, Grand Duke Cosimo I. The walls and ceiling were entirely filled with paintings, the lower ones concealing cabinets full of oddities of nature, precious gems, coins, alchemical concoctions, and other treasures. Presumably, the cabinet behind Butteri's "Discovery of glass" would house some of the intricate Venetian glass vessels for which the craftsmen of Murano had become world famous. Shortly before the room was completed, a small number of these glass masters were allowed to teach their secrets in Florence by special arrangement with the Venetian government.

This post first appeared in a shorter form here on 9 October 2013.

Friday, July 20, 2018

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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Reniassance Lapidaries

Antonio Neri, Tesoro del Mondo, 1598-1600
f. 7v, "Ars Preparatio Lapidum"
In 1598, in his early twenties, before his glassmaking career began, Antonio Neri completed an extraordinary manuscript. Tesoro del Mondo or 'Treasure of the World' was devoted to all aspects of alchemy and was intended for publication, but it never saw a printer's ink. By a minor miracle of providence, the manuscript survives today, in the special collections department of the University of Glasgow Library. The pages include a set of fascinating images, this one (left) among them.   Labeled "The Art of Preparing Stone," the picture shows five men working with various pieces of equipment related to the art. [1]

In the upper-left a lapidary works at a polishing wheel. It turns at low speed, driven by a belt which is powered from below, possibly by a foot pedal. The artisan holds two polishing fixtures against the surface of the disk, while four more stand at the end of the table. Under this workstation is an inscription in Italianate Latin that reads "Accontiare et lustrare pietre praciose" [preparing/dressing and polishing precious stones]. Behind the lapidary are shelves holding finished pieces. They range from small objects that appear to be rings, to cups, vessels and large bowls, presumably all made from stones, gems or minerals. 

Proceeding clockwise to the upper-right side of the image, we arrive at a worker tending a furnace with iron tools. Inside is a crucible sitting in the flames. Below is the firebox, and underneath that is the word "Calcinare" [calcination], which in Neri's parlance refers to the process of breaking down a material into a powder usually through the use of heat. Neri uses this method extensively in his glass formulations; in his book L'Arte Vetraria, [2] almost every colorant discussed is a metal which requires "calcination" before use in the glass melt. In the case of stone, Neri uses the furnace to make the main ingredient of glass. He breaks down quartz stones into powder by repeatedly heating them and then quenching in cold clean water. The rocks fracture into coarse granules which are then ground into a fine powder.

The middle-right of the illustration shows a worker checking on a distilling apparatus. This consists of a small stove and three pieces of glassware.  The "body" holding the raw material to be evaporated or sublimated is capped by a "head" that sports a long snout leading to a "receiver" vessel which collects the finished product.  Stills were useful in producing everything from alcoholic spirits like grappa to acids and reagents. Their specific use in stonework is not clear, possibly in dissolving precious metals from the constituent minerals in stone.

The lower-right portion of the image depicts two men seated at a low bench, each holding specialized tools used to shape "alabaster, marble and porphyry." Finally, in the lower-left we see a specialized mortar and pestle used to grind stone and minerals into a fine powder.

The two benches and the distilling stove all bear a distinctive diamond shaped insignia with a small circle at its center. The two men in the lower portion of the illustration appear to be working on a stone inlay version of this same pattern.  The implication is of an identifying symbol, but a specific affiliation is elusive.

 This technique of creating designs entirely in colorful gems and minerals (pietre dure) is an ancient one revived by the Medici family, specifically by its first three grand dukes.  In the 1560s Cosimo de' Medici employed two such artisans (commessi) in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. By the 1570s a larger group was working out of Francesco de' Medici's new palace, the Casino di San Marco. In 1588 Ferdinando de' Medici moved them into the Galleria dei Lavori [Gallery of Works] at the Uffizi Palace where they were named the "Opificio delle Pietre Dure." [workshop of hard-stone]  There the organization thrived and refined the art of creating inlaid stonework to the point of producing realistic life-like scenes. Their work graces the most opulent spaces in Florence, including the Chapel of Princes and the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Opificio delle Pietre Dure continues to operate to this day. The organization has been charged with the maintenance and conservation of many of Italy's great works of art. They maintain a worldwide reputation for excellence. [3]

It seems well within the realm of possibility that Neri's illustration indeed depicts an early incarnation of the Opificio. The artisans working in Pietre dure were handling precious materials and as such might not be readily accessible to the general public. The fact that Antonio Neri's father was a prestigious member of the Medici royal court all but ensured his entree to the royal workshops.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, f. 7v.
[2] Neri 1612.
[3] Official website:
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 3 Sept 2014.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kitchen Alchemy

Tesoro del Mondo, "Ars Preparatio Animalium"
Antonio Neri 1598-1600, f. 10r (MS Ferguson 67).
Between 1598 and 1600, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript filled with alchemical recipes. He entitled it Tesoro del Mondo or "Treasure of the World" and stated that it was a book in draft form, intended for publication. It never did see the ink of a printer's press, but Neri's original did survive intact and today occupies a place of pride in the Ferguson Collection of the University of Glasgow Library. [1]

Tesoro is an ambitious work, devoted to "all of alchemy," containing numerous hand-drawn ink and watercolor illustrations; some of the pictures are allegorical, many others document practitioners working with equipment. Only passing reference is made in this manuscript to Neri's later claim to fame: glass—its most notable appearance in Tesoro  is in illustrations of experimental vessels. 1598 was two or three years before Antonio's glassmaking career is thought to have started. His life was busy on other fronts. He had just been ordained as a Catholic Priest, undergoing the laying on of hands ceremony, probably by his neighbor on Borgo Pinti, the Florentine archbishop Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici. 1598 was also a year of tragedy for the Neri family; by the summer, his father Neri Neri, personal physician to the grand duke, died of an unknown illness, but not before making arrangements for his family, which included a will. A court magistrate would oversee the now orphaned children's education, inheritance and dowries. They would soon suffer further tragedy in the unexpected death of a brother; sixteen year-old Emilio would leave them on Christmas day of the following year, in Castello outside Florence. 

The losses must have been devastating. In 1598, five of the nine children were still under the age of twenty. Without a mother or father, great responsibility must have fallen on the shoulders of the matriarch of the house, the children's elderly paternal grandmother Maddalena. [2] To outsiders, the Neri's were a wealthy and quite well respected family, but internally, the tragic events undoubtedly threw their lives into turmoil. It is in these circumstances that Antonio started his manuscript. The events allude to the reasoning behind a cryptic Latin quote scribbled at the top of a page above the first recipe of Tesoro: "fuimus troes." It means, "We are Trojans no more" From Virgil's Aeneid, referring to the fall of Troy. [3] 

Early in the manuscript there is a series of four illustrations, each showing a different activity, In order, they are titled The Art of Preparation of Stones, Metals, Plants and Animals. [4] Each is filled with multiple workers engaged in various activities pertinent to the specific art. Each highlights interactions between the Aristotelian elements: air, water, earth and fire. There is no specific indication of where any of the four scenes take place, although some educated guesses can be taken. For instance, the stone workers, or lapidaries, almost certainly are an early incarnation of the famed 'Opificio delle pietre dure' working in the Uffizi's Galleria dei Lavori. But we will leave that discussion for another time. 

Of the four illustrations, "Preparing Animals" focuses on activity within a kitchen. (See above, click to enlarge). The scene is intriguing in that it appears to take place in a domestic setting. Labels call out the four Aristotelian elements; birds hanging from the rafters represent air, fish on a grilling rack represent water, a whole carcass on the spit represents earth and fire appears as itself. The scene suggest that this setting is none other than the Neri family kitchen and that the practitioners of the art are three of Antonio's siblings. In the middle right, a young boy is engaged in turning the spit (in green). The best candidate would be then eleven year-old Allesandro, the eventual heir to the family, whose own son named Neri would carry on the family practice as a physician. Of the two young women pictured, the three family choices are fourteen year-old Lucretia, Sixteen year-old Maria and twenty-six year-old Lessandra.

In one sense, the methodology of alchemy lives-on today in kitchens around the world. The process of combining raw ingredients and cooking them together, of experimentation and of iteratively refining a recipe to perfection, this is not so different from what Antonio Neri and his siblings were doing four hundred years ago.

[1] Neri 1598-1600.
[2] Maddalena di Bartolomeo di Niccolò Bartoloz[z]i, married Jacopo Neri, and they gave birth to Antonio’s father Neri Neri. (ASF 599).
[3] Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium, et ingens Gloria Teucrorum. [We Trojans are at an end, Illium has ended and the vast glory of the Trojans], The Aeneid: Book 2, Line 325.  See also the post in this blog ( dated 13 June 2014.
[4] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 7r, 8r, 9r, 10r.
* This post first appeared here on 27 August 2014,

Friday, July 13, 2018


Vintage 1920's Water Glass Label.
The temperature of 1500 degrees (825C) was comfortably within reach of seventeenth century glassmakers like Antonio Neri. It was also achievable in much earlier times and was used in one of the earliest chemical reactions of  human industry; the production of "lime" by heating seashells or limestone to the above mentioned temperature. This is the point at which these materials give up the carbon dioxide gas bound into their chemical structure, leaving behind calcium oxide, otherwise known as lime.

What makes lime so useful is a property early Roman engineers knew well; that when mixed with water, lime undergoes a chemical reaction that releases heat and quickly solidifies into a rock-hard mass that is impervious to the elements. The Romans used it as a construction material; they mixed it with ash, clay, sand and stones to form mortar, cement and concrete. It has played a critical role ever since in the construction of buildings, roads and monuments.

Today it is perhaps not an obvious choice in imagining the supplies of a seventeenth century alchemist’s cabinet; lime does not require exotic methods to produce, it was made in industrial quantities and readily available as a construction material. Nevertheless, lime played an important part in many diverse chemical preparations of the day. Antonio Neri mentions it numerous times in his writing. He used it in his lute recipe; a hard, cement like coating which protected alchemical glassware in direct flame and sealed joints. He also used it to extract the color from flowers in the production of paints. Most notably, he used lime as an ingredient in the formulation of glass itself. 

Lime turns out to be a rather critical ingredient in glassmaking and the central player in a mystery about the history of glass that to this day has not been satisfactorily explained. Neri obtained the white powder from suppliers as "lime cake." Early in his book, L'Arte Vetraria, he states it should be used in all his glass recipes. 
Take lime salt, which is used for building. Purify this salt and mix it with ordinary Levantine polverino salt in the proportion of 2 pounds per 100, which is 2 pounds of lime salt, to every 100 pounds of polverino salt, purified and well made, as previously described. With this salt mixture, you can make yourself ordinary frit, and put it in the crucible to clarify. I will refer to this frit from now on in the recipes for cristallino, cristallo, and common glass. This way you will have cristallo quite subtle and beautiful.[1]
The above excerpt is the full extent of Neri's discussion on lime in glassmaking. An interesting point here is that he does not say why lime is so necessary, but it is. [2] He must have known that adding too much lime will cause glass to become cloudy, the exact opposite effect that he was after. What is not so clear is if Neri (or anyone else in that period) knew that too little lime allows glass to dissolve slowly when exposed to water. 

One of the great enduring mysteries in the history of glassmaking is the question of exactly when it was clearly understood that lime was so important. The subject became a matter of deliberate chemical investigation in the eighteenth century, but the use of lime extends much earlier. Some of the earliest glass fragments known contain healthy amounts of lime. Neri's ambiguous endorsement is the first mention in print, but even among much earlier manuscripts, its role is unclear. In the first century, Roman author Pliny made a cryptic reference to adding seashells to the glass melt, but again, without further explanation. [3] Analysis of ancient glass often shows a significant lime content; seemingly more than could be reasonably accounted for by happy accident or contamination. The ingredient is never mentioned in most surviving early recipes. Of course, it may be that  lime is present in many ancient glass artifacts precisely because those artifacts are the ones that have survived without dissolving.

Some have speculated that calcium could have been introduced inadvertently as seashell fragments when sand was crushed into powder for glassmaking. This hypothesis is certainly possible, but it seems suspect considering just how much seashell would be required and how fussy the glassmakers were in obtaining pure white sand from particular locations. However, a distinction must be made between knowing that sand from a particular location makes good glass, and knowing what is in that sand. 

Perhaps the most famous such site for good glassmaking sand is the "Belus" [Na'aman] River outlet in what is now northern Israel. This is where the story of the discovery of glass takes place, as told by Pliny and other early writers. Sailors were driven here by a storm, they used natron (glassmaking salt) [4] from their cargo to hold their cooking pots up over a beach fire, and when the natron mixed with the sand in the fire, glass was formed. Or so the story tells. The nearby Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon are known to have hosted a thriving glass industry. The sand in this area is composed of exceptionally pure quartz, with a healthy amount of calcium from shells ground down from wave action. Together these make an ideal mix for stable glass. 

There is some evidence that experimenters such as Basil Valentine were aware that glass without lime would dissolve as early as 1520. [5] For what it is worth, I can contribute some anecdotal evidence from the twentieth century. There is a well-known product called water-glass that is essentially composed of dissolved glass without the lime. [6] My glass artist friend Emilio tells me that growing up on Murano in Venice, his mother regularly preserved fresh eggs by dipping them in water-glass, which when dry, formed a hard seal over the existing shell. Presumably, she learned the technique from her own mother. I do not know of any early references, but the use of water-glass clearly indicates a knowledge of the role lime played.

There are other explanations possible for the addition of lime to glass. Lime was a commodity that was made since ancient times, in furnaces very similar to the ones producing glass. In fact, Neri specifies the use of a “limekiln” for the production of his enamels. The archaeological remains of Tyre and Sidon show prolific use of lime based plaster and mortar in their construction practices and there are indications of lime making facilities. It seems only good business sense that the same furnaces making glass may have also been making lime. Cross contamination, and even experimentation would be a natural outcome. 

[1] Neri 1612, ch 7.
[2] As an aside, magnesia (MgO) can also serve as a stabilizer in glass.
[3] Pliny, Natural History v.36, ch. 66.192.
[4] Natron is a mix of sodium carbonates. 
[5] Basil Valentine, et al. see footnote 6 of the Wikipedia article on sodium silicate for a discussion.
[6] Sodium Silicate.
* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 10 October 2014.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Fire and Brimstone

The Alchemical Symbol for Sulfur
Bright yellow elemental sulfur or “brimstone” as it was often called, occupied a central place in the cabinets of seventeenth century alchemists. Antonio Neri used it in many of his preparations and specifically in pigments for glass. When sulfur is heated with thin sheets or shavings of metal, foul smelling chemical reactions can take place that reduce the metal to a powdered compound and some of these turn out to be effective glass colorants. Neri’s 1612 book, L’Arte Vetraria, offers a variety of recipes, which specifically prepare iron and copper using sulfur to form pigments. In reality, the resultant chemicals were mixtures of oxides and sulfur compounds. Since these also chemically interact with each other in the glass melt, many different effects are possible. Modern glass artists sometimes specifically use both oxide and sulfide pigmented glass side by side in the same piece; a striking effect can be the spontaneous formation of a third color along the boundary. As Neri says in the closing line of his book:
Although I have placed here the way to make this powder with much clarity, do not presuppose that I have described a way to make something ordinary, but rather a true treasure of nature, and this for the delight of kind and curious spirits.[1]
Keep in mind that the thinking of alchemist Neri was that the sulfur acted upon the metal, but did not necessarily combine with it. From his point of view, the exposure resulted in the metal’s infusion with new properties. The Aristotelian conception of the world was that everything under the sun contained various amounts of four elemental essences: air, water, fire and earth. Sulfur was seen to be dominated by the latter two, ‘fire’ because it burned easily and ‘earth’ because it occurs as a solid.

In the sixteenth century, a Swiss physician named Paracelsus developed an extension of the four-element system. After his death, his writings enjoyed a new popularity among chemical experimenters in the period that Neri came of age. Since his teenage years, the work of Paracelsus was a strong influence on both Neri and separately on his benefactor, Florentine prince Don Antonio de’ Medici. According to Paracelsus, sulfur was one of a triad of “principles” consisting of salt, sulfur and mercury. These three had philosophical as well as physical interpretations attached to them. Besides other applications, like in medicine, the three physical materials figured prominently in efforts to transmute one metal into another. 

In fact, sulfur in particular played a starring role in a very convincing demonstration that purported to turn iron into copper. Mining operations often utilized water to clean or separate ore from tailings. Other times, water was used to keep dust down, or simply flowed naturally through underground springs. When sulfur-bearing earth is exposed to air and moisture, the result can be the formation of dilute sulfuric acid. This “vitriol” was an irritant to the eyes and skin, and very unpopular with the miners. However, in at least one location, it seemed to have a miraculous property. When this “vitriolated water” flowed out of the mine, it seemed to transform bits of iron into copper. [2]

Chemically, copper had already been dissolved in the acid, forming a copper sulfate solution. But sulfuric acid shows a preference for iron. When the copper solution flowed over iron tools, it took up the iron and dropped the copper, depositing it in a thin layer. The effect appeared to be a transmutation of iron into copper. Further testing and scrutiny confirmed that pure iron, when exposed to the mine fluids resulted in real copper. Neri for one was well aware that the vitriolated water might have arrived containing copper, as he explains in his manuscript Discorso. [3] But apparently, it did not occur to him that the water leaving the scene might have contained the iron. If he had made the connection, the observation would have advanced the understanding of both ion-exchange chemistry and the principal of conservation of matter; these were two ideas that would not be explored seriously for another hundred years.

Well into the eighteenth century, the mine at Smolnik, (now in Slovakia), was a highly touted tourist destination for chemical experimenters. [4] For some, it was considered among the strongest evidence that transmutation could and did take place in the natural world. I like this demonstration so much because it works the same way as a parlor trick; while we are so intently focused on the metal changing before our eyes, Mother Nature quietly slips the copper in with one hand and takes the iron away with the other, no one the wiser.

[1] Neri 1612, p.114.
[2] See this post for a more detailed description
[3] Grazzini 2102.
[4] The effect had previously been described Georgius Agricola, in book 5 [9] of Nature Fossilium. See edition, transl. from the first Latin edition of 1546 by Mark Chance Bandy, Jean A. Bandy (New York: Mineralogical Society of America, 1955), p. 188.
*This post first appeared here on 7 November 2014.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Dregs of Alchemy

"The struggle of fixed and volatile" 
allegorical illustration from
Splendor solis [detail] 16th C.
To 17th century Italian glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri, "Dregs" were otherwise known as terra, gruma, immondita, terrestreità and the evocative sporchezza. It was the "filth" and sediment left in the bottom of vessels after useful material was extracted from a preparation. These often foul-smelling substances were sometimes discarded:
Then filter out the dregs of the vitriol impregnated water; that which is yellowish you should throw away. –L’Arte Vetraria, chap. 38.
Other times, dregs were further refined. A notable example was the potassium rich muck left at the bottom of aged wine barrels. This was Neri's secret ingredient in producing a fine, sparkling cristallo glass. To understand the distinction between the useful and the useless forms of dregs, we must dig deeper into Neri's philosophy.

It might be surprising to some that these lowliest of materials could play an important role in the theory of transmutation—the alchemists' ultimate quest—which was to turn base metals into gold and silver. The idea was that a natural evolutionary process occurred in which  primordial material from the creation of the universe would, over time, mature through the lesser metals into pure gold. It was thought that this maturation was prompted by "seeds" of gold contained in the material. In Neri's view, this could be interrupted by various natural circumstances and could be restarted or sped-up through alchemical manipulation.

If one was to "purify" lesser metals into gold, it was advisable to know what needed to be removed. In his manuscript Discorso, Neri carefully explains five categories of impurity, which he then breaks down further into two sub-groups:
It should be noted in general, that in dealing with the [Aristotelian] elements in accordance with chemical philosophy, we can say that all mixed bodies in this art are discovered to contain five kinds of impure substances, which are completely dead and without any virtue or properties effective to [alchemical] operations. Two are from impure substances and three from pure substances, where all the strength, effectiveness and virtue are located specific to each mixture. Of the two [derived from the impure] one is called 'phlegm', which is to say a watery substance with no odor or taste and the other is called 'dead body' [corpo morto] or 'damned earth' [terra dannata], an earthy substance that is equally tasteless and without virtue.[1]
Indeed, in Neri's chemical philosophy, the above two useless forms of impurity (phlegm and corpo morto) are complemented by three useful forms (salt, oil or true sulfur and spirit or mercury), which are present in so-called pure materials. Researcher Maria Grazzini notes in her annotations to the manuscript that: "The chemical philosophy to which Neri refers is Paracelsian, which in addition to the four Aristotelian elements introduces the principal triad (tria prima) of salt, sulfur, and mercury. References to sulfur and mercury were already present in Arabic alchemy." [2] 
Of the other three [derived from the pure] one is called 'salt' and it is the so-called most fixed substance because it is resistant to the violence of fire; it does not flee or vanish into the air. The second is called 'oil' or 'true sulfur' because of the similarity to it, fatty and viscous. The third is called 'spirit' because it is more spiritual and volatile than all the others and even the slightest heat will cause it to dissipate into the air if it has not been bound to the salt, which is the component fixed by the oil. By its tenacious, slimy nature, [oil] acts to bind the volatile to the fixed. These three types are those of the pure substances, which are called by many other names; 'body', 'soul' [anima], 'spirit'; 'bitter', 'sweet', 'acid'; 'salt', 'sulfur', 'mercury' etc.
In them alone are placed all of the virtue and effectiveness of the minerals, the vegetables and the animals, even if the quantity of pure substance is very small in comparison with the impure in any kind of mixed body. These [three] are found in each mixed quantity of pure substance, in comparison with the ineffectual found in the impure. [3] 
In his view, it is these last three forms of impurity that hold the key to transmutation, which tends to puts dregs in a whole new light.

[1] Grazzini 2012, p. 339.
[2] Ibid, note 45, p. 339.
[3] Ibid, p. 340.
* This post first appeared here on 20August 2014.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Glass Salt

Diderot, d'Alembert, L'Encyclopédie (1772) Raking Out Roasted Frit
Making glass from raw materials involves several steps. In his 1612 book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri breaks the process down into parts so that, "given a bit of experience and practice, as long as you do not purposely foul-up, it will be impossible to fail." Pure white sand, or preferably quartz river stones which Neri calls "tarso" is broken up and pulverized into a fine powder. The initial work can be done by heating the stones in a furnace, then dropping them into a vat of clean cold water, where they will fracture due to the thermal shock. The process was often repeated multiple times. From there, the pieces are pulverized in a stone mortar and pestle. Stone, because metal tools would contaminate the quartz, and in the end tint the glass. Finally, a powder is obtained by grinding with a stone tool on a flat granite "porphyry stone." This powdered quartz is the main ingredient of glass.

The second critical ingredient is the flux, what Neri calls "glass salt" or "soda." This can be obtained from mineral sources, but European glassmakers in the seventeenth century extracted all their salt from certain plants. The powdered quartz was mixed with the salt and a third ingredient, which is critical, lime. Lime is simply calcium oxide used by builders to make cement. It is nothing more than pulverized seashells roasted to a high temperature. Neri advises using two pounds of lime for every hundred pounds of salt. He specifies that it should be added to all his frit recipes, but it is not clear that he understood its critical importance; without lime, the glass would be subject to attack by mere water, eventually decomposing. This mixture of soda, lime and silica when heated in a kiln would chemically react forming "frit." The combined materials were raked around in a kiln for a long period (many hours) and finally formed nut sized pieces. It was cooled and heaped into piles in dry cellars where it was aged for a time. This is where some real "magic" in glassmaking takes place. The glass salt or soda dramatically lowers the melting temperature of the quartz, all the way down to a point that was easily achieved in a wood fired furnace. When a batch of glass was made, the aged frit was then melted in furnace crucibles and skimmed to remove excess salt, which floated on the surface; it could foul the glass, and smelled terrible. The melted glass, now ready to work, was sometimes colored and finally made into objects by gaffers. 

Neri obtained his glass salt from products shipped by traders from the Levant (eastern Mediterranean). It was supplied as the dried, partially charred remains of special plants that grow in arid seaside conditions. Shipping them this way cut down on weight and volume, and prevented rotting. These Soda and Kali plants contain large amounts of sodium carbonates. This is a white powder, chemically identical to what we know as "washing soda." He advises, 
In buying either of these make sure it is richly salted. This may be determined by touching it with the tongue in order to taste its saltiness; but the surest way of all is to do a test in a crucible and to see if it contains much sand or stones, a thing common in this art and very well known by glass conciatori.
He crushes any large pieces of the product in a stone mortar, and sifts the result through a fine screen, ensuring that most of what remains is salt.  
As the common proverb of the art of glassmaking says: a fine sieve and dry wood bring honor to the furnace. Then with any of these sodas, 100 pounds of soda ordinarily requires 85 to 90 pounds of tarso.
Neri sets up large cauldrons of clean water over brickwork stoves, adds the plant product and boils the water. He strains the insoluble parts out and reduces the liquid by evaporation until crystals of the salt start to form on the surface. He skims these off and continues the process. Finally he carefully dries the product. Our glassmaker describes several variations of this process, including one in which he takes extreme measures to ensure the purity of the salt and clarity of the finished glass. In all, this is a task that could easily take several weeks to perform for the amount of frit to fill a single pot for the gaffer to work.

Not content with the established materials, our glassmaker experimented extensively with other plants: 
[U]se the husks and stalks of fava beans after the farmhands have thrashed and shelled them. With the rules and diligence prescribed for the Levantine polverino salt, extract the salt from this ash, which will be marvelous, and from which a frit can be made using well-sifted white tarso, as is described throughout this work. A very noble frit will result, which in the crucible will make a crystal of all beauty. The same may be made from the ashes of cabbages, or a thorn bush that bears small fruit, called the blackberry, even from millet, rush, marsh reeds, and from many other plants that will relinquish their salt. *
*These other plants produce potassium carbonate salts with similar properties to sodium carbonate.
** This post first appeared here 9 December 2013.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Benjamin Franklin and Glass

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

Benjamin Franklin and His Gathering of Glassmakers

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, lampworked glass murrina, 
2016, by Stephen BoehmeRivertonUtah
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) became famous in his own lifetime as a printer, author, inventor, statesman, diplomat and scientific investigator. The man gracing the hundred-dollar bill has been celebrated for his work in a formidable range of fields, so perhaps we should not be surprised to learn of one that has largely escaped notice. In fact, there is an extraordinary further chapter to be told. Franklin fostered a lifelong fascination with glass and spent considerable energy in efforts to attract talent from Europe to work in America.

Glass and glassmaking garnered not only Franklin’s own enthusiasm, but also that of his family and friends. He worked closely with artisans on two continents and applied his considerable knowledge of glass to areas ranging from music to optics to electrical experimentation. On his European diplomatic missions, he tirelessly encouraged foreign glass workers to set up shop in the colonies. In the decades before America gained independence, he recognized and promoted the vital importance of glassmaking. Unbeknownst to many, Benjamin Franklin played a sustained and influential role in the formation of the American glassmaking industry. 

His connections to the field were wide ranging; his older, favorite brother, John Franklin, became co-founder of a glass factory in Braintree Massachusetts from the late 1740s to early 1750s. [1] In Philadelphia, Benjamin befriended Thomas Godfrey (1704–1749), a glazier, optician, glass and instrument maker who rented space from Franklin to work on new inventions. Lambert Emerson was another glass related acquaintance and fellow Freemason; an émigré from Dublin who advertised in Franklin’s newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette as a “looking glass maker at the Sign of the looking Glass in Front Street, Philadelphia.” [2] Franklin’s neighbor, Caspar Wistar, was a German glassmaker from Cologne. He owned the nearby glassworks at Alloway Creek in Salem County, New Jersey, just twenty miles south of Philadelphia. Besides making windows and bottles, Wistar manufactured special “philosophical” glassware for Franklin, used in his electrical investigations. 

But Franklin had much more than a passing familiarity with glassmaking. In 1746, he advised Connecticut businessman Thomas Darling on the particulars of running a glass foundry, referring to Wistar’s New Jersey operation. In his correspondence, Franklin consistently referred to his neighbor’s ‘Wistarburgh Glass Manufactory’ as “our glasshouse,” strongly implying a business relationship with Wistar. He is credited with several of his own glass inventions. Two popular items that particularly employed glass were bifocal spectacles and his musical armonica. 

Over his lifetime, Franklin traveled to Europe four times between 1725-75. In London, Paris and on side excursions throughout Europe, he was in frequent contact with glassmakers and he spent considerable effort encouraging them to immigrate to America. 
He understood the strong potential of a glass industry as an economic driver and as a window to groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Critically, he also understood the value of inviting foreign workers to participate in the American dream. In London, he frequented the Royal Society (of scientific investigators) and was correspondent and houseguest of such luminaries as Joseph Priestly, David Hume and Erasmus Darwin. Glass was a hot topic of discussion in these circles due to the recent development of electrostatic generators and Leyden jars, which all had critical components made of glass. 

Franklin continued his efforts to woo glassmakers to America, but plainly, it was not always easy. In a correspondence of 1771, we see a rare pessimism rear its head. In Philadelphia, Joseph Leacock, a cousin of his wife, partnered with a local tanner to start a glass factory on what is now Richmond Street. They wrote to Franklin in London hoping to find workers, but his reply was not encouraging, “It is always a Difficulty here to meet with good Workmen and sober that are willing to go abroad. I heartily wish you Success in your laudable Undertaking to supply your Country with so useful a Manufacture…” [3] He had already seen a deal fall apart a couple of months earlier. Dutch glassworker Jacob Schaub borrowed money from Franklin to book passage across the Atlantic bound for the Stiegel Glassworks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Schaub then failed to appear for work. [4]

After nearly four decades championing an American glass industry, word seems to have gotten around. Although his responses are not available, glassmakers wrote to Franklin from around Europe. In 1778, he received a letter from French master glassmaker Müller de la Piolotte, who explained his family’s long history in the art, starting with his ancestors in the Black Forest of Germany. The 43-year-old bachelor had worked in Champagny, Burgundy and in the Alsace-Lorrain regions of France. 

By 1783, the war was over; Britain conceded and signed an armistice with the United States. Franklin received official permission to entertain applications from those willing to immigrate to the former colonies to work; the floodgates opened and finally he received the interest among glassmakers that he had sought all along. Among the letters from many diverse tradesmen around Europe, in July he received one from Bremen, Germany. The family of Herman Heyman thanked Franklin for letters of introduction. They asked for the ambassador’s consideration of “a Plan which we lately received from one of our principal Glass Manufacturers in upper Germany, who intend to establish a Glass Manufactory in Nord [sic] America.” [5]

In October, he received a letter from a Paris glassmaker who worked for the famed Brossard family of Normandy. This man, Sutter, had heard rumors that Franklin was looking for master glassmakers to work in Philadelphia. He offered his services and suggested that he could convince several other glass workers to accompany him. [6]

In January of 1784, Franklin again heard from the Heyman family, in Germany, who wrote,
… to inform you that three other Gentlemen with me Considered most Earnestly … to Erect a Glass-Manufactory in some part of the United states, and we Chused Maryland to be the properest Country for it. … One of my three Friends Mr. John Fried Amelong who had the Mánage of a Glass Manufactory here in Germany will go himself in the spring by the first Vessell [sic] over to Baltimore and take the Direction of the intended Establishing Glas[s] Manufactory, he Carries besides him 80 more Families all Experiented to our Purpose in the Vessell for Baltimore [sic]. [7]

In February of 1784, Caquery de Mezancy wrote to Franklin, on behalf of five other French glassworkers. He had come from a well-known glassmaking family and a month earlier, he discussed with Franklin his desire to establish a glassworks in America. Franklin assured him that once there, they would have no trouble finding a partner who would furnish all necessary funds; he also indicated that they would receive free passage on an American ship. [8]

In 1785, Franklin himself boarded one of those ships and returned to America for good. Even into his eighties, as a senior statesman-scientist he was engaged and still thinking about glass. In 1787 his good friend, astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse wrote him this note, perhaps about a sample of copper ruby or gold ruby glass, in which the color develops upon reheating, a so-called 'striking glass':
I broke a little bit off the colourless end of the Glass Tube and placed it in the focus of the Burning Glass leaving it there several minutes, but no change was produced in its Colour. After examining it I exposed it again to the collected rays of the Sun without observing the least change in its colour, but touching it with the end of a small splinter of Cedar wood the wood took fire and the Glass immediately became a fire red. [9]
Franklin and Rittenhouse enjoyed a regular Wednesday appointment, when they met with others and talked about their interests. Thomas Jefferson once commented that he would happily trade a week in Paris for a single evening shooting the breeze with Franklin and Rittenhouse at one of their gatherings. [10]

Franklin’s America was driven by the promise of fresh talent flooding in from abroad. In the realm of glassmaking, he spent a lifetime courting workers from foreign lands to settle here and become his trusted friends and neighbors. Perhaps we should end with a light-hearted but poignant piece of advice written in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, in August of 1736 when he was just thirty-years-old, “Don't throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.” [11]

 [1] The glass factory in Braintree Massachusetts was founded by Joseph Crell, John Franklin and Peter Etter in the late 1740s. In 1752, others assumed management. See Carla J.Mulford, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015, p. 156. Thanks to Gail Bardhan of the Rakow Research Library of the Corning Museum of Glass for her assistance on this point and many others throughout the article.
[2] The Knight of Glin, James Peill, John Rogers, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art., et al (2007), Irish Furniture, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, p. 37. For the Freemason reference, see The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 25, 1741. Franklin was the chapter’s grand master by 1734.
[3] Letter to Joseph Leacock and Robert Towers from BF, London dated 22 Aug 1772. See The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (1959–) New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, v. 19, p. 282. Also, see 
[4] Henry William Stiegel (1729-83) owned three glasshouses, in Lancaster County Pa. See letter from Richard Bache to Franklin, dated 16 May 1772 (Bache was Franklin’s son-in-law).
[5] Letter from sons of Herman Heyman, Bremen to BF, Passay, dated 31 July 1783. Op. cit. Papers of BF, v. 40, p. 143.
[6] Letter from Mr. Sutter to BF, Passay, dated 29 October 1783. Op. cit., Papers of BF, v. 41, p. 548.
[7] Letter from Herman Heyman Jr., Bremen to BF, Passay, dated 19 January 1784. Op. cit., Papers of BF, v. 41, p. 489–90.
[8] Op. Cit., Papers of BF, v. 41, p. 552.
[9] Note to Dr. Franklin, from David Rittenhouse, Monday noon [c. 1787]. Op. cit. Papers of BF, (forthcoming).
[10] Kevin Keim, Peter Keim, (2007). A Grand Old Flag, a History of the United States through Its Flags. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 43.

[11] BF (1736), Poor Richard’s Almanack, Philadelphia, August 1736, (v. 2, p. 141), see