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, October 31, 2018

Neri's Enamels

Enameled Pendant, Pope Gregory IX
Attr. Italian, mid 17th  c
In the sixth part of his 1612 book, L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri presents his recipes for enamels. These are a form of glass meant to be applied in thin layers like paint, and fired quickly in a kiln or open flame. In the early seventeenth century, enamels were used to decorate both glass and gold. Neri does not present any methods specifically addressing technique or application, but he does leave a number of color recipes. He also praises the talent of a good friend, who worked on glass in 1601, at the Casino di San Marco in Florence.  "At that time, the task of scheduling furnace work fell to the outstanding Mr. Nicolò Landi, my close friend and a man of rare talent in enamel work at the oil lamp."

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Early Modern Aleppo

Aleppo, 1764
Antonio Neri is famous for  his 1612 book on making glass, [1] but in the late sixteenth century his father was also famous; Neri Neri, as he was called, was a graduate of  the esteemed 'Studio Fiorentino', head of the Florentine physicians and apothecaries guild, and royal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici.  

In those days, one of the best connections a physician could have was a reliable associate who could procure the exotic herbs and remedies prepared in the Orient. To have such a contact in one's family was even better, but perhaps best of all was an older brother who was a merchant living in the fabled city of Aleppo, located in Syria at the very end of the Silk Road. The brother of Neri Neri was named Francesco or "Franco" [2] for short and Aleppo was no ordinary city; it was a sort of international crossroads for traders connecting north and south, east and west. It was where silk and cotton were traded for wool and metals, where gold and silver changed hands for rubies and lapis, and where exotic spices and medicinal preparations could be found and exported to places like Venice and  Florence. [3] In 1583, Englishman John Eldred passed through Aleppo and recorded this:
[W]e passed forward with camels three dayes more untill we came to Aleppo, where we arrived the 21 of May. This is the greatest place of traffique for a dry towne that is in all those parts: for hither resort Jews, Tartarians, Persians, Armenians, Egyptians, Indians, and many sorts of Christians, and enjoy freedome of their  consciences, and bring thither many kinds of rich merchandises. In the middest of this towne also standeth a goodly castle raised on high, with a garrison of foure or five hundred Janisaries [Sultan’s guard]. Within foure miles round about are goodly gardens and vineyards and trees, which beare goodly fruit neere unto the river side, which is but small; the walls are about three English miles in compasse, but the suburbs are almost as much more. The towne is greatly peopled. [4]
Aleppo has been in continuous occupation since prehistoric times; at least as far back as 5000 BCE, according to archaeologists. Stones were laid there before there was paper or written language or glass for that matter. There is a legend that the Arabic name for Aleppo, 'Halab' once meant "gave out milk" and was a reference to when Abraham gave milk from his white cows to travelers as they passed through the area. 

1563, when Franco Neri was still a young man of twenty-six, living in Aleppo, both he and his father were referenced in a couple of documents.  They are still held in the grand ducal archives in Florence, written in the reign of Cosimo I de' Medici. [5] This indicates, at the very least that the Neri family was in service to the leaders of Florence three full decades before Antonio Neri would make glass for Prince Don Antonio de' Medici.

In the sixteenth century the Christians in Aleppo lived in a tightly knit neighborhood that developed as a result of an Ottoman invasion around 1400. There were four churches standing side by side in the Jdeydeh quarter, only the old Maronite Church of Saint Elias was associated with the  Roman Catholic Church. If Franco Neri was in town when the above John Eldred passed through with his two companions, it is not impossible that they could have attended mass in the same church one Sunday in late May of 1583. 

Two decades later, the Emir (prince) of Aleppo, Fakhr-al-Din II forged an alliance with Tuscany, which apparently involved both economic and military provisions. He was attempting to break free of the Ottoman Empire and is considered by some to be the father of the Lebanese independence movement. He would go on to spend a number of years visiting Italy and Florence in particular, where he formed a friendship with then Grand Duke Cosimo II. 

Today, the beautiful, ancient city of Aleppo stands mostly deserted and partly demolished by war. Some news stories sight the determination and character of the current independence movement by quoting a poet, al-Mutanabbi, who lived in the mid tenth century. He spent the better part of a decade at the royal court of Aleppo, where it is said he did his best work. His most quoted lines are from a piece sometimes called "the poem that killed the poet." A legend tells that one night he was cornered by his enemies. Ready to flee, he was reminded of his own words by a servant, which caused him to stay and fight. The poem closes this way:


The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men. 
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen. [6]


[1] Neri, L’Arte Vetraria. (Firenze: Giunti, 1614).

[2] Registri Battesimali Firenze, reg. 10, f. 71v.  3 Feb., 1537, born to Jacopo Neri, barber [and surgeon] from dicomano, in the parish of San Ambrogio, Florence. (A couple of blocks from the Borgo Pinti childhood home of Antonio Neri.)

[3] Gian Pietro Vieusseux, Archivio storico italiano,  vol. 141, Issues 517-518 (Firenze, Leo S. Olschki, 1983), p. 370. “His correspondence also makes several references to the activity carried out by the Venetian court who had often had occasion to attend to solicit the interests of friends or acquaintances as Francesco Neri of Aleppo, the Capponi and Rinuccini [families].” 

[4] Richard Hakluyt, A selection of curious, rare and early voyages ..., (London: R. H. Evans, 1810)v. 2,  p. 403. “The voyage of M. John Eldred to Tripolis in Syria by sea, and from thence by land and river to Babylon and Balsara. 1583”

[5] Carteggio universale di Cosimo I de Medici /XI Archivio di Stato di Firenze Inventario XI (1560 – 1564) Mediceo del Principato Filze 489-499°, pp. 162, 206; /XII (1562-1565) Filze 500-514 p. 60.

[6] al-Mutanabbi (915-965 AD). He is thought to have spent nine years in Aleppo where he composed some of his best work, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Mutanabbi  See also http://aminotes.tumblr.com/post/33116016101/aleppo-a-city-in-flames 

Translated into German by Friedrich Dieterici, ed, tr. Mutanabbii carmina cum Commentario Wfthidii, (Berlin, 1858-1861), pp. 481-4. vv. 1-22, then into English by Nicholson, who wrote of Mutanabbi, “Although the verbal legerdemain which is so conspicuous in his poetry cannot be reproduced in another language, the lines translated below may be taken as a favorable and sufficiently characteristic specimen of his style.” Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (Unwin, 1907).p. 307. Subsequently Nicholson published the present version in Reynold A. Nicholson, Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1922), p. 80. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Alchemical Glassware

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

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

* This post first appeared here on 27 December 2015.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Torricelli and Glass

Evangelista Torricelli
by Lorenzo Lippi, circa 1647
Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) is remembered as the inventor of the mercury barometer. Lesser known are a number of significant contributions he made to mathematics, astronomy and physics. There is no direct connection to the Florentine alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri—Torricelli was only a boy of six when Neri died—yet there are unmistakable echoes left by Neri that are amplified when we examine Torricelli’s time in Florence.   

In 1632, Torricelli wrote a letter to Galileo, which began a friendship that lasted until the famous astronomer died a decade later. In fact, Galileo invited Torricelli to stay at his house where they spent the last three months of Galileo’s life working together. If Torricelli had not heard of Neri before, perhaps he became acquainted through the copy of L’Arte Vetraria that Galileo had on his bookshelf. Afterward, while preparing to return to Rome, Torricelli was intercepted by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de' Medici, who asked him to succeed Galileo as the chair of mathematics at Pisa. He was given a good salary and quarters at the fabulous palace in the center of Florence, that is now called the Medici-Riccardi.  

Historian Mario Gliozzi writes: “Torricelli remained in Florence until his death; these years, the happiest of his life, were filled with the greatest scientific activity. Esteemed for his polished, brilliant, and witty conversation, he soon formed friendships with the outstanding representatives of Florentine culture.” [1]  The ancient palace itself was largely empty in this period, inhabited by a handful of relatives, officials, intellectuals and artists connected with the Grand Ducal court. [2]

Among Torricelli’s companions at the palace were the three sons of Don Antonio de’ Medici, Antonio Neri’s long time benefactor. The boys, Paolo (1616-1656), Giulio (1617-1670) and Antonfrancesco (1618-1659) moved there in 1646. None of the brothers had personally met Neri, as they were all born shortly after his death, but they must have heard plenty about him growing up. As children, they had the run of the Casino di San Marco, the palace where Neri had made glass and pursued the secrets of alchemy. After Neri’s death, their father, Don Antonio spent significant time trying to hunt down Neri’s secret recipe for transmutation. Years later, when Giulio died in 1670, among his possessions were found a box of elixirs and “a booklet, entitled: Material of all the compounds of Priest Antonio Neri; there is a red dustcover, which says ‘experiments.’” [3] The materials were handed over to Jacinto Talducci, the Grand Duke’s chief chemist, and master of the new glassworks established in the Boboli Gardens, a man whom Torricelli depended on for glass. Talducci was also a veteran of the Casino di San Marco Laboratory; according to legend, as a boy he personally witnessed Neri’s transmutation of gold. Curiously, at Giulio’s death he was listed as living on Borgo Pinti in Florence, the same street on which Antonio Neri grew up. Also the same street where Galileo was tutored in  mathematics as a boy -- at the monastery where Neri's family attended church.

While in Florence, Torricelli took a great interest in optics. Again quoting Gliozzi:
[T]here is very good evidence of his technical ability in working telescope lenses, a skill almost certainly acquired during his stay in Florence. By the autumn of 1642 he was already capable of making lenses that were in no way mediocre, although they did not attain the excellence of those made by Francesco Fontana, at that time the most renowned Italian telescope maker. Torricelli had set out to emulate and surpass Fontana. By 1643 he was already able to obtain lenses equal to Fontana’s or perhaps even better, but above all he had come to understand that what is really important for the efficiency of a lens is the perfectly spherical machining of the surface, which he carried out with refined techniques. The efficiency of Torricelli’s lenses was recognized by the grand duke, who in 1644 presented Torricelli with a gold necklace bearing a medal with the motto “Virtutis praemia.” 
The fame of Torricelli’s excellent lenses quickly became widespread and he received many requests, which he fulfilled at a good profit. He attributed the efficiency of telescopes fitted with his lenses to a machining process that was kept secret at the time but was described in certain papers passed at Torricelli’s death to the grand duke, who gave them to Viviani, after which they were lost.
Gliozzi continues to describe that in 1924 one of Torricelli’s lenses was examined optically using the diffraction grating. “It was found to be of exquisite workmanship, so much so that one face was seen to have been machined better than the mirror taken as reference surface, and was constructed with the most advanced technique of the period.”

In addition to precision glass for lenses, Torricelli depended on Talducci and the grand duke’s furnace for scientific glassware; his experiments that demonstrated the measurement of air pressure required glass tubes, sealed at one end, two ‘cubits’ long (about four feet). They needed to be strong enough to be filled with mercury (which is very heavy) without breaking. It took his colleague Mersenne a couple of years (until 1646) to match the Florentines and obtain an acceptable tube from the French glassworks. 

Torricelli worked with former employees of the Casino di San Marco laboratory who knew Neri, he lived with Don Antonio’s three sons and he took a keen interest in glass; it seems impossible for him to be unaware of Neri and the echoes of his work in Florence.

[1] Mario Gliozzi "Torricelli, Evangelista" in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia.com.  http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2830904345.html

[2] 1609-1659 - The last inhabitants of Palazzo Medici http://www.palazzo-medici.it/mediateca/en/Scheda_1609-1659_-_Ultimi_abitanti_di_Palazzo_Medici_

[3] Covoni 1892, p. 193.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Michel Montaigne

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

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

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



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

Friday, October 19, 2018

Philosophical Explosion

Glass drops demonstration in slow motion
(Starts after the ad)
Previously, we started a tour through Europe that followed the introduction of an item called a "glass drop,"  "Prince Rupert's drop" or "Dutch tear." [1] Today we will explore the attempt of an enlightenment philosopher to explain the phenomenon. First, take a look at the dramatic video (above) of an actual glass drop exploding in slow motion.

In the late seventeenth century, the demonstration of glass drops was sweeping through the parlors of Europe. Consisting of nothing more than palm sized piece of glass with a bulbous nose and a tail that tapered to a point, this little item became a topic of fascination for intellectuals and experimenters alike. [2] Formed by simply letting a gob of glass drip into a bucket of cold water, the fat end could endure strong blows with a hammer, yet snap off the slender tail and the whole piece would erupt into a hail of glass dust and fragments.
Thomas Hobbes
by John Mitchel Wright,
(National Portrait Gallery)

Robert Hooke conducted a series of experiments, and observed the results carefully under a microscope. He arrived at conclusions that were largely correct even though the very nature of matter was still under debate. The molten glass on the surface of the drop cooled rapidly, as the still molten interior cooled more slowly, the drop shrunk, leaving the inside compressed. The result was a highly stressed surface that resisted the hammer. Snapping the tail caused a shock wave of cracks to propagate through the drop, releasing the tension, shattering the entire object into fragments no larger than a grain of sand.
Fig. of glass drop,
Thomas Hobbes, Problematica Physica, 1662 

Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes was less successful in his attempt to explain the phenomenon, yet not entirely off the mark. [3] Hobbes asks us to consider all matter as possessing "circular internal motion" even when the object as a whole is at rest. He reasoned the heat generated in a glass furnace increased this internal motion both in its "compass" or extent and in speed. When the drop was quenched, the glass that hit the water first has its internal motion changed:
Because the main drop A comes first to the water, it is therefore first quenched, and consequently the motion of the parts of that drop, which by the fire were made to be moved in a larger compass, is by the water made to shrink into lesser circles towards the other end B, but with the same or not much less swiftness.
He further reasons that this action causes the glass to form a structure like threads that run the length of the drop:
Seeing also this motion in every small part of the glass, is not only circular, but proceeds also all along the glass from A to B, the whole motion compounded will be such as the motion of spinning any soft matter into thread, and will dispose the whole body of the glass in threads, which in other hard bodies are called the grain.
Finally, he concludes that all these "threads" are bundled together tightly at the tail end of the drop. When the tail is snapped, 
By the breaking of the glass at C, [the threads] be all at once set at liberty; and then all at once being suddenly unbent, like so many brittle and overbent bows, their strings breaking, be shivered in pieces.
A somewhat tortured connection could be made between Hobbes' theory of internal motion and molecular kinetics, but it is a stretch. The truth of the matter is that his explanation of the glass drop demonstration is elegant and unfortunately, it is also wrong. How did Robert Hooke arrive at a correct conclusion while Hobbes and many others failed? It is a good question because it gets to heart of how successful science is done. Part of the answer lay in Hooke's careful experimentation and detailed observations; he tests his theories wherever he can, and extends his senses with instruments like the microscope. Hobbes develops a series of analogies, but he never devises experiments to test them. To be fair, both men end with conclusions that go beyond what could be observed or measured at the time, and in that realm either one of them could have stumbled. In the end, a correct theory can only be one that does not contradict what actually happens in nature.

In science, obsessive testing and measuring is certainly necessary to arrive at correct conclusions, however it is not sufficient. In other words, there is no guaranteed path to ensure a correct explanation. For this reason alone it is essential to understand that the universe does not follow the laws of physics, it is the other way around; the universe does what it does whether we have a rule for it or not. The 'laws' are our best guess at how nature operates; calling them by that name is a bit pretentious. However, when these laws have been tested repeatedly by our brightest minds, when we observe they are consistent with nature whether peering at the infinitesimal through a microscope or across the galaxy through a telescope, that is what makes science worthy of celebration. [4]


[1] Paul Engle, Conciatore Blog, 2 January 2017; http://www.conciatore.org/2017/01/hookes-tears.html
[2] Niccolò Angelo Tinassi , ed., Il Giornale de Letterati: per tutto l'anno 1672 (Rome : Nicolò Angelo Tinassi, 1672), p. 95.
[3] Thomas Hobbes, Problematica Physica, 1662 (translated in English in 1682 as Seven Philosophical Problems) pp. 36-39, 146-148.
[4] For an interesting rhyme about glass drops recited by Benjamin Franklin see Engle, "Benjamin Franklin and his Gathering of Glassmakers" in Bulletin of the National American Glass Club, Spring/Summer 2016.
Video Credit: Glass drops demonstration in slow motion. courtesy of the American Ceramics Society http://ceramics.org/ceramic-tech-today/video-glass-science-of-prince-ruperts-drop-captured-with-high-speed-cameras
* This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on Conciatore Blog, on 7 January 2015.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hooke's Tears

Glass drops or tears coated in glue,
after detonation, (cross section is left)
from Robert Hooke's
Micrographia 1664, between p. 10, 11.
In 1661, an Italian reprint of Antonio Neri’s book of glassmaking recipes appeared. One year later, an English translation was published in London by physician Christopher Merrett. As an appendix, Merrett included an account of “glass drops” or tears as demonstrated to the Royal Society. These were molten gathers of glass that were allowed to drip into a bucket of cold water and cool. They formed a round, bulbous front end and a tail that trailed off to a thin filament. What made them so fascinating was that the bulbous end can easily endure strong blows with a hammer, but when the thin filament tail is snapped off, the whole piece explodes into a hail of tiny fragments “and in the dark, sparks [flash] at every break of their surface.” [1]

These glass drops became a novelty at royal courts throughout Europe, given a glass furnace they were easy to make, easy to demonstrate, and never failed to amaze observers who had not seen them before. They sparked animated discussion in the many scientific societies that had sprung up; what forces of nature were involved that a piece of glass could resist a hammer yet explode into dust at the loss of its slender tail? 

In the late seventeenth century a Roman publisher by the name of Tinassi [2] regularly issued compilation of noteworthy letters. In his journal’s edition for the year 1672, he published two letters by Geminiano Montanari, a mathematics professor at the university in Bologna, both on the subject of glass drops. In the introduction, he suggests that these curiosities were
Believed to be introduced in Sweden, Holland, then in England, France and Italy; In Paris in the year 1656, many experiments were made at the Academia which met at the home of Mr. Montmor. [3] Many have written of this, among others Monconys [4] in his "Journey to England,” [5] Thomas Hobbes in his Problematica Physica, [6][…] and Christopher Merrett, which in the Latin translation of L’Arte Vetraria of Antonio Neri, [7] is inserted the experiences of the Royal [Society] of England, [and] Mr. Robert Hooke [8] in his Micrographia. [9]
At a time when the concepts of atoms and molecules were still being debated, the glass drops became a nucleus around which a new science developed of mechanical tension and compression. A simple drip of glass caused sharp minds to puzzle and to take a closer look. 

In  Micrographia, Robert Hooke wrote about how he “ground away neer two thirds of the ball, yet would it not fly to pieces, but now and then some small rings of it would snap and fly off, not without a brisk noise and quick motion, leaving the Surface of the drop whence it flew very prettily branched or creased, which was easily discoverable by the Microscope. This drop, after I had thus ground it, without at all impairing the remnant that was not ground away, I caused to fly immediately all into sand upon the nipping off of the very tip of its slender end.”

Hooke continues to describe coating drops in fish glue (isinglass) which was tough enough to hold the piece together when the tail was snapped. “The drop gave a crack like the rest, and gave my hand a pretty brisk impulse: but yet the skin and leather was so strong as to keep the parts from flying out of their former posture and, the skin being transparent, I found that the drop retained exactly its former figure and polish, but was grown perfectly opacious and all over flaw’d, all those flaws lying in the manner of rings, from bottom or blunt end, to the very top or small point.” (See illustration above.)

He discovers that heating the glass drop and then allowing it to cool slowly neutralizes the explosive effect. Finally, he puts it all together: rapid cooling of the surface causes the interior to be compressed like a spring. Snipping the tail, where the skin is thinnest releases all the pent-up energy at once and the piece explodes.


[1] Tinassi 1672, p. 95.
[2] Niccolò Angelo Tinassi, active 1654-1690.
[3] Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor (c. 1600–1679), founded the Montmor Academy, which met at his house in Paris from 1657 until its dissolution in 1664.
[4] Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665). 
[5] Monconys 1677,  for glass drops see pp. 32, 42 (fig. 4). https://books.google.com/books?id=L0b687oZRVQC
[6] 1662. Problematica Physica (translated in English in 1682 as Seven Philosophical Problems)
[7] This reference is not to Merrett’s 1662 translation of Neri (1612), but to the 1668 or 1669 edition by Frisius in Amsterdam which includes Merret’s annotations.
[8] Robert Hooke (1635–1703). 
[9] Hooke 1664, pp. 33–44.
*This post first appeared here 2 January 2015

Monday, October 15, 2018

Secret Laboratory

The Studiolo of Francesco de' Medici,
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
In all likelihood, Antonio Neri started his glassmaking career around 1601 in the laboratory palace of Medici prince Don Antonio. The Casino di San Marco is located on the north side of Florence, not far from where the old city walls once stood. It was purpose-built as a laboratory by Don Antonio’s father, Grand Duke Francesco and stands on the former location of the sculptural school that Michelangelo attended as a boy. The Casino is a remarkable structure in the history of science, however, our subject today is not the laboratory but one of its primary inspirations, located across town in the Palazzo Vecchio; The Studiolo of Francesco de’ Medici.

Books of secrets, like Neri’s L’Arte Vetraria exposed methods to transform nature. Cabinets of curiosities, on the other hand, celebrated the finished products as well as nature’s ready-made treasures. These so-called cabinets were a sort of physical counterpart to books of secrets. Starting as small collections of exotic objects, princes and nobles strove to out-do each other and the largest examples encompassed entire rooms. In the early 1570s, at around age thirty, Francesco de’ Medici initiated a special project; he constructed a secret room in the Palazzo Vecchio. [1] Accessible through a concealed staircase in his bedroom, this small, but opulent, study chamber was devoted to natural curiosities and secrets. The “Studiolo” contained his collection of rare gems, exotic seashells, animal horns, chemicals, potions, scientific instruments and other strange and wonderful treasures collected from around the world. 

From floor to barrel-vaulted ceiling, paintings and niched sculptures covered the chamber walls. Celebrated artist Giorgio Vasari designed and constructed the secret room in partnership with Vincenzo Borghini, a Benedictine priest and close Medici advisor. [2]  In all, thirty-two of the city’s artists contributed to the project, although most had no idea where their work was destined to hang. Francesco organized paintings such that each wall was themed by one of the four Aristotelian elements: air, earth, water and fire. Behind nineteen of the lower paintings, cabinets housed the treasures of Francesco’s collection. From within the Studiolo two other secret passages were accessible from behind concealed panels. One leads to a smaller private treasury once used by Francesco’s father, Cosimo and another leads down a stairs to an unmarked outside door on the street. [3]

Part study and part museum, Francesco used the Studiolo to escape public life and explore the secrets of nature. This menagerie and ones like it were an outgrowth of the wunderkammer or “cabinet of curiosities.” Early in their evolution, they took the form of single pieces of furniture for the display of collections. Monarchs and nobles throughout Europe boasted collections of ever-increasing size and diversity. In a way, the Casino di San Marco was the next evolutionary step; from a cabinet of curiosities, to a study room, to an entire facility devoted to nature’s secrets. 

The paintings in Francesco’s Studiolo depict various religious, mythological, historical and industrial scenes. [4] Some of them show various royal workshops documenting activities as diverse as goldsmithing and wool dying. A 1571 painting by Giovanni Stradano [5] is entitled the Alchemy Studio. It shows Francesco I in the Uffizi surrounded by laboratory equipment and workers. 

[1] Constructed between 1567 and 1675, cf. Feinberg 2002, Edwards 2007.
[2] Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Vincenzo Borghini (1515–1580).
[3] Via della Nina.
[4] Feinberg 2002.
[5] Giovanni Stradano, also called Jan van der Straet (1523–1605).

Friday, October 12, 2018

Fall From Grace


In 1790, two centuries after the life of glassmaker Antonio Neri, his name appeared in an unlikely place: in the annotations of a Swedish manuscript that was translated into Italian by one of Florence's leading scientists.[1] On second thought, perhaps its appearance is more unexpected than unlikely. Torbern Bergman was the celebrated Swedish chemist responsible for the manuscript and the translator was Felice Fontana, the founding director of Florence's Natural History Museum (La Specola). Fontana took the opportunity to annotate Bergman’s History of Chemistry in the Middle Ages with a list of Renaissance era materials collected in the Grand Ducal library in Florence (now the BNCF). Figuring prominently among the documents was alchemist Antonio Neri.

Below is an excerpt from one such letter, penned by Don Stefano Giraldi, the prior of San Pancrazio Church in Florence, addressed to "Your Excellency." In the passage notable characters are Don Antonio de' Medici, Neri's long-time benefactor — the prince who ran the Casino di San Marco laboratory where the priest first made glass. Also, Francesco Orlando Lorenzi (Count Lorenz, active 1793) was third count of Lorenzana and the minister of France at the Florentine court in the time of Louis XV.


Among those who abused the credulity of the Prince D[on] Antonio by leading him to understand they knew how to make gold, the most famous was Florentine Priest Antonio Neri, who, if he could not make gold, did know how to make many other beautiful and useful things, and has secured eternal fame with his work on the Art of Glassmaking, which also found prestige in the Tuscan language…  
Of other works of Preist Neri, I do not know if they have been published or even if the manuscripts have been found. Uniquely, Father Maestro Arrighi, [Augustinian] Serviette and Alchemist, in 1735 bought books that Count Lorenz had sent to France. Among them was a large manuscript in quattro by Antonio Neri. He told me that it contained a method of making the philosopher's stone and that there was a preamble  in which Neri confessed to have copied this method from a manuscript found in an old library. He  tried [the recipe] several times and always  failed.  To raise hope for others to enjoy much treasure, he had copied the method by characters in a cipher he invented and burned the old original. P[reist] Arrighi never let me see the manuscript, which was four fingers high as he assured me that the bookseller had sold it to him for the price of 5 lire; and no doubt, there will be other things besides the process of the philosopher's stone, which occupied[only a]  few page.
This flaw in Priest Neri to pass himself off as the possessor of the philosopher’s stone detracted much from his esteem. Nearby, his countrymen were wise and enlightened, and therefore he never attained the good image he should have had in his country, his mercy was the real merit of so many other good things; indeed always absent [making] gold, though he wanted to give the impression that he could, he incurred various dangers, and was forced to spend some time wandering.[2]

This gem of a letter has many interesting facets. First, it establishes that 150 years after Neri’s death, his name was still on the lips of royal courtiers and his manuscripts commanded a dear price from booksellers. It also establishes a route that his unpublished work took in leaving Italy, through France. 

The letter also provides us with insight to the changing narrative about alchemy. Neri was being distanced from the less palatable aspects of his work. "[I]f he could not make gold, [he] did know how to make many other beautiful and useful things, and has secured eternal fame with his work on the Art of Glassmaking." His sponsor Don Antonio’s portrayal as gullible about the possibility of transmutation kept the prince's reputation intact, even if somewhat diminished. (Popular history seems to have little conscience when it comes to making those who came before seem stupid.) Both Neri and Don Antonio were dedicated experimenters and they knew the proof of transmutation lay in actually making gold and they tried relentlessly. The narrative presented in the letter makes an appealing, face-saving story line, but we need only cast a sideways glance for it to start crumbling. According to the writer,  Florentines were too sophisticated to be drawn into alchemical gold-making schemes, yet a little later we find out Neri was forced to "wander" Europe, chased out of Florence by those demanding the secret of transmutation. Which was it?

The work of Neri's countryman and contemporary Galileo had established the natural sciences as Tuscany’s great patrimony. In the mid eighteenth century, when the letter was written, experimenters were as eager as ever to separate themselves from the charlatans and mountebanks who sold miracle cures and fueled impossible dreams. By then, it was agreed by researchers that transmutation was not possible, but even in the nineteenth century, there was no theoretical foundation to back up this supposition, which made it a sore point. Because of the acclaimed glass book, Neri earned a place in the pantheon of Italy's 'great men', but at a cost. His now 'embarrassing' work on transmutation caused the rest of his legacy to be largely written out of the history books.

[1] Bergman, Tofani 1790. (Fontana was writing under the pseudonym Giuseppe Tofani.)
[2] Ibid, pp. 99 - 101.
* This post first appeared here 24 December 2014.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Sal Ammoniac

Ammoniac crystals, Fan-yagnobskoe coal mine, Tadjikistan,
Photo (c) A. A. Evseev.
Here we will examine "sal ammoniac," a common alchemical ingredient used by Antonio Neri in many of his early seventeenth century preparations. In its pure form, it is a colorless crystalline material and is known to chemists as ammonium chloride. It does occur as a (rare) natural mineral, but it was also manufactured as early as the thirteenth century, as noted by alchemist Albertus Magnus in his De alchymia.[1] Neither he nor Neri provides a recipe for sal ammoniac, but other sources indicate that it was made by allowing urine to putrefy with common salt. French investigators documented another method used in Egypt in the eighteenth century. This scheme involved burning the dung of animals who fed on spring grasses and then sublimating the ammoniac out of the resulting soot. Sublimation occurs when a heated material goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state without ever becoming liquid. Sal ammoniac has this property; when heated it turns to a gas and upon cooling, turns back to a solid.
The usefulness of sal ammoniac in alchemy stems from the fact that when dissolved in water, which it does easily, it immediately dissociates into equal parts of ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which in turn will dissolve some metals, including tin, zinc, iron and (reluctantly) lead. Its most famous use was as an additive to the stronger acid aqua fortis (nitric acid). Together the two formed aqua regis which was strong enough to dissolve gold. At the time that Neri was working, the only known way to dissolve the most 'noble' of metals (gold) was with the 'king' of acids (aqua regis). Neri puts this knowledge to use in his recipe for ruby-red colored glass made with pure gold. His description is light on details, but he does clearly direct the reader to dissolve the precious metal in aqua regis, then gently evaporate away the acid to obtain the red pigment.

Elsewhere in Neri's glassmaking book, L'Arte Vetraria,[2] he uses sal ammoniac in the production of "alemagna blue" paint and in the tinting of natural rock crystal. 

Another of Neri's creations requiring sal ammoniac was Chalcedony glass. It had swirls of every color the glassmaker could produce. He achieved this feat by making extensive use of aqua regis to dissolve a long list of metals. He then gently evaporated off the acid, leaving ultrafine powdered metals, which he added as pigments to the glass melt. 
With this powder, I made a chalcedony in a glass furnace in Antwerp that was then run by a most courteous gentleman; Mr. Filippo Gridolfi. This chalcedony gave rise to work so nice and graceful, that it emulated true oriental agate, and in beauty and delightful colors by far exceeded it.
Today, chemical factories produce vast quantities of the materials used by Neri in his glassmaking exploits and in far higher purities. Having unlimited quantities of every conceivable chemical compound at our fingertips makes it difficult to appreciate the physical labor involved by seventeenth century alchemists, both in the preparation of the glass and in the production of the individual ingredients. The chalcedony glass recipe cited above must have taken workers many, many hours to produce and must have cost a small fortune. 

[1] Magnus 1958.
[2] Neri 1612.
[3] Glauber and others used the term 'sal ammoniac' to describe a related chemical (NH4)2SO4. When mixed with aqua fortis this forms a nitric-sulfuric acid solution, which does not form aqua regis, and does not dissolve gold.
*This post first appeared here 22 August 2014.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Roasting the Frit

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 chemical "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; 'Kali' and 'Soda'. Shipping them this way cut down on weight and volume, and prevented rotting. These 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.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Glass Pearls

Johannes Vermeer
"Girl with a pearl earring" (1665-6)
Natural pearls, found inside various seashells, have been prized and worn as jewelry since antiquity. The pearl is formed as a secretion of the mollusk; it is the animal's response to an irritant, perhaps a sharp grain of sand, which has become lodged in its tissue. The secretion, called "nacre" is the same material from which the mollusk builds and enlarges its shell. Natural pearls are rare; large, well formed ones are even more so. A famous legend claims that Cleopatra used pearls to win a bet with Marc Antony: that she could spend ten million sesterces on a single meal. She literally drank pearls that had been ground up and dissolved in wine. Because of the difficulty in obtaining pearls, and their high demand among the wealthy, it is not surprising that like artificial gems, artificial pearls have enjoyed a brisk trade throughout history.

In Antonio Neri's era, the early seventeenth century, a number of recipes used glue, egg whites or other organic materials to simulate pearls. These had the obvious disadvantage of being susceptible to degradation by moisture and physical handling. Another alternative was to simulate pearls with glass, and on this count, Neri does not disappoint. Recipe number sixty in his 1612 book L'Arte Vetraria gives his prescription for artificial pearls. Here it is in its entirety:



In fused and clarified cristallo, add three or four portions of tartar from wine dregs. You must thoroughly calcine this tartar to a white color. Stir it thoroughly into the glass, and continue to add more tartar, also well calcined until it is white. Add four to six more portions, always stirring the glass thoroughly, continuing thus until the cristallo takes on a pearl color. In this recipe, I cannot give exact rules, because it is a matter of experience, which is gained through experimentation. Once obtained, you must work the color quickly, because it will dissipate. I have practiced and experimented with this method many times.

"Cristallo" is the exceptionally clear glass the Venetians developed, perfected and were renowned for throughout Europe. "Tartar" is a crystalline growth that forms on the inside of wine casks, what we now know as "cream of tartar." Occasionally, one might spot crystals at the bottom of bottles of wine. They are a rich source of potassium. Neri, the Venetians and others had used tartar as a glass flux over a period of centuries. Here, however, he is not using it as a flux, but as a colorant to give the glass the pearl's shimmering appearance. His claim to making many batches of this glass implies large numbers of artificial pearls were in circulation. Our glassmaker presents a second recipe, which does not make any mention of pearls, but oddly may have much more to do with the evolution of reproducing these treasures of the sea. Recipe number 114 is entitled "The Way to Tint Glass Balls, and Others Vessels of Clear Glass, From the Inside, In All Kinds of Colors, So They Will Imitate Natural Stones." Here, Neri spreads fish-glue on the inside surface of a blown globe of clear glass, followed by various pigments.

Even in his time, artificial pearls found their way into royal courts and onto the canvasses of master painters. The fashion-setting monarchs of France and Britain Catherine de' Medici and Elizabeth I were famous for their extravagant love of pearls. Elizabeth famously purchased faux pearls from Venetian glassmakers to adorn her garments. She commissioned many portraits donning her pearl studded creations. Referring to the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, Lloyd Schwartz recently observed, "[T]he scholarship on Girl with a Pearl Earring reveals that the pearl isn't really a pearl […] the famous pearl is probably just glass painted to look like a pearl."* It is interesting to note that Vermeer's famous painting was executed in 1665-6, within five years after three reprints of Neri’s book, two in Italian one in English, and only a couple of years before a Latin edition printed in Vermeer's own country.

Around 1680, a Parisian maker of rosary beads invented a type of artificial pearl consisting of a small hollow glass bead, painted on the inside with the iridescent discharge of fish scales mixed with glue. He then filled the beads with wax. Jacquin had apparently rediscovered the shimmering pearly residue of a specific fish. His innovation fueled a new industry; he called the precious pigment "essence d'orient." But the material had already been employed in eastern France in 1656 and according to other reports as early as the reign of Henry IV of France (1572–1610), which closely coincides with Antonio Neri's own lifetime. By 1716, scientists were investigating essence d'orient under a microscope. Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur reported tiny, perfectly formed rectangular plates that reflect the light to cause the shimmering.**

Perhaps more interesting than who discovered what, is the exchange of ideas and the overlap of interest between an Italian alchemist, a British queen, a Dutch painter, a French jeweler and a biologist.


* Also see Anthony Bailey, A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), p. 123, 124.
** For an English summary see The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal October 1839-April 1840 (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1840), v. 28, p. 114, 115.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Neri the Scholar

Francesco Bartolozzi, Laurentian Library in the 18th cent.
(click to enlarge).
Whether one's chosen field was medicine, law, religion or alchemy, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, books played as important a role in education as they do today. The schooling of Florentine priest and glassmaker Antonio Neri was no exception. The details of his training at seminary remain elusive, but there is no mistaking that his introduction to alchemy occurred well before his ordination as Catholic Priest around 1598. [1] Since his father was the celebrated physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando, there is a good chance that Antonio had access to wide variety of Medici resources, not the least of which was the famed Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo and run by Neri family friend Baccio Valore. [2]  

But we need not look as far as the Laurentian, which was only a ten-minute walk from the Neri household. Closer to home, in fact inside his home, there was the extensive library of his own father. At the turn of the century, it contained 477 volumes, spanning poetry, philosophy, the Greek classics, medicine, pharmacology, surgery, religion, even grammar. [3] We know this thanks to an inventory taken at the time of the physician’s death, leaving a list of titles that has survived the ages, even if the volumes themselves have long been dispersed or lost. At the time, outside of the royal family, it was probably one of the largest collections of books in private hands in Florence. Neri’s father had himself been in charge of the revision of the Ricettario Fiorentino, [4] the gold standard of doctors and apothecaries throughout Europe for medicinal prescriptions, published in 1597 and again without revision in 1623.

Antonio Neri is known best as an artisan who worked with his hands. No evidence has been found to place him at a specific monastery or university classroom. Nevertheless, what emerges from the details that we do have is a picture of a man who was steeped in a literary, scholastic tradition from an early age. His Mother’s father, Ser Francesco, held a degree in law as did her grandfather and great-grandfather. [5] Antonio’s father held a degree in medicine from the “Studio Fiorentino,” the forerunner of what today is the University of Florence.[6]  In addition, it would be reasonable to assume the household library included titles once owned by his grandfather Jacopo, a noted barber-surgeon who was known among the literati. It has been speculated that Jacopo’s best friend in the world [7] was poet Lodovico Domenichi, who wrote of his friend in a sonnet:

Marvel about you the people do,
Over how, one might say, almost stupidly,
So many lecturers and scholars admire you. [8]


Domenichi who had been appointed court historian by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, goes on in the sonnet to name a list of mutual friends that includes poets, playwrights and intellectuals of the day.

In a similar way —that is through legal records—we know the contents and titles of the alchemical library of Neri’s sponsor, Don Antonio de’ Medici at the time of his death in 1621. These included several manuscripts by Neri himself, as well as his book on glassmaking. [9] However, one title did escape the attention of the bean-counters; sixty years after Don Antonio’s death, at the death of his son, Giulio, a handwritten book of recipes by Neri was found along with a box of elixirs. “Among them there was a booklet, entitled: Material of all the compounds of Priest Antonio Neri; there is a red dustcover, which says “experiments.” [10]

In his twenties, after a couple of years of making glass in Florence, Neri moved to Pisa where he assisted at the Medici’s furnace run by Niccolò Sisti. Pisa was home to a thriving university, with ample study possibilities, and Neri was proving himself a life-long researcher. From Pisa, in early 1604 he embarked on a seven-year long residence in Antwerp, where he stayed with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. Ximenes was one of the wealthiest men in Flanders and maintained an extensive library in his palace. He owned many volumes devoted to the chemical arts. [11] In fact, his collection of books was probably the largest in the entire region. [12] Here too, the full list of books is preserved in an inventory compiled after the death in 1617 of Emmanuel’s wife, Isabella da Vega. 

Upon Antonio’s return to Italy, he published his glassmaking recipes in L’Arte Vetraria and then appears to have focused his attention on chemistry and medicine. In the last manuscript he is known to have written, within a year of his death, he writes of a recipe copied “from an old book, here in Pisa” in 1613. 


[1] In his manuscript Tesoro del Mondo devoted to “all of alchemy” (Neri 1598-1600) Neri self-identifies as a priest.
[2] Bartolomeo di Filippo di Niccolò Valori [il giovane] (1535–1606). He was keeper of the Laurentian, steward of the Medici herbal (simples) garden and an early director of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. He was a personal friend to Antonio Neri’s father and godfather to his first child (Antonio’s older sister) Lessandra.
[3] Bec 1984, pp. 299–310.
[4] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597, 1623.
[5] Ser Francesco di Ser Niccolò di Ser Antonio Parenti (1519 - ?)
[6] Fathers medical degree ref.
[7] . Garavelli 2004, p. 82, n. 186.
[8] Domenichi 1555, Stanza 7.
[9] Covoni 1892.
[10] Ibid p. 193.
[11] Duverger 1984.
[12] Dupré, Lüthy 2011, p. 272; Göttler, Dupré 2009.
* this post first appeared here on 31 Dec 2014.