Giovanni Stradano (Jan van der Straet)
Alchemy Studio, 1571
(Inside the Uffizi Galleria dei Lavori)
In 1560, Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Georgio Vassari to begin construction on the Uffizi Palace in Florence. Two wings of the structure frame a long, narrow courtyard leading out to banks of the Arno River. Today it houses one of Europe's premier art museums, but its original design was as the central administration of the Medici government. The lower floor held offices of the regional magistrates, and the upper floor of the west wing (above the mint) held a variety of workshops highlighting Tuscan industry. Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici built a glass furnace there, which he staffed with Muranese masters of the art. He won their expertise through long, hard negotiations with the doge of Venice.
A 1571 painting by Giovanni Stradano is entitled the Alchemy Studio. It shows Cosmo's son, Francesco I, in the Uffizi surrounded by laboratory equipment and workers. Under the watchful eyes of a senior alchemist, he stirs a chemical preparation over a stove with intense concentration. The prolific glassware in this scene drives home the close relationship between glassmaking and scientific investigation.
By 1588 Francesco's brother, Ferdinando I de' Medici, formally declared this space the Galleria dei Lavori or 'gallery of the works'. There is no direct evidence that Antonio Neri gained his education in alchemy at this facility, but it makes a very attractive candidate. Of note to this story is that a demonstration was performed for Ferdinando de' Medici in Rome that purported to turn half of an iron nail into gold; the work of German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser. In the 1590s, when Neri was being schooled, several accounts describe that the nail (chiodo) remained on display for some time in the Galleria. Neri mentions the nail in his Discorso and Thurneysser is discussed in a 1601 letter to the priest from his friend Emanuel Ximenes.
After Neri's death in 1614, his Medici sponsor, don Antonio commenced a search for the glassmaker's secret of transmutation, which Neri had promised. In testimony given by a royal goldsmith, who had, in July of 1596, witnessed a demonstration in which "gold" was made by Neri, he pressed the glassmaker, who told him that the transmutation was a technique learned from a German, done with ordinary vitriol.
It is interesting to note that when iron is soaked in a solution of "blue vitriol" now known as copper sulfate, an ion exchange reaction takes place, where the liquid deposits copper and takes up iron from the nail. It would be well into the 18th century before this chemistry was adequately understood. What the royal goldsmith would have seen is a dull iron nail turn the color of yellow metal before their eyes. Perhaps the goldsmith was not given the opportunity to further test the sample.
This post first appeared on 16 August 2013.