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

Friday, August 30, 2019

Incalmo of Venice

Incalmo vessels by Tapio Wirkkala for Venini.
In this post, we will explore one of the classical techniques of glass art. Along with filigrana, latticino, reticello and pezzato, incalmo is a classical Venetian technique well established in the art, even if poorly understood by many outsiders.

‘Incalmo’, in Venetian dialect literally means “graft” as in joining two plants. That is a pretty good description of how this effect is achieved; think of a vase whose bottom-half is one color and top is another. The glass artist blows two separate bubbles of glass, opens them and joins them together to form a single bubble. It is a difficult operation because the two open lips must be exactly the same size to join properly. The process can be continued to add more colors; virtuoso pieces may include several sections, each a different color. In addition, the position of the iron rod that the artist uses to hold the bubble can be changed while the piece is under construction, leading to asymmetrical effects.
16th century incalmo plate,
unknown artist.
The above description is the classical way of achieving incalmo, but modern materials and equipment allow artists to achieve a similar effect with considerably less skill. For instance, precise diameter glass tubing is now available in a wide variety of colors. This can be cut into rings with a saw, then stacked in a kiln and fused together. From there, this “prefabricated incalmo tube can be worked by traditional methods. Whether or not this meets the definition of true incalmo depends entirely on whether one focuses on the method or on the end result.


9-10th century incalmo vase,
Syria or Iraq.
The name ‘incalmo’, was applied to glass in the first half of the twentieth century by the Venini factory on Murano, in Venice. [1] However, both the word and the method are much older. The Venini artisans revived the technique to great acclaim, but Venetian examples date from the sixteenth century and Islamic examples from ninth century Syria have also survived. It is not hard to imagine that this joining technique was experimented with shortly after glassblowing became common around the first century BCE. However, what is truly amazing is that any of these early examples survived to be sold to customers without breaking in the cooling process. The reason for this is a technical issue that we have not discussed yet.

All glass expands a little when it is heated and shrinks when it cools. Different formulations of glass generally expand by differing amounts. When a single piece incorporates more than one type of glass, and the thermal expansions differ significantly, the result is disaster. After the piece is finished it is placed in a kiln where it slowly cools back to room temperature. Because of the mismatch, one area wants to shrink more than the adjacent area and the glass cracks along the join. The expansion and contraction is microscopic, but it is enough to ruin hours and hours of work, leading to much gnashing of teeth the morning after, when the finished work is inspected. 

The Venini glass masters had the benefit of this knowledge, but for earlier artisans, trial and error must have played a big role in determining which formulas were compatible. Different colors mean different metallic additives and to match expansion other ingredients would need to be adjusted. Today, manufacturers produce glass in a series based on expansion; artists can be relatively sure that two different colors from the same series can be “grafted” and not self-destruct when cooled.

[1] I have not absolutely confirmed this, but authoritative secondary references credit Venini, and I can find no mention to "incalmo" as a glass technique prior to the twentieth century.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Cross Pollination

The art of stonework,
from MS Ferguson 67, f. 7r, (1598-1600)
Antonio Neri.
Throughout the Renaissance, Florence, Italy was famous for its artistic output. Names like Donatello, Michelangelo and Giambologna graced the tongues of patrons across Europe. But the secret to the city’s fantastic creativity did not rest solely on individual superstars. The ruling Medici family had found a way to harness the talents of myriad lesser known artisans and use the fruits of their creative labor as a powerful political tool. 

Starting in the late sixteenth century, at Christmas time, boatloads of fine glass, ceramics, jewelry, stonework, and art sailed out from Tuscan ports as gifts to the royal families of Europe, who accepted the offerings gratefully. The Vatican, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and France all had ambitions, at one time or another, to make Florence their own. These gifts, time and again, helped to smooth ruffled diplomatic feathers, reassure old allies and allowed tiny Tuscany to play the mighty kingdoms against each other, keeping Florence relatively unmolested. What the Florentines lacked in military might, they made up for in sheer artistic creativity.

At home, this strategy depended on the constant attraction of new talent and deep support of all the arts. At the Uffizi palace, Grand Duke Ferdinando set up  a kind of innovation center, called the Galleria dei Lavori (Gallery of the Works), where new techniques were pioneered. His father, Grand Duke Cosimo had already built a glass furnace there, staffed by Venetian masters imported from Murano. In adjacent areas, stone cutters worked minerals collected from around the world into fabulous inlaid table tops and floors in an art called pietre dure. Goldsmiths worked with gem cutters to create exquisite jewelry. Designers and illustrators brought the natural world into new creations that integrated these arts together for the first time. 

This was the world in which a young Antonio Neri grew up; the son of a famous physician, he matured into an alchemist with a profound respect for the healing arts, but also into a glassmaker—a conciatore—to the Medici prince Don Antonio. A key to Florence's creative output was the Medici innovation of housing artists of different disciplines under one roof. A cross pollination of ideas took place that spurred new ideas in individual arts, but also gave birth to the creation of objects which combined the talents of several different arts. Fine wooden furniture graced with inlaid stone, glass used to imitate exotic minerals and rock crystal, fanciful goblets and pitchers that integrated metalwork, glass, shell and other exotic materials.

This culture of cross pollination can be seen throughout Antonio Neri's work, in the variety of different glass recipes and also in his knowledge of the ways his glass was to be used. In his 1612 book, L'Arte Vetraria, he says:
Because in order to make vessels and drinking glasses where the glass is thin, you must really load it with a lot of color, but for making large cane for beads not so great a charge of color is necessary. For making thin cane for small beads, you must charge it well with color. In working the glass, you must apportion it with more or less color according to the purpose it must serve.
For lead crystal artisans, he has this advice:
To work lead glass into various drinking glasses or other vessels, or even to draw cane for beadmaking, it is necessary to raise the punty [out of the melt], and to make a gather of glass by turning. Take it out, let it cool somewhat and then work it on a well-cleaned marble [marver]. The marble should be somewhat cool, and well bathed with water before use.
This practice will ensure that the paste of the lead glass does not pull up any of the marble. The glass will always gall marble not bathed in water. Some chips will incorporate into the work, giving it an ugly look. Therefore, frequently flush the marble with fresh water for as long as you are working the glass. Otherwise, all its grace and beauty will be lost.

Unlike his famous brethren Donatello, Michelangelo and his neighbor Giambologna, Antonio Neri was not a superstar and as an alchemist he did not work alone; he was part of a team. He ably represents the small army of workers who supported the Medici creative machine that spread fine craftwork throughout Europe. 

*This post first appeared here on 19 March 2014.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Rosichiero Glass

Sunset over Venice
(click image to enlarge)
The most famous glass recipe in Antonio Neri’s 1612 book, L'Arte Vetraria, is “#129 Transparent Red.” The reason for its notoriety is, of course, the pure gold used as a pigment. Gold-ruby, or “rubino” is a devilishly difficult color to produce in glass and was not reliably duplicated until many years after Neri’s death, although pieces made in ancient times have been unearthed.  

Even though gold rubino is Neri's most well known recipe and certainly his most famous red glass, this recipe does not exist in isolation. In fact, it fits in the middle of a group of eleven recipes (120–130) devoted to transparent, or at least translucent red glass, enamel and related preparations. 


120 Transparent Red in Glass.
121 Red Like Blood.
122 Balas Color.
123 To extract the Spirit of Saturn, Which Serves Many Uses in Enamels and Glasses.
124 Rosichiero to Enamel Gold.
125 Rosichiero for Gold by Another Method.
126 How to Fix Sulfur for the Above Described Work.
127 A Glass as Red as Blood, Which Can Serve as Rosichiero.
128 A Proven Way to Make Rosichiero.
129 Transparent Red.
130 The Way to Fix Sulfur for Rosichiero to Enamel Gold.


A particular shade that was popular at the time was known in Italian as "rosichiero." Our glassmaker presents four different recipes and two more on “fixing” sulfur, which some of the preparations require. Most dictionaries cite Neri as the first to use of the word 'rosichiero' in print, but we know it was a common term of art among glassmakers much earlier. The French equivalent is "rouge clair." The Spanish edition of L'Arte Vetraria notes that in that language the term is “rosicler,” which is still used today to describe the intense rosy twilight color of a nice sunset.

The red glasses of this group all call for the addition of copper as a colorant and copper has remained a popular pigment up to the present. For instance, red traffic lights that are made of glass are typically tinted with copper. But that is not the entire story; some of Neri's rosichieros also include the addition of sulfur and some require hematite or iron oxide, red lead oxide, manganese oxide, or wine tartar. In his recipe #125 for rosichiero, he starts with four pounds of high quality cristallo glass. To this adds equal parts of tin and lead oxides, mixed together: 
[A]dd this calx little by little, ½ oz at a time, let it incorporate, and watch for when the glass becomes an ash gray color, at which point it will be good. Do not add too much calx because if you overload it, the glass will become white in color, which is not good.When it turns the said gray color, do not add more calx but leave it to clarify. Then have 2 oz fine minium [red lead oxide], add this to the glass, and let it incorporate well, and clarify. When it clarifies well, throw into water, return it to the crucible and leave it for 8 hours [in the furnace]. 

Have ½ oz of calcined copper, that is to say red copper and ½ oz of raw white [wine] tartar. Throw these materials in, and stir them well. Now add a dram of hematite, which the sword makers use for burnishing, and 1 dram of fixed sulfur. Stir and incorporate these powders, and watch. If it is over-colored, give it a little manganese to dilute it. If it is clear of color, add more of the fixed sulfur, hematite, a little red copper and a little white wine tartar at your discretion so it becomes the desired color.
Many of these ingredients are no longer common in color glass production today; in fact, free sulfur is usually considered an undesirable contaminant. Hematite is a naturally occurring mineral form of iron oxide. It is so named because if abraded in water it tints the water red, appearing to bleed. Hematite is not currently used as a red pigment in glass because of its temperature sensitivity, but it is used in some pottery glazes. 

From a chemistry standpoint, a good guess is that sulfur added to the glass would react with the copper and iron to produce various sulfide compounds. How those compounds affect the color and texture of the glass is an open question. Here is where we get into uncharted territory; four hundred years after Neri’s book was first published, predicting colors based on specific chemistry is not as easy for us as it might seem. The science of color in general remains a difficult nut to crack. However, the fact that there is still much that we do not understand does not prevent us from enjoying the brilliant reds inspired by a good sunset.

* For the technically minded, the University of Oslo has a wonderful presentation on the state of color physics. For the non-technical, take a look – a series of fascinating images that spans the sense of sight and beyond. There is a link address in the "picture credits" for this post.

** This post first appeared here on 24 April 2014.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Botanical Gardens

Rudolf  II as "Vertumnus"(c. 1590)
Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
In 1543-44 new botanical gardens were founded in Pisa; L’Orto Botanico was its Italian name. It was the very first garden devoted to the research of plants. Literally within a year, similar gardens sprung up in Padua and Florence, and many other cities followed shortly thereafter. Exotic foreign species as well as important local plants were grown, studied, harvested distilled, and imbibed. These horticultural stations became centerpieces of medical programs throughout Italy, and then greater Europe. The concept of herbal (“simples”) gardens was centuries old. Almost every monastery, convent and hospital maintained a space to grow the plants they needed to transform into medicines for care of the infirmed. The grafting of fruit trees was actively practiced since before Roman times, but these new gardens were specifically planted as research spaces and run by universities. 

When Neri Neri, the father of glassmaker Antonio Neri, studied medicine at the Studio Fiorentino  in the mid 1550s, there can be no doubt he spent time at the gardens in Florence, and quite possibly at the ones in Pisa. (The Pisa gardens were moved twice before arriving at their current location in 1591). This was a period of vigorous expansion in the field of herbal medicine. Competition was fierce to obtain and study medicinal plants from around the globe. Cosimo I de’ Medici poured money into the medical school in Pisa, attracting students and faculty from around Europe. In 1554 famed botanist and physician Andrea Cesalpino took over the Pisa gardens  from his teacher, Luca Ghini, who first built them. 

In 1602, Neri was to be found working alongside Niccolò Sisti at the grand duke’s secondary glass furnace along the Arno River in Pisa. According to Neri’s own account, Pisa is where he worked on ferns as an alternative plant salt for glass and mentions many other plants with which he experimented: 
Set about making ash in the way previously described, however use the husks and stalks of broad beans after the farmhands have thrashed and shelled them. 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.
In a letter to Neri from his friend Emanuel Ximenes, the Antwerp based Portuguese banker expressed surprise that Neri was able to devise a fern based glass salt recipe so quickly. In all likelihood, Neri would have had access to the botanical gardens and the small adjacent laboratory located just a few blocks from the glass furnace. In the period of time the glassmaker spent there, the directorate of the gardens changed hands from Francesco Malocchi to Marco Cornacchini. Both of these men avidly pursued new botanical based cures, and corresponded internationally. 

In his Glassmaking book, L’Arte Vetraria, Neri devotes a number of recipes to making paint pigments from flower blossoms. While he could have easily obtained his stock material from any number of sources, the botanical gardens would have certainly provided a convenient cache of many different varieties.

In the winter of 1603-4 Neri traveled From Pisa to visit his friend in Antwerp. If he followed Ximenes suggested route, he would have passed back through his native Florence, then on to Venice where he would meet up with a caravan of merchants on their way to the Frankfurt spring fair, and then on to Antwerp by river. Upon his return to Italy, seven years later, he wrote his glassmaking book, but then devoted himself fully to alchemy and medicine. In January of 1614, in what might be the very last manuscript he worked on before his death, he wrote about some recipes “copied from an old book here in Pisa.” At that time, the director of the botanical gardens was Domenico Vigna, who continued to direct the gardens on and off until 1634.

It would be interesting to know how Neri the alchemist thought about his raw materials. Did he see all the possibilities of what could be made with them? For instance, how did he approach a towering pile of May ferns, large enough to produce a hundred pounds of ash, or a giant sack of rose petals? Did he ever lean forward and breathe in the delicious musty aroma? Did he ever dig in with his hands and bury his face in an arm-load of soft, pure color? How could he not?

*This post first appeared here 22 Jan 2014.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Duke's Mouthwash

Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549-1609),
Scipione Pulzone (1544 - 1598), Private collection.
Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was royal physician to the family of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. As such, he regularly interacted with other members of court, ranging from the archbishop of Florence, to his colleagues in medicine, including the royal apothecary (speziale), Stefano Rosselli. Rosselli shared more than a professional relationship with Neri Neri. They both admired the work of an ancient Greek physician named Dioscorides; Rosselli was something of an authority on his methods. In addition, he ran the 'Speziale al Giglio' shop, once owned by Tommaso del Giglio, who's chapel Neri Neri took over at Cestello church. Rosselli's son, Francesco, and Neri Neri were among the four chosen to revise and update the famed Ricettario Fiorentino,[1] the official reference for medicinal cures in Tuscany. 

On 21 September 1589, Rosselli started to compile his own book of recipes to pass down to his two sons, Francesco and Vincenzo, who would go on to continue the pharmacy.[2] The book begins with a poison remedy credited to none other than Cosimo de' Medici. Recipe no. 9 is the grand duke’s antispasmodic oil, presented by Niccolò Sisti, with whom Antonio Neri would later work at the glass house in Pisa. No. 20 is the duke's oil for deafness, also presented by Sisti. No. 41 is a poison antidote revealed to Francesco de' Medici by the Archduke of Austria. It was tested on a prisoner at the Bargello prison, a "volunteer" who was intentionally poisoned as part of the experiment, then revived with the antidote in the presence of Stefano Rosselli and Baccio Baldini, the long time physician to Cosimo I. Supposedly, the prisoner's reward for surviving was early release.

Recipe No. 30 carries perhaps a bit less risk; it is titled "Acqua da gengie di messer Nerj Nerj" (Mouth wash of Neri Neri):
Take a quarter of a bushel of mastic buds,a quarter of a bushel of myrtle buds, a quarter of a bushel of red roses, three ounces of alum, a half ounce of salt and a quarter ounce of hard rose honey. Mash the herbs with a mortar and pestle and put them in nine pounds of Greek wine for twenty-four hours, then boil in a bain-marie and reduce to two-thirds. In this, we bathe the gums: it makes them dry and firm.
MasticPistacia lentiscus. Native to the Mediterranean, its resin used for millennia to settle upset stomachs.
MyrtleMyrtus communis. An Aromatic herb used by the ancients, effective treatment for sinusitis.
Alum: Used by the ancients as a treatment for canker sores.
Rose HoneyMiele rosato. Honey infused with rose petals, an astringent still used to sooth children’s teething pains. It is produced both as a solid and a liquid. 
Greek Wine: Vino Greco. Italian wine made in the style of sweet Greek wines. In 1673, English botanist John Ray describes it as being made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The date that Stefano Rosselli started his book of secrets is interesting because it is the same day that Neri Neri, with the grand duke's two other physicians, Cini and Da Barga, were busy making medicinal wine based on Dioscorides' ancient recipes. Perhaps they all met that day at Rosselli's shop, for his advice. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2] Rosselli 1996; an Italian transcription and French translation of Rosselli's recipes, with a very entertaining introduction.

* This post first appeared here on 4 November 2013 in a shorter form.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Early American Poem on Glass

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a piece appearing in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of the NAGC Bulletin. Many thanks for their permission to share it here. A copy of the complete article is available through inter-library 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.

Glass: A poem by Henry Schoolcraft


In the final years of the 1700s, a third generation family that was living in New York’s Hudson River Valley welcomed a new son, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864). They welcomed him into a newly formed country, brimming with promise and expectation, the United States of America. His father was the superintendant of a new window glass factory near Albany. The family boasted a long line of military men, but perhaps more importantly, a long line of adaptable, self-motivated, life-long learners and young Henry was no exception.  

With the help of his father and like-minded family friends, Henry parlayed a rural education into private instruction in Latin, a premier collection of scientific books, and a museum quality mineral collection.  In 1809, at the age of 16, he started a hand-written literary magazine called “The Cricket” in which he published short pieces of prose and poetry among a circle of friends. His time at Union College was cut short by the opportunity to manage a glass factory further west on the shores of Seneca Lake, near Geneva, New York.

Along with his father, Henry went on to become one of the most sought after glass factory guru’s in New England. In 1814, he was running the Vermont Glassworks on the shore of Lake Dunmore. He had set up an experimental furnace with Prof. Frederick Hall from the college in nearby Middlebury.  Henry used the facility to research glass composition for a hefty book he was writing on the subject. Managing by day, experimenting by night, he still found time for his literary pursuits. It was here, in the autumn of 1814, that he composed a remarkable poem titled “Glass” in which he compares commonplace personalities of the early 19th century to the vitreous material of which he was so familiar.

Until now the poem has never been published beyond the first few stanzas.  “Glass” runs for 268 lines of rhyming couplets in a lose meter. The handwritten manuscript is archived at the Library of Congress. It begins with an assessment of mankind: [1]




1
Mankind resemble glass; they are, like it,

For use or fashion, show or service fit;

Some bright and fair, some dull and more obscure,

These prized as good, those, estimed poor;
5
To grace a kitchen, or a parlour made,

As use is most consulted, or parade;

But all as various; and eke they are,

As frail, as brittle, and as keen a ware.



Their bases differ, as our chemists say,
10
This made of sand, that fashioned out of clay

Yet shall we, in both compositions find,

Similitude in beauty, use and kind.

To man, tis true some small objections lie

In point of texture and transparency,
15
But though we grant him, in material blind,

Yet lacks he not, transparency of mind

And we no surer faults in each detect

By rays of light, than rays of intellect.



So nice the processes, the art requires,
20
So pure th’ ingredients, so intense the fires,

Where tumours grow, where phthysic’s fitful breath,

Forbodes the public faith, a sudden death.

Felons, freckles, frightful fire warts,

Are all disclosed as clear as limpid quartz.


25
His voice and pen are graced with equal skill,

To lash, report, or advocate a bill.

Speak without nostrums, clear his throat when lost,

But ever loudest, when they shuffle most.

Alike to him, the subject, time or stage,
30
Fierce to discuss, and ready to engage

If finance—there Blaberius is at home

If raising troops, he votes with general glum.

In peace he’s noisy, but if wars involve’

He blasts the foe by one august “Resolve.”
35
Prate, prate, prate, prate! the error of the land,

His voice, by every vulgar breeze is fanned

Nor learn from Witherspoon his course to run,

The simple cause, “to stop when he has done.”

(Read full poem)





NOTES  
(Line numbers are referenced in parenthesis) 

The exact manuscript title as written by Schoolcraft is: GLASS, | A Satire Poem. | Lake Dumnore, 1814.

(4) Estimed: Vernacular loanword from the French, estime; valued.

(7) Eke: also.

(10) “Feet of clay” is an expression referring to a weakness or character flaw. The phrase derives from the interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, by the prophet Daniel as recounted in the “Book of Daniel.” (Daniel 2:31–33, 2:41–43).

(21) Phthisic: a wasting illness of the lungs, such as asthma or tuberculosis; phthisis. Any wasting disease. A person suffering from phthisis.

(23) Felon: a carbuncle or other localized infection of the skin. Fire warts: “The hand that reached farthest down on the shovel is burned forever with calloused fire warts.” William E. Bain, Frisco Folks: Stories and Pictures of the Great Steam Days of the Frisco Road (St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company) (Denver: Sage Books, 1961), p. 96.

(25) In the ms, “Graced” is struck out and replaced by a word that is smeared and illegible to me.

(27) Nostrum: a medicine, especially one that is not considered effective, prepared by an unqualified person.

(31) Blaberius: possible Latinization for ‘one who blabbers’. Also blaberus: a genus of giant Central American cockroach.

(35) Prate: to talk foolishly or tediously about something.

(37) Witherspoon: John Knox Witherspoon (1723–1794).

Footnotes:
[1] Paul Engle, “Glass, A Poem by Henry Schoolcraft” in Glass Club Bulletin, of The National American Glass Club, No. 230, Autumn/Winter 2016, pp. 5-14.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Duke's Oil

Trajan's Column, Rome
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1758)
In the seventeenth century, alchemy was a dangerous business. Yes, there were risks of sanctions by the authorities, which could be very harsh, but great dangers also lurked in the chemicals themselves. Some like lead and mercury accumulated in the tissues slowly, over a period of years, others could kill a man within a few minutes. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte had personal knowledge of just how deadly the products of alchemy could be.

In Rome, Del Monte was the unofficial ambassador to Florence and the Medici family. He regularly greeted dignitaries from around Europe and dazzled them in his sumptuous palace. He was an avid glass collector, a patron of the arts and more quietly a dedicated student of alchemy. He was a lifelong friend to Don Antonio de' Medici and visited the prince's laboratory in Florence several times. This is where Antonio Neri was making glass early in his career. Later, Neri worked at a secondary Medici glass furnace in Pisa, where the cardinal had fancy glass table service made for the Vatican.

About a two mile walk from Saint Peter's Basilica, over the Tiber River, directly toward the Colosseum, is Trajan's Column. It commemorates Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars at the beginning of the second century. It displays a scroll in base relief that winds all the way from the pedestal to the capital. The monument is large enough to contain an internal staircase leading to an observation platform at the top. In 1587, it was crowned by a bronze statue of Saint Peter that still stands today; the initial model was sculpted by artist Tommaso della Porta, who was under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte. 

Giovanni Baglione picks up the story in his book Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects:
That man [della Porta], I think, suffered mentally and it showed at the end of his days. When he felt some kind of tingling in his abdomen, he went to the Cardinal del Monte his friend and master and asked for some of the "grand duke’s oil" that he hoped would relieve the tingling. The Cardinal indulged him; gave it to him and said that he should apply it only to the wrists and only a little, because the oil was potent and it could make him feel sick. He took it and went back to his house and after dinner he sent for the barber, to administer the medication, and while the messenger went on, Tommaso impatient and simpleminded, applied the oil himself and instead of touching the wrists, as the Cardinal had instructed, he lathered the arms, chest, body and entire abdomen, so that the powerful oil went to the heart and in fact killed him. The barber arrived to medicate him, found him dead and all attempts at revival were in vain. Tommaso della Porta, was buried at Santa Maria del Popolo.
The "grand duke's oil," was widely known, and widely cited in references throughout Europe well into the 19th century. Its other name was oil of tobacco – essentially a distillation of almost pure nicotine. In very small doses, it acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system, in slightly higher doses it is a narcotic, even greater, but still relatively small amounts act as a quick and lethal poison absorbed directly through the skin. Ingesting a single pill capsule of typical size full of pure liquid nicotine is more than enough to kill an adult in short order.

This story has one final twist. Antiques dealer Domenico Lupo was one of the men present at the reading of Della Porta's will on 7 March 1607. Twenty-five years later, an inventory of Lupo's assets listed a "small figure half old and half new that is said to be of Prior Ant. Neri," either the glassmaker or possibly his great uncle. 

* This post first appeared here 5 February 2014. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Glassmaker's Salamander

From Michael Maier's 1617 book of emblems.
The salamander was thought to be born of fire.
If one can say that hot-glass workers have a mascot, it is without any doubt the salamander. Since ancient times, this lizard-like, poisonous skinned amphibian was ascribed to exist within fire, even to be born out of the flames. According to legend, its cold body allowed it to survive the heat. To see one in the flames of a furnace was considered good luck, but glassblowers who suddenly disappeared (to work elsewhere) were said to have been "eaten by the salamander." 

Glass work has always been a hot, sweaty, exhausting affair. It is not surprising that after a long day's labor one might honestly think they saw small animals scampering around in the fire. The legend, however, is an ancient one; Aristotle, in his History of Animals reported that salamanders were thought to possess the ability to put out fire with their bodies. They became part of the lore among glassmakers in Venice on Murano and were even spotted in Antonio Neri's Florence. In his autobiography (1558-1567), Florentine artist Benvenuto Cellini offers this recollection:
When I was about five years old my father happened to be in a basement-chamber of our house, where they had been washing, and where a good fire of oak-logs was still burning; he had a viol in his hand, and was playing and singing alone beside the fire. The weather was very cold. Happening to look into the fire, he spied in the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard, which was sporting in the core of the intensest coals. Becoming instantly aware of what the thing was, he had my sister and me called, and pointing it out to us children, gave me a great box on the ears, which caused me to howl and weep with all my might. Then he pacified me good-humouredly, and spoke as follows: 'My dear little boy, I am not striking you for any wrong that you have done, but only to make you remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander, a creature which has never been seen before by anyone of whom we have credible information.' So saying he kissed me and gave me some pieces of money.

Incidentally, at the end of Cellini's life, family friend and Church canon  Piero della Stufa was appointed to settle his estate. Among other items, he was entrusted with the manuscript for Cellini's autobiography, from which the above quote is taken. Della Stufa was also the godfather to Antonio Neri's younger brother Vincenzio.
  
(Quotation from: J. Addington Symonds "Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography" in Harvard Classics v. 31, Charles W. Elliot, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), p. 11 (book I, ch. V.))
* This post first appeared here, in a somewhat different form on 19 August 2013.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Friar Mauritio

Friar Mauritio,
Treasure of the world, f.19v (detail)
Antonio Neri, (1598-1600).
Shortly after ordination as a priest in the Catholic Church, Antonio Neri wrote a manuscript devoted to alchemy, which he called Treasure of the World (1598-1600). It was completed a couple of years before we find any reference to his glassmaking activities. Among the technical recipes, is one for the philosopher's stone, entitled "Fifth way to make the stone which is very secret." Neri explains that "Friar Mauritio" was a Dominican brother, held prisoner in "The Castle of Naples" by Gilbert Montpensier in the 15th century. There Mauritio learned the secret of transmuting mercury into gold. Ultimately, he was freed from his French captors and went on to use his secret to create great wealth. The recipe was passed down through his family, and ultimately fell into Neri's hands. He presents the full recipe, which takes many pages in the manuscript detailing complex alchemical manipulations.

Some background is in order here. In the year 1494, French King Charles VIII amassed a very large army (twenty-five thousand men), and with encouragement  from the duke of Milan, marched straight down the Italian peninsula with the intention of annexing the Spanish controlled Kingdom of Naples, which encompassed the entire lower portion of Italy. But by the time Charles marched into the capital city, his victory was already threatened; a "League" was forming to oppose him among the states of northern Italy. Charles set up an occupation government, quickly appointed Gilbert Montpensier as viceroy and judiciously headed back toward France, but not before having to fight through the League forces blocking his way. The city of Naples would be held by the French for only three months; the occupation government barely in control. Truth be told, it was not only Friar Mauritio who was confined, but the entire French contingent was more or less sequestered to several fortresses in the area, as they were greatly resented and resisted by the Neapolitan people. Soon the Spanish military was on the scene and systematically routed French forces, reclaiming all of the lost territory.

The most likely location of Mauritio's imprisonment was the foreboding Castel Nuovo, but there are other possibilities, among them Castel Sant'Elmo and Castel dell' Ovo. In the same years that Neri was writing about the Dominican Friar Mauritio's imprisonment, Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella was held and tortured in Naples, under suspicion of heresy and conspiracy against the Spanish rule of his native Calabria. His "heretical" views on astrology and departure from sanctioned Aristotelian doctrine earned him a cell at Castel Sant'Elmo. 


The ancient Castle dell' Ovo or "castle of the egg," is located along the bay of Naples. The name derives from a story about the Roman poet Virgil, who at one time was thought to be a great sorcerer. Supposedly, he had fortified the foundations of the castle with a magic "egg," which he concealed there. Legend warns that if the egg ever were to be disturbed or broken, the entire Castle would self-destruct, and a series of great calamities would befall the city.

The endeavor of history rightly demands strong attention to demonstrable facts. Unfortunately, folklore is often a casualty of that process, because, by its very nature it has little to contribute that can be vigorously verified. The identity of Neri’s Friar Mauritio and, for that matter, the existence of Virgil's egg in the foundations of a Naples castle, in all likelihood, will never be confirmed. But these stories have qualities that solid evidence often does not capture. Regardless of its factual content, folklore tells us about the hopes and fears of the people who repeat it; it is a taste of their culture. Folklore also emphasizes that the way we see history is very different from the way contemporaries saw it. We have no choice but to view events of the past through a lens of the present, just as Neri viewed it through the lens of his time. His view of the events was very much colored by legends about characters like Virgil and Friar Mauritio, but also by the promise of transmutation, and fear of the Inquisition. 

* This post first appeared here on 12 March 2014.