Friday, September 6, 2019

Primordial Matter

16th century Mining practices, 
from Agricola, De Re Metallica
In the early seventeenth century, Florentine priest Antonio Neri wrote the first printed book devoted to formulating glass from raw materials. His work is called L'Arte Vetraria, which translates to "the art of glassmaking." The book became quite famous and this is what he is remembered for today, yet he considered himself first and foremost an alchemist. In previous posts, we have explored the commonalities between glassmaking, medicine and the apothecary's trade. Another field closely connected to alchemy was mining. 

In the seventeenth century, the earth was considered a living entity; metals were found to occur in "veins" which were thought to grow and once mined, regenerate over time. The metals themselves were thought to undergo a maturation process. Primordial material left over from the creation of the world exerted its influence deep in the ground. Nurtured by the earth, under the influence of the suns rays, a process took place that eventually turned base metals into the more noble silver and gold. As far as Neri was concerned, alchemy was the art of imitating and enhancing natural processes that were already at work. In his manuscript Discorso, he writes:
I feel that the more perfect the art the most simple it is; so the authors [of alchemy] most unanimously agree that the ‘primordial material’ [prima materia] of the [philosopher’s] stone is something vile [base] and not bought with money, but easy to find. Moreover, the manner of work must imitate nature, which in order to produce gold makes use of the singular or simple material, which is the seed of gold, of a single vessel, which is the ‘womb of the earth’ [seno della terra] and of a single natural and vital fire, which is the sun.*
Elsewhere in the manuscript, Neri discusses several specific mines. He discusses the use of "vitriol" water that flowed in certain mines and how it could be used to transmute iron into copper. He discusses an unidentified mine "some distance from Leiden" (possibly in Limburg) and another in Slovakia in the town of Smolnik. It is reasonable to think that Neri visited these places himself. A third location, which he purposely keeps under wraps, is where he obtained "immature" gold that he was able to "multiply" through alchemical manipulation. With a certain disappointment, he writes "To this day I have never found another mine like it, and therefore suitable for this purpose." Clearly, he spent a significant portion of his time looking. He advises:
The gold mines are not all in the same condition, which is well understood for those of silver and all the other [metals]. Some are already perfect, in which nature has done what it could do and reduced the gold to its maturity, while other [mines] are still imperfect and in their infancy*
In his work for Medici prince Don Antonio in Florence, Neri's assistant/disciple was Agnolo della Casa. Della Casa took copious notes of Neri's experiments, and literally filled thousands of pages in notebooks that are today held by the National Library in Florence. Much of this material dealt with the transmutation of metals, and as we have seen Neri was not only concerned with materials, but with their specific place of origin. His first manuscript was titled "Treasure of the World, By Priest Antonio Neri – which [covers] the whole of alchemy with various illustrations, not only of the furnaces, vessels and chemical instruments but with other illustrations concerning the mining of all the metals." For he and his colleagues, mining and alchemy shared theoretical connections but also familial ones. Della Casa had a relative named Filippo Talducci della Casa (1543- c.1615), who was a celebrated alchemist and mining engineer, working in Prague and Krakow for the Holy Roman Emperor. Last but not least, there was also a practical connection. Mining provided many of the raw materials used in Antonio Neri’s glassmaking activities.  

* For a full discussion of Neri’s Discorso, see M. G. Grazzini, “Discorso sopra la Chimica: The Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri”, Nuncius 27, pp. 411-467.

** This post first appeared here 30 April 2014.

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