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, November 29, 2019

Glass Discovery Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Sisters of an Alchemist

Portrait of the Egerton Sisters
(no relation to Neri)
English School,  c. 1601-1602
Among the ten children born to glassmaker Antonio Neri’s parents, three of them were girls; Lessandra, Maria, and Lucrezia. Because women were not allowed to legally own property, or sign contracts many of the usual sources of information are silent. Most of what we can learn about them is through their relationships with the men around them.

The Neri's were a patrician family, and the children enjoyed a very comfortable existence for the late sixteenth century. There is evidence that all three sisters survived into adulthood. Lessandra was the first-born, nine years older than Maria, and twelve years older than Lucrezia.

When Lessandra was around age seventeen, her famous father, Neri Neri, was appointed as personal physician to the newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici. However, only a few short years later their mother Dianora died at age 42, of causes that are unknown, perhaps childbirth. The girls were 22, 13 and 10. A few short years later they lost both their father, and a brother.

Two information sources for the Neri sisters are their birth records kept at the Opera del Duomo and genealogy records for the family which are filed at the National Archives, both in Florence. The baptism records hold a wealth of indirect material through the names of their godparents. While these do not tell us anything specific about them, it does tell us who their influences were; who they looked to for strength and spiritual guidance, under the circumstances, this is the best we can do.

Lessandra (b. 1572) claimed Baccio Valori as her godfather. The Valori family had a long, tragic history with the ruling Medici family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all close Medici supporters, yet each ended up exiled, imprisoned, or executed after relationships soured. On one hand he was faithfully employed by the Medici, yet he reportedly spent a good deal of his time collecting letters and papers documenting his family’s close support of Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand Dominican priest who lead Florence in the late 1490s, after the Medici had been temporarily expelled from the city.

Lessandra’s godmother was Marietta Gaetani, also from a noble family, which included dukes, cardinals and popes. They played prominent roles in the politics of Pisa, Rome and Naples for several centuries. Marietta’s father owned the house from whose tower Galileo showed the moons of Jupiter to Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1610.

The genealogical records imply that Lessandra later took vows with the S. Agata monastery on the North end of Florence and took the name suor Emilia.


Maria’s (b. 1581) godfather was Monsignor Giovanni Alberti. Giovanni was the son of a Florentine senator. He served as protonotary apostolic for Pope Gregory XIII and as bishop of Cortona under Pope Clement VIII. A godfather serving in the papal inner chambers was a good family contact indeed. Also appearing for Maria was Pierfilippo Perini, a physician and lawyer. The Registri lists Maria Neri's godmother as Alessandra di Girolamo Pepi. Among the prominent Florentine republicans was Alessandra's father, Girolamo. He was tortured by Alessandro de' Medici in the 1530s, upon the family's regaining control of Florence after the siege.The genealogy indicates that she married into the Boscoli family, but further work is needed to identify a specific individual.

Lucrezia (b. 1584), the youngest Neri girl, has a single godparent listed in the register, Montiglio degli Albizi. The Albizi family boasted powerful bankers and politicians. This was another case where deep divisions over Medici rule drove a family apart. Perhaps the best-recognized member of the Albizzi family was Eleonora degli Albizi. She was the young consort of grand duke Cosimo I. Folklore has it that in 1566, Cosimo intended to retire from public life and marry Albizi quietly, after the birth of a girl, but his regent son, Francesco I, forbade it to due to the inheritance complications that would ensue. The story is that Cosimo's long-time personal secretary, Sforza Almeni, leaked word of the clandestine marriage to the family. For his betrayal, an enraged Cosimo murdered Almeni in cold blood. Eleonora later gave birth to Don Giovanni de’ Medici, the uncle and friend of Don Antonio, Neri's sponsor. The specific Albizi family member we are interested in, Lucrezia's godfather, Montiglio degli Albizi, seems to have eluded history. Lucretia married into the Talenti family, but no further details are known.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Matter of Plagiarism

Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687)
Conciatore is pleased to reprise the guest-post of independent researcher Maria Grazzini. Maria studied Antonio Neri under the late Professor Paolo Rossi, philosopher and historian of science at the University of Florence. In 2012, Dr. Grazzini published an annotated English translation of Neri's manuscript in the journal Nuncias. [1] In the course of her research, she discovered a plagiarized version of the manuscript, published by 
a famous Jesuit professor in Brescia. His version matches Neri's handwritten manuscript of 1614 word for word. Here is what Maria had to say on the subject:

The seventeenth century Jesuit scientist Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687) is famous for his design of a "flying boat"; he has been immortalized as the father of aeronautical engineering. What is not generally known is that he plagiarized the entire text of Antonio Neri's manuscript Discorso.

The original was never published by Neri, perhaps due to his premature death, but even as a manuscript, it must have circulated widely. It would be interesting to know the history of its diffusion, in order to understand how it became the subject of plagiarism. Lana Terzi, well known in the Italian Academia of the late seventeenth century, published his  in 1670. [2] The entire chapter 20 of his Prodromo is an exact reproduction of Neri's. Lana Terzi was fascinated by experimentation and manual arts. The Jesuit order refused their members permission to write about magic and alchemy; Jesuits with such esoteric interests could never write books directly devoted to these subjects, however, they could write works on the different aspects of natural philosophy. In this broader context chemical philosophy could be admitted.


Title page of Lana Terzi's Prodromo
Neri was popular in his own time for his glassmaking knowledge. His L'Arte Vetraria  was widely read and its reprints and translations appeared over the centuries. [3] Nevertheless, Neri enjoyed a considerable reputation among his contemporaries also for his 'chemical philosophy'. Discorso is a complete treatise on the subjects of chemistry and philosophy, to all appearance not different from many others written during the sixteenth century. It holds a similar structure, with an introduction defining the subject and the description of procedures. The final part lists possible objections raised against the validity of chemistry and gives Neri's timely responses. In this sense Discorso belongs to the alchemical traditions and Neri shows his deep knowledge of the Paracelsian doctrine and literature. Even so, the main features of the new 'scientific' mindset are present in Neri's treatise: the study of "the great book of nature" and the value of experimental practice. The traditional reliance on the authority of ancient wisdom loses its legitimacy. "We should not so easily give credence to all the histories," Neri claims, but we should "prove the possibility of this art of transmutation with certain […] experiences". Knowledge is acquired "with the practice of many experiences." It does not come from a divine revelation or from the study of many books.
There is no contradiction between the alchemist Neri and the glass-conciatore Neri; the will of gaining a deep knowledge of nature, based on the observation and experimentation, is common to both. Neri is always 'the technician' and never 'the philosopher'. Alchemy, the "Great Art," is the result of a deep study of nature and its aim is not to give an imitation of nature, but to make it perfect.

The 'modernity' of Neri can also be understood in his way of talking about chemical philosophy. He does not pretend to teach eternal truths, but only to indicate the way to achieve greater knowledge, by "understanding the modus operandi of nature." Consequently, the writer does not use the form of a dogmatic essay, but that of a conversational chat, or 'discourse'.

It would be interesting to discover how Lana Terzi came into possession of Neri's manuscript. Perhaps he was attracted by the mixture of old and new which was also a predominant theme of his time, when different models of knowledge coexisted and intertwined. Discorso offered him the chance of introducing the topic of alchemy without being accused of magism.

-M. G. Grazzini

[1] Grazzini 2012.
[2] Lana Terzi 1670.
[3] Neri 1612, 1613.
* this post first appeared here on 20 November 2013.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Kitchen Alchemy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Béguines of Malines

A Béguine of Antwerp,
from Pierre Hélyot,
L'Histoire des ordres monastiques… 1719 (v.8)
Five years into his stay in Antwerp, on 21 February 1608, glassmaker Antonio Neri posted a letter to a friend in Florence. The letter was addressed to the house of Zanobi Bartolini—likely the son of Neri’s late former landlord Alamano, also the nephew of Emmanuel Ximenes, Neri’s host in Antwerp. The letter provides strong evidence that however much time Neri devoted to making glass, he also devoted considerable attention to his interest in medicine. 

In this letter, the priest describes his success with medicinal cures. He also references experiments he carried out in Brussels and at the Hospital of Malines, in Mechelen. In particular, he praised Paracelsus’ recipe for ‘theriac of mummy,’ and its superiority to Galen’s ‘theriac magna’. Theriac was an ancient medicinal remedy, often taking the form of a thick honey based syrup. It often contained numerous herbal ingredients. It was thought to be a cure for any poison and used as a way to stave off the plague. Mummy or mumia was a compound composed of just what one might think: the ground up flesh of ancient Egyptian bodies. 

The Hospital of Malines was an ancient one, started in the thirteenth century by a society of lay Catholic women called Béguines. In their 1907 book A History of Nursing, Dock and Nutting note:
Through the whole time of the active career of the Béguines, nursing remained an important branch of their work. One of their most beautiful settlements was at Malines, where there were over 1500 Sisters, not including their dependents. This would appear to have been a nursing center of importance, for Helyot says that the nursing in many hospitals was provided for by orders arising from the Béguines of Malines. […] The building were surrounded with extensive gardens and trees, and had an ample water supply. ‘The sick were nursed there’ he [Helyot] wrote ‘with all the skill, refinement and sweetness that might be expected from the appearance of the place. [1]
The Béguines were not nuns. They did live in communal housing, and did devote themselves to a pious lifestyle, but without formal cloister, without renouncing their possessions, and taking only a temporary vow of chastity, able to leave at any time, for instance to get married. They formed corporations throughout the Low Lands and into France and Germany that were self sustaining and largely independent of local control. These were huge organizations of women, working for themselves, under their own roofs and by their own rules. They produced crafts and textiles, they schooled nurses and they ran hospitals. Because they existed on the fringes of Church control, they were downplayed or even resented within the hierarchy. One result is that their achievements have largely been forgotten by history. When Mathias Hovius, the Archbishop of Mechelen, toured the facilities in 1601 he took the petty action of requiring Béguines who chose to keep lap-dogs to pay a fine to the Church. In 1630, Bishop Malderus of Antwerp defended the women in an extraordinary letter. He wrote,
The Order of the Béguines is truly not a religious order, but a pious society, and compared with the former complete consecration is as a preparatory school in which the piously inclined women of Belgium live after a pattern highly characteristic of the temper and mind and the character of the people. For this people is jealous of its liberty and will be led rather than driven. Although it is beyond a doubt more meritorious to devote one’s self to the service of heaven by vows of perpetual chastity, obedience, and poverty, and though there are many pious women in Belgium who are so disposed, yet most of them shrink from this irrevocable vow. They prefer to remain inviolably chaste rather than to promise to be so; they are willing to obey, but without formally binding themselves to obedience; to rather use their poverty in reasonable outlays for the poor than to give it at once up for good to all; rather voluntarily renounce daily the world than immure themselves once and forever.[2]
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the hospital was used to treat wounded Spanish and Italian soldiers fighting in the war against the Dutch. By 1607, just before Antonio Neri wrote his letter, the staff at the hospital numbered fifty, “including seven doctors, eight surgeons, and three surgeon’s mates.”[3]

As the son of a grand duke’s personal physician and grandson of a surgeon, there can be little doubt that Neri had ample familiarity with medical procedure. It seems likely, given the circumstances, that in Mechelen he was lending his expertise to ease the ravages of war, helping to heal wounded soldiers.

[1] Lavinia L. Dock, Mary Adelaide Nutting, A History of Nursing (Putnam, 1907) v. 1, p. 268.
[2] Ibid, p. 269.[3] Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), p.141
[3] Ibid, Dock, Nutting 1907.
* This post first appeared here on 26 Mar 2014.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Caterina Sforza and Alchemy

Caterina Sforza, by Lorenzo di Credi
(now in the Museum of Forlì.)
We remember Antonio Neri mostly for his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria. However, he thought about himself a bit differently; he considered himself first and foremost an alchemist. This interest can be traced to at least two generations before him; his father, Neri Neri, was an acclaimed physician – in fact, the personal physician to Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Antonio's grandfather, Jacopo Neri, was a barber-surgeon. Both of these professions required an extensive knowledge of herbal distillation and other techniques which are shared by alchemists.

Antonio's benefactor, Don Antonio de' Medici, also followed a family passion for the chemical arts, in his case, traceable through an unbroken chain, to a female alchemist, his great-great-grandmother, Caterina Sforza, (c.1463–1509). After her death, over four hundred of her formulas were passed down to her son, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, then to his son Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke Francesco I, and finally to Don Antonio. 

Caterina was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, but was still educated at court, and apparently 'apprenticed' apothecary Ludovico Albertini. At age fifteen, she was married to a nephew of Pope Sixtus. The pope granted her title of Countess of Forlì and Imola. After her territory was later taken and her husband murdered (by a faction of their own people), she escaped prison and retook the two cities. In 1495, when her second husband was assassinated, she launched a campaign which gutted the families of the murderers. Her third husband was Giovanni de' Medici, and their son, named after his father would become a brilliant military strategist, like his mother. His own son, Cosimo, would later become the first "Grand Duke" of Tuscany. 

Her chemical recipes were transcribed in 1525 by a captain in her son's army, Count Lucantonio Cuppano da Montefalco, and ultimately published as a book in 1893 (Pasolini). Included are an assortment of formulas which range from cosmetics, to medical remedies, poisons and alchemical concoctions.
Researcher Jacqueline Spicer writes:
Lost among the romanticized military conquests is a thorough account [of] the project that occupied several years of her life—the manuscript of her alchemical and medical experiments and recipes titled Gli Experimenti de la Ex.ma S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux.mo S.r Giouanni de Medici, or Gli Experimenti. The text is an early example of what would later become the popular medical genre of "Books of Secrets", but is so early that it does not appear in most modern writing on such books. Furthermore, Gli Experimenti is unusual because it was written by a woman in an otherwise male dominated genre, and unique in that we know a great deal about the life of its author.[1]

Among the alchemical entries are "to convert pewter into silver of the finest quality and of standard alloy," a method "for giving to bars of brass a fine golden color" and another for "for multiplying silver." Also, there are ways described  to "make iron hard," "to dissolve pearls" and "to dissolve all metals." In the medicinal category, we find "for infirm lungs, an ointment is to be made of the blood of a hen, a duck, a pig, a goose, mixed with fresh butter and white wax." This was to be applied to the chest with a fox's skin.
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (1498)
(detail - rightmost of the three graces)

Caterina Sforza was painted many times and often depicted as the Virgin Mary, a typical trope for the nobility at the time. She may have been immortalized  by Sandro Botticelli as the rightmost of the three graces in his Primavera and as the main subject in The Birth of Venus.[2] Reportedly, she was the subject of ballads and sonnets, although most have been lost. She is a topic of discussion in Niccolò Machiavelli's famous treatise The Prince

In the end, our alchemist's territories were confiscated by yet another pope, Alexander VI, and her story does not end well. She was captured, raped and imprisoned. Alexander justified her incarceration, in the Vatican's Sant'Angelo Castle, by claiming she tried to poison him. She survived the ordeal, but after release entered the convent of the Murate nuns in Florence, and died, in 1509, at the age of forty-seven. She was buried at the convent, in the same city where her future great-great-grandson, Don Antonio, along with Antonio Neri, would perform their own alchemical experiments and help usher in the age of  modern science.

[1]https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/renaissancecosmetics/cosmetics-recipes/caterina-sforzas-experimenti/ also see  http://edinburgh.academia.edu/JacquelineSpicer.
[2] Another possibility for the model of Venus was Simonetta Vespucci.
*This post first appeared here on 27 January 2014.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Women in Alchemy

Antonio Neri, 1598-1600,
MS Ferguson 67, f. 25r.
It is certain that women have participated in the practice of alchemy since its beginnings, but hard documentation is scant. Maria Prophetissima, also known as Mary the Jewess, is perhaps the best known female alchemist. None of her writings have survived, but she is thought to have lived around the third century. Legend tells that the "bain-marie" (double boiler) is named after her.

In the seventeenth century, celebrated glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri provides us with further detail, even if raising more questions than answers. One of his manuscripts, entitled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World) depicts three women running chemical equipment. Unfortunately, we are left to guess who they were and what role they played in the larger Florentine technical arts community. It is possible that these were nuns, trained in the same Church sponsored educational system that produced Neri. Convents were often expected to be self-sufficient and many ran their own pharmacies. Neri had sisters as well as brothers and at least one sister entered a convent located on the north side of Florence, near the laboratory where Antonio practiced alchemy and made glass. The fact that specific names have not been associated with Neri’s three female co-workers should not deter us from celebrating their contribution to the birth of early modern science.

Within a year of his ordination in the Catholic Church, Neri began an ambitious treatise, illustrated in his own hand, devoted to "all of alchemy." Six of the illustrations in this manuscript, completed in 1600, show women tending equipment. It is not remarkable that some alchemists of the 16th century were women, what is remarkable is to find them in the historical record. Direct depiction of female participation in alchemy is otherwise extremely rare. 



Two pictures in the Neri manuscript show female alchemists at
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 35r.
work. In both cases, the technician stands behind a dedicated piece of apparatus, facing forward, giving the impression of propriety in an arranged portrait. In other words, Neri is drawing his co-workers at their stations, practicing their art. The first drawing depicts a furnace and vessels used to make liquid mercury from its ore. The other shows a different type of furnace with a 'tower,' used as an efficient way to cook ceruse (white lead oxide). These images are part of a larger set of two dozen similar drawings that each illustrate the equipment used to prepare a specific product, many include a furnace and glassware. Nine of these show a single individual, (or in one case two men) tending the equipment. Because the manuscript is a recipe book, it contains almost no personal information. However, the context of these illustrations indicated that like their male counterparts, the individuals depicted all have specific responsibilities and specializations within the workplace.


Three other illustrations in the manuscript are notable for their engagement of women. These pictures show details of kitchen and nursing work; what might be termed more traditional female roles in the sixteenth century. Two of these illustrations are devoted to the respective arts of preparing plants and animals. They show women working alongside men performing various tasks. A third illustration shows medicinal fogging tents tended by a woman. Inside one tent, a male patient sits naked on a bench, exposed and breathing fumes pumped in by a large vessel perched over a fire. Similar arrangements are known to have been used to treat skin lesions caused by leprosy and syphilis.
Antonio Neri, 1598-1600, 
MS Ferguson 67, f. 37r.
The circumstances in these images present other possibilities to Antonio Neri's work environment. One is that the scenes take place at the Neri household on Borgo Pinti in Florence. Antonio's father was the personal physician to Ferdinando de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. He was also the head of the college of physicians in Florence, and presumably ran a thriving private practice. The women may be Neri's siblings or other family members. 

Another possibility is that we may be looking at operations inside the Casino di San Marco soon after prince Don Antonio de' Medici's occupation of the facility. This palace laboratory had a reputation for medical cures that extended throughout Europe. Don Antonio spent extravagant sums to learn alchemical and medicinal secrets. The glass furnace here, which had employed masters from Venice is where Neri began formulating glass. The presence of women among his colleagues indicates a social setting with a camaraderie not displayed in other alchemical works of the period. 

* This post first appeared here on 17 March 2013 in a slightly different form.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Anna J Agnew, Champion Glassblower

Anna J. Agnew,
Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1902, p. 43
In the spring of 1902, newspapers around the United States reported that eighteen-year-old Anna Agnew, of Norwood Pennsylvania had been proclaimed a “champion glass blower.” Stories in New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Chicago and Arizona described how she was able to blow several thousand pieces of medical glassware per day. Speaking to the rigors of her profession, she stated that in the past two years her lungs had become stronger and that she had “increased in weight from 110 to 130 pounds since taking up men’s work.” When asked if she was a member of the glass workers’ union, she replied “No, as the hateful men would not take women in as active members.” [1]

Agnew worked for the glass house of the H. K. Mulford Company, a pioneering pharmaceutical outfit that grew out of the first apothecary in Philadelphia, founded in 1823. The facility was located just outside the city in idyllic Glenolden. The owners had made a strategic decision to attract a female labor force for their line of torch-made scientific glassware and sterile containers. The women “have a delicacy of touch and a deftness which make them specially fitted for expertness.” [2] Their superintendent said, “I’ve been in this business from boyhood up, and I know what I am talking about when I say that no men can turn out such good work as these girls do. [Male] glass blowers would be astonished if they looked in on this factory. The girls are infinitely more careful and painstaking than men have ever thought of being, and they are achieving results never before known in the trade.” [3]

In the not-so-distant history of American glass work, women played a strong but understated and now all but forgotten role. Anna Agnew fabricated antitoxin bulbs, goose-necks, and did ‘fancy’ glass work besides. Her female co-workers were experts at producing capillary tubes, hermetically sealed ampules and homeopathic vials. But the appreciation of female glass workers was not by any means confined to the Mulford company. Elsewhere, women around the country were specifically recruited as glass workers in other fields. From the tiny Moore Pushpin (thumb-tack) company [4] to the burgeoning incandescent light bulb industry. As Agnew and her co-workers honed their skills in the east, the Houston Electrical Supply Company in Texas advertised for “Lady Glass Blowers” experienced with incandescent lamps. Even earlier, In the 1890’s Edison’s General Electric company was running help wanted ads for “Female Glass Tubulators and Stem Makers” for his incandescent light bulb factory in Harrison, New Jersey. [5] There, women composed the vast majority of blowers making glass bases and envelopes for light bulbs. By 1918 General Electric maintained 36 lamp factories around the world, and the women at the Harrison plant met to discuss forming a union of their own. [6] Still later women became vital to the manufacture of vacuum tubes for electronics, and by the 1940’s they were working side by side with their male counterparts at the hot-glass furnaces of the Libbey glass company in Toledo, Ohio. [7]

The appreciation of female glass workers by industry in the late 1800s did not materialize out of thin air; far from it. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that every man, woman and child in America had heard of, read about, or seen a lady glassblower ply her craft in person. They were a widely popular attraction at county fairs, circus sideshows and dime museums. In an era when traveling performers were the premier form of entertainment in the country, glass blowers working over a torch were especially popular with women and children. Audience members could expect to walk away with a small glass toy; a model ship, an animal or a flower made entirely of glass. To see a woman making such objects was icing on the cake, a fact not lost on show managers and promoters. By the last decade of the 19th century, there were troupes entirely composed of “lady glass blowers” traveling the country, headlining their own exhibitions.

Anna Agnew was the daughter of a Philadelphia sewing machine salesman. After her stint with Mulford, she married trolley car conductor Harry Stewart and as far as can be determined, retired from the fire-arts to raise a family. She died at age 74 in Philadelphia in 1957. Other women continued their career in glass throughout their lives. There is a strong and proud tradition of women glass workers in the arts and industry that carries over from Europe and runs like a golden thread right through the entire history of the United States since its earliest days.




[1] “Girl Champion Glassblower” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Illinois, 9 March 1902, p. 43.
[2] “Glass-Blower Girls” The Buffalo Enquirer: Buffalo, New York, 29 July 1904, p. 5.
[3] Day, Mary Edith, “Girls Who Blow Glass” Reading Times: Reading, Pennsylvania, 14 May 1902, p. 3.
[4] “Help Wanted” The Philadelphia Enquirer: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, p. 40.
[5] “Female Help Wanted” The Boston Globe: Boston, Massachusetts, p. 9.
[6] “Have Mass Meeting of Lamp Works Employees” The Fort Wayne Sentinel: Fort Wayne, Indiana,  31 December, 1918, p. 3.
[7] Rosellen Callahan, "Lady Glassblowers Wend Their Way Into 'For Men Only' Trade", Fort Lauderdale News: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 5 August, 1943, p. 6.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Guest Post

Conciatore is very pleased to present a guest post by Dr. Kate Round in which she acquaints us with the owner operator of the Audnam Glassworks in the mid 1700s.

Sarah Worral Grazebrook 1721-99
by Kate Round

After reading of Sara Vincx who in 1595, following the death of her husband, ran a successful glassmaking business in the City of Antwerp; I was reminded of a local successful businesswoman running a Glasshouse in Audnam, near Amblecote in Stourbridge, when the glass industry was flourishing in the 18th century.

Glassmaking was established in Amblecote after Lorrainer glassmakers arrived in the early 17th century. They were attracted by the best fire clay, cheap coal, sand and soda made from the burnt bracken on Pensnett Chase. De Houx built one of the early glasshouses in 1618 in Amblecote and glasshouses eventually spread over the parish making many and varied products.

Audnam Glasshouse was built in 1716 and was run by Henry Bradley. His business suffered due to the decline in the price paid for broad glass coupled with the introduction of the glass tax in 1745. He finally surrendered his business in 1747 to his landlord, Baron John Ward of Dudley.
Map of Stourbridge area canal system incl. Audnam Glassworks cone,
1774 map by Robert Whitworth.
(Click to enlarge map.)

Baron Ward immediately let the glasshouse to Michael Grazebrook I at an annual rent of £50. The association between the Dudley family and the Grazebrooks lasted 112years. Business flourished and his son Michael II (born 21st June 1723) learned the trade.


Michael II married Sarah Worral on 16th January 1753, Michael was 29yrs old and Sarah who was an only child and an heiress of Stourton in Staffordshire was aged 31. It was not uncommon for eligible businessman to seek a bride who would bring further prosperity to their allegiance. In 1640 Paul Tyzack, one of the original Huguenot glassmakers to settle in the area was sufficiently integrated into local society to see his son Paul II, marry Joyce Lyddiatt the daughter of his landlord, John Lyddiatt a scythesmith of Wollaston Hall. Joshua Henzey son of Huguenot Ananias Henzey, arrived in Stourbridge in 1618 aged just 22years, he wasted no time in marrying Joan Brettle a spinster from a substantial landowning family. Just six days after their marriage Joan gave birth to their son Ananias, baptised in Kingswinford on 5th October 1618.


The marriage between Michael Grazebrook II and Sarah Worral lasted just 15 years. Michael died in 1766 aged 42years. They had two sons, Thomas Worral Grazebrook (11/08/1756) and Michael Grazebrook III (7/03/1758). In Michael II’s will he was described as a master glassmaker and desired that trade be carried on by his widow Sarah and that stock in trade, book debts, personal estate and effects be equally divided between his only two sons, Thomas and Michael III aged 10years and 8years at the time of their fathers death.

In 1760 Audnam Flint Glasshouse was listed as manufacturing Smooth Enamel Glass, Best and Ordinary Flint Glass and Phials. Sarah Grazebrook continued to manage her late husband’s glassmaking business for many years and although both of her sons were involved, they also developed other interests in coal and ironmaking.

The glasshouse at Audnam was shown on local maps when the land around it was enclosed in 1777 and the occupier was listed as Mrs Sarah Grazebrook. She was also recorded as running Dob Hill Glasshouse owned by Robert Honeybourne. Benjamin Richardson who we consider to be the patriarch of Stourbridge glass, wrote in his notebook in 1886 that Grazebrooks needed Dob Hill Glassworks to make bottles; worked by Madame Grazebrook they used to take the material from the glasshouse at Audnam to Dob Hill Glassworks, and vice-versa. It was reported that the glasshouse at Dob Hill ‘fell-down’ sometime around 1800 and a new canal-side glasshouse was built as a replacement.

In 1783 Sarah was listed as a Glass manufacturer in a local directory and in that year also she took out a further 21-year lease from the landlord Lord Dudley. Her lease was in the sum of £52 per annum with maintenance and repairs to be undertaken by the lessee at her own cost. Sarah also took out an insurance policy in both her and her sons names on 5 May 1783. In 1793 a local directory stated that about ten glasshouses in the district had an output so great that they each paid £20,000 per annum in duty (equivalent to £2.8m today). T&M Grazebrook was one of those listed.

Michael III married in 1785 and moved to the family home Audnam House attached to the glassworks. After his marriage both Michael and his brother Thomas took over the running of the business from their mother Sarah. Their business continued to prosper in glass, coal and as ironmasters; the eight-pot glassmaking furnace traded as T & M Grazebrook, yet in 1795 it was Sarah who paid the £53 rent to Lord Dudley. Their mother remained the head of the firm until she died in 1799 aged 78y. Her will divided her estate between her two sons Thomas and Michael III.

For nineteen years, between the death of her husband in 1766 and when her sons were registered as the business owners in 1785, Sarah maintained the business. She was solely responsible for the day to day running of the eight-pot Audnam furnace and a bottle making furnace at Dob Hill. She managed the workforce, maintained healthy order books, purchased raw materials and supplied quality products; thus ensuring a flourishing business to pass on to her sons. Tradition tells that as an old lady Sarah would sit in her bedroom window with an hourglass to time her workmen’s shifts.

Like Sara Vincx in Antwerp in 1595, running successful glassmaking businesses in a male dominated environment must have bought many challenges that went unrecorded. Did Sara marry Filippo Gridolfi, one of her foremen of the furnace, to validate her position. Did both formidable ladies contribute also to product design, were they hands-on with blowing irons despite the taboo of women working glass? Who knows! some things perhaps were best left unsaid?


References:
Buckley, Francis; Old English Glasshouses, Society of Glass Technology 2006
Ellis, Jason; Glassmakers of Stourbridge and Dudley 1612-2002, Xlibris Corporation, 2002
Guttery, D R; From Broad Glass to Cut Crystal, Leonard Hill Ltd, London 1956
Engle, Paul; Sara Vincx, Glass MakerConciatore Blog 2013



Dr Kate Round is an outreach presenter and tour guide for Dudley Museum Service, based at the iconic Red House Glass Cone in Wordsley; the home of Stuart Crystal.

In her previous life, she was a research chemist and lecturer so understands the chemistry of glass having worked on the synthesis of ‘zeolites’ (silica-based materials) with her work published in International Journals. "I have always lived in the Black Country and have a strong industrial family heritage; I am also proud to have served my community as a local Magistrate for the past nineteen years. In the glass industry, my areas of interest include the historical development of the industry in the Stourbridge district, how the geology and geography impacted on the wealth and sociology of the area, driven by the rivalry of our Glass Dynasties."


Dr Kate Round JP, PhD, MRSC CChem, BSc(Hons)

Twitter: @RoundKate

Friday, November 8, 2019

Mrs Johnston, 18th Century Fancy Glassblower

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Arminia Vivarini

Nef Ewer, Late 16th century, Murano Italy.
Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum
On the afternoon of Friday, 22 March 1521, The Venetian Senate - then called the ‘Pregadi’ - reconvened after lunch. Senator Marino Sanuto (the Younger) recorded in his now famous diary that among the afternoon business was the granting of a ten year exclusive license to Arminia, the daughter of painter ‘Alvise da Muran’ (Luigi Vivarini). She was granted this privilege to produce the ornamental glass galley ships she had recently devised. [1,2] Once called 'Navicella' (little ships) these ewers, probably most used to serve wine, are now known as ‘nefs’. A pour spout was situated at the ship's bow, and often a handle astern. These objects soon became iconic symbols of the island-nation’s long dominance in trade, and regularly appeared on sideboards and elaborate dinner table settings, not only in the lagoon, but in Florence, Rome and far beyond.


In their Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, Syson and Thornton write,
“It was not only the use of coloured canes in complex patterns embedded into clear glass that typified Venetian glass from the 1520s, but also the manipulation of cristallo into ever more fantastic forms. Novelties were first displayed at the Ascension Day Fair, which, like visits to the glasshouses in Murano itself, was firmly on the tourist map by about 1500. The Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto mentions the work displayed at three booths at the fair in 1525, those of Barovier, Serena and Ballarin workshops ‘among other things, a galley and a very beautiful ship were to be seen.’”
Syson and Thornton continue, “Leandro Alberti singled out just this kind of glass in his famous description of the marvels of Murano in his Description of All Italy of 1550: ‘I saw there (among other things made of glass) a scaled-down model of a galley, one braccia long and with all its rigging and equipment, so perfectly in scale that it seemed impossible to model such things accurately in such a medium.” [3]


Scholar and science investigator, Georgius Agricola, described a vessel in the form of a ship in his De re metallica published in Basel in 1556,
“The glass-makers make diverse things, such as goblets, cups [...] and ships, all of which excellent and wonderful works I have seen when I spent two whole years in Venice some time ago. Especially at the time of the Feast of the Ascension they were on sale at M[u]rano, where are located the most celebrated glass-works. These I saw on other occasions, and when, for a certain reason, I visited Andrea Naugerio in his house which he had there, and conversed with him and Francisco Asulano.” [4]


Arminia Vivarini’s father was a painter of some renown, but her family is also among the earliest recorded glassmakers on Murano. Her third-great grandfather, named Vivarino, arrived from Padua, just ahead of the plague in 1346. [5] The family seems to have been involved in the craft on the island from then on. She clearly had access to a furnace, perhaps one owned by an uncle or a cousin. In any event, she exemplified the qualities of the very best glass artisans throughout history: a clear design sense coupled with technical expertise and the opportunity to put them both into practice.


Her very existence also forces us to more closely examine the well worn narrative that hot-shops were exclusively male domains, from which women were strictly excluded. In such a highly competitive arena, it is perfectly reasonable that a family would promote its best talent, regardless of gender. In many ways, we owe homage to Vivarini for her success with this style of novelty glass object; it started the genre that continues in popularity today, five centuries later, with works of art prized by collectors and in museums around the world. [6]


[1] Arminia  (Armenia, Ermonia) Vivarini (1490-1569). See Luigi Zecchin: Vetro e Vetrai di Murano, 3 vols. (Venezia: Arsenale, 1987-9) v.3, p. 194.
[2] Marino Sanudo: I diarii di Marino Sanuto (1466-1536)  v.30. Eds., F. Stefani, G. Berchet, N. Barozzi (Venezia: Fratelli Visentini, 1891) col. 45. Also see Zecchin 1987-9, v.2, p.276.
[3] Luke Syson, Dora Thornton: Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001), p. 197.
[4]  Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer): De Re Metallica: Tr. from the 1st Latin Ed. of 1556… trns: Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover. (Princeton: Mining Magazine, 1912), p. 592 (Book XII.)
[5] op. Cit. Zecchin 1987-9, v.3, p194-5.
[6] Thanks to Sophie Small‏ @sophieesmall for inspiring the subject of this post.