Friday, July 3, 2020

Glass of Montpellier

Montpellier, France, in the seventeenth century.
(Attribution unknown)
Montpellier is an old city in southern France. It stands about halfway between Marseille and the Spanish border along the Mediterranean Sea (strategically located slightly inland to avoid pirates). First documented in the tenth century, it is one of very few French cities that developed without the influence of ancient Roman occupation; it is a pure product of the local region. It became a center of intellectual learning and attracted students from throughout Europe. Around it sprung a number of supporting arts not the least of which was glassmaking. Once famous for its fine glassware, today this centuries long heritage is all but forgotten, yet when we dig into the literature, we find a surprise connection to one of the oldest legends in the history of glass.

Since before the Renaissance, Montpellier was an established center for medical and legal education, a strong tradition that continues at the university there; today, it houses the oldest running medical school in the world. This prestigious institution "was founded perhaps by people trained in the Spanish medical schools; it is certain that, as early as 1137, there were excellent physicians at Montpellier University." [1] In 1529, Nostradamus entered to study for a doctorate in medicine, but shortly thereafter, he was expelled when it was discovered that he previously worked as an apothecary; a 'manual' skill that was banned by the school's rules of conduct.

Paradoxically, these impugned 'manual' arts account for some the region's more intriguing activity. Along with medicine, the area became known for the production of paint pigments, for glassmaking and finally for the practice of alchemy. All of these turn out to be closely related to each other, but perhaps not obviously so. Throughout the Renaissance, apothecaries were responsible for a wide range of distillations and extracts used by physicians to treat disease. They were also the de facto suppliers of pigments and other fine art supplies and even sourced some of the materials for glassmaking. Glassmakers often relied on painters to embellish their products, painters used ground glass in their pigments and apothecaries needed glassmakers to produce the flasks, beakers and other alchemical equipment required for their profession.

An anonymous Montpellier manuscript of the fourteenth century, called the Liber diversarum arcium [Book of Various Arts], offers us one of the most complete guides to the production of pigments to have survived from that period. [2] Another, later writing of the sixteenth century offers an extensive collection of glassmaking recipies brought to Montpellier from Venice. This one is titled Recette per fare vetri colorati et smalti d’ogni sorte havute in Murano 1536 [Recipes to make colored glasses and enamels of every kind as in Murano, 1536]. [3]

Local history points to the town of Claret just north of Montpellier as the seat of regional glassmaking. Beginning in 1290, the oak forests on the Causse de l'Orthus attracted glassmakers and their families. "So maybe the oaks got used for fuel. (A 'causse' is a geological term for a limestone plateau.) [also a material of glassmaking] At any rate, the glassmakers were ennobled by the King and formed a guild of premium glassmakers whose wares were sold all over Europe from the market at Sommières." [4]

In the early seventeenth century, Pierre-Jean Fabre (1588-1658) studied medicine at Montpellier where he discovered the works of Paracelsus, to which he became a devotee. [5] After securing a medical degree, he returned to the nearby town of his birth, Castelnaudary, to work as a doctor. Eventually, he was awarded the status of "Royal Physician" by Louis XIII, probably for his work on treating victims of the plague with chemical preparations. [6]

Fabre's first book, of a total canon numbering sixteen volumes, was on the subject of alchemy and medicine titled "Palladium spagyricum" 1624. [7] The book, written in Latin, contains advice on the transmutation of metals, turning water into "good wine" and elixirs to cure all disease. It contains one recipe that is of particular interest on the subject of glassmaking; a malleable form of glass, known in legend since the Roman Empire as Vitrum Flexile.

See my next post to take a closer look at Fabre's specific recipe for a glass that is malleable at room temperature and trace a bit of the legend's history.

[1] Wikipedia, “University of Montpellier” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Montpellier.
[2] Mark Clarke: Mediaeval Painters' Materials and Techniques: The Montpellier Liber diversarum arcium (London: Archetype Publications, 2011).
[3] Montpellier 1536, MS. H. 486: Recette per fare vetri colorati et smalti d’ogni sorte havute in Murano 1536, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole de Médecine de Montpellier, see also Zecchin 1987, v.1 p 247-276. Although the manuscript is dated 1536 it is probably copied from much earlier Venetian sources.
 [4] Ed Ward, Blog: City on a Hill, 1 Nov. 2010 post “Where the Glass-Blowers Were.” http://wardinfrance.blogspot.com/2010/11/where-glass-blowers-were.html . Also see Halle du Verre regional glass museum website http://www.cc-grandpicsaintloup.fr/-Halle-du-verre-.html .
[5] Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss born physician and alchemist who looked to nature rather than ancient texts for remedies to disease. He was widely condemned durring his lifetime but became very popular after his manuscripts were printed in the late sixteenth century.
[6] The definitive reference on Fabre is Bernard Joly: La rationalité de l'alchimie au XVIIe siècle (France: Vrin, 1992), pp. 35-50. A good English treatment can be found in Allen George Debus: The French Paracelsians: The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) pp, 75, 76.
[7] Pierre-Jean Fabre: Palladium spagyricum Petri Ioannis Fabri doctoris medici Monspeliensis ... (Toulouse: Bosc, 1624), p. 276. Later translated into several English editions, notably by William Salmon: Polygraphice: Or the Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limming, Painting … (London: T. Passenger & T. Sawbridge, 1685), pp. 598, 599.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Artificial Gems

Pastes (glass) set in silver openwork (Portugal c. 1750)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Acq. nr. M.68-1962
In many ways, the story of artificial gems traces the story of glass technology itself. From ancient times, when glass could only be produced in very small quantities it was regarded and used as a type of stone that was made through art. Alchemists thought the bright colors produced by metallic pigments in glass were a key to the philosopher's stone, and the transmutation of base metals into gold. As the technical prowess of glassmakers expanded, so did the ability to simulate specific stones, most notably coveted gems. Glass went on to be used as material for utilitarian objects like goblets and as an indispensable part of scientific enquiry. All the while, artificial gems have continued to dazzle us with their beauty. 

In the fifth part of Antonio Neri's 1612 book, he teaches the secrets of making artificial gems "of so much grace, and beauty, that they will surpass the natural stones in everything except hardness." It is not a difficult argument to make that this section alone is responsible for much of the lasting popularity of L'Arte Vetraria. It is easy to see why enterprising artisans would want to make glass imitations that could pass for the real thing. It is also perhaps tempting to jump to the conclusion that Neri intended his recipes to be used in deception, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this was the case.

Neri gives full credit for his innovative methods in paste gems to Dutch alchemist Isaac Hollandus. Hollandus is an enigmatic figure, whose writings survive, but not much is known of the man, his family, or even if he was living in Neri's time. What is known is that Antonio's dear friend Emmanuel Ximenes was the brother-in-law to Baron Simon Rodriguez d'Evora, a famous diamond dealer and jeweler of choice to royalty throughout Europe. He lived and worked on the same street in Antwerp as Ximenes' palace, only a few steps away from Neri's new temporary home. It was a common request of wealthy patrons to have duplicate jewelry made in paste for travel and security reasons. If a fake necklace or jewel could pass for the real thing, it was well worth the added expense, when the genuine article could remain safe under lock and key.

No artificial gem recipes have ever been found among Hollandus' writings, excepting one for ruby which is then crushed up as part of a prescription for the philosopher's stone. It is quite possible that Neri was applying a more general technique from the Dutchman. The basic material for all of Neri's paste gems is a fine lead crystal. The crux of his innovation lay in the form of lead used. Normally, metallic lead sheet was cut into small pieces, and roasted in a kiln such that it would oxidize into powder, but not melt. The powder was then added to the glass melt. In Neri's method the lead was chemically converted into a water-soluble form, which could then be filtered and purified to a much greater extent. The end result was a far better grade of crystal.

In 1697, Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt translated into French and greatly expanded Christopher Merrett's English edition of Neri. Blancourt gave no credit to the Italian for his work, and two years later, when it was translated back into English by Daniel Brown, the connection to Neri was completely lost, but the credit for paste gems remained with Hollandus. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous general encyclopedias of art and craft were published and the so-called 'Hollandus' paste gem recipes turned up many times. Meanwhile, a properly credited French version of L'Arte Vetraria was completed by Holbach in 1752. This edition was more suited to a scientific audience; he faithfully translated the Italian, but also incorporated the full comments of Merrett as well as those of Kunckel who issued his famous German version of Neri in 1679.

For more reading on Neri's artificial gems see Glass as Pasta and on the work of later investigators see Marieke Hendriksen at The Medicine Chest

Monday, June 29, 2020

Sara Vincx, Glassmaker

Still life with façon de Venise wineglass,
Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661)
Antwerp.
In the 1590s, after the death of her husband, Sara Vincx ran a successful glassmaking business in the city of Antwerp. In the midst of a major war, she presided over a furnace where craftsmen from Murano, Italy, made fine cristallo glassware for the elite families in Flanders. Vinx is the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere.

The Dutch Eighty Years' War for independence from Spain was heating up in Flanders; towns were being pillaged and burned to the ground throughout the Low Countries. Even so, Vincx ably managed a crew of expert glass artists and brought her company's wares to market. When competitors tried to duplicate her products, she successfully defended her shop in court. Later, she remarried to Filippo Gridolfi, one of her foremen at the furnace. The two went on to open a show-room on the Meir, the most prestigious sales district of the city. They also welcomed glassmaker Antonio Neri to work at their facility. Neri was living in the city on an extended seven year visit to his friend and fellow alchemical experimenter Emmanuel Ximenes. 

The seven years that Antonio Neri spent in Antwerp were arguably the most formative for his knowledge of glassmaking. While his first exposure to the art was in Italy, a large portion of the skills and recipes exhibited in his book, L'Arte Vetraria, trace to his activities in the Low Countries. Neri writes "This will make a beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished, as I have done many times in Flanders in the city of Antwerp to the marvel of all those that saw it." On tinting rock crystal: "In Antwerp, I made quite a bit of this, some ranged in tint from an opal color that looked very beautiful, to a girasol, similarly nice." On equipment: "In Antwerp, I built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors and when fired for twenty-four hours everything fused and purified." He also speaks of chalcedony glass, paste gems  and ultramarine paint all crafted in Antwerp.

Neri was apparently on good terms with Vincx and Gridolfi, perhaps he was introduced through Ximenes, one of the wealthiest men in the city. In his book Neri describes Gridolfi as "a most courteous gentleman." Vincx and Gridolfi possessed exclusive rights in the region to produce cristallo glass in the Venetian style (façon de Venice) a type of glass that Neri was already quite familiar with from his time making glass in Florence. The license, or patent as it was called, passed down from previous owners, was quite a valuable part of the operation. Employed in their shop was a steady stream of craftsmen from Murano. They made the finest glassware for the upper classes of Antwerp and surrounding areas. Because these craftsmen were bringing the secret techniques with them, they worked outside of the guild system, which would have otherwise required them to share their techniques with other artisans. Through special arrangements with the local authorities, the Venetians were exempt from joining. 


Sara Vincx (or Vincks) was the widow of the former owner, Ambrogio de Mongarda. Gridolfi had previously worked in the shop under Mongarda, who had been in the business for twenty years. Vincx was pressed into service by unhappy circumstances. In 1594, Ambrogio returned alone to Venice to recuperate from gout, but by the following year he was dead, leaving Sara to both run the glass shop and care for at least eight young children. Sara Vincx carries a distinction as the first documented female owner of a glass furnace anywhere. She took an active role in the business as attested by lawsuits she filed, and won, against rival shops that violated her patent. Records show she also expanded the furnace and hired two new artisans to increase production.

Despite the war and the Spanish blockade of the Scheldt River, which shut down trade by sea for a number of years in Antwerp, the glass furnace there thrived and reached its zenith under Vincx and Gridolfi. Soon after their marriage, seventeen employees were counted working at the shop. They established their own retail presence on the Meir, selling high-end cristallo within steps of the Ximenes palace. Their glass operation enjoyed top-rung status, and no doubt, Antonio Neri's involvement must have bolstered the reputation of the firm even further.

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

Friday, June 26, 2020

The 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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Isaac Hollandus

J. Hollandus,
Chymische Schriften
(Vienna: 1773)
In early 1603, Glassmaker Antonio Neri traveled from Italy to Flanders, to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes. Neri would stay for seven years and in that time he worked on a number of glass related projects including the manufacture of artificial gems using lead crystal glass. An enduring mystery is that in his 1612 glass book L'Arte Vetraria, he gives credit to alchemist Isaac Hollandus for a "new chemical method never before used," yet no such recipe for artificial gems has ever been found in the writings of Hollandus.

Neri’s host, Emmanuel Ximenes, owned several titles by this somewhat obscure figure. Historians conjecture that there were actually two alchemists in the Hollandus family, Isaac and Johannes Isaac. Their relationship is not clear, although they are often assumed to be father and son. We know little about them; some authors date them as early as the fourteenth century. However, a preponderance of evidence point to about the time Neri lived. In his glass book, in the fifth part devoted to artificial gems, Neri writes:

Above all is this wonderful invention. A new way practiced by me, with the doctrine taken from Isaac Hollandus, in which paste jewels of so much grace, beauty and perfection are made, that they seem nearly impossible to describe and hard to believe.

A perusal of the literature of the time starts to put things into focus. In the 1679 German edition of Neri's L'Arte Vetraria, Johannes Kunckel tells us that Isaac was dead before Neri came to Antwerp. In his translation he adds his own parenthetical expression to Neri's words, "This is the manner to imitate precious stones of Isaac Hollandus, (namely, from his posthumous writings) that I learned in Flanders." And there is more; coinciding with Neri's visit, playwright Ben Jonson who had just returned to London from the war in Flanders, referenced the pair of alchemists in his satirical work which is, in fact, called The Alchemist (1610). In the play dialogue he says that the elder Hollandus was then dead but survived by "living Isaac." In 1644, the famous Flemish chemist Van Helmont identified Isaac Hollandus as a recent contemporary. In a 1716 treatise, Kunckel paid Hollandus a great compliment and at the same time took a swipe at Helmont saying "and the incomparable Hollandus had more of the fire-art in his little finger as Helmont in his whole body." In another reference, Sir Francis Bacon mentions Hollandus as "by far the greater part of the crowd of chemists." Even if these passages contradict each other on some points, here we have Kunckel, Jonson, and Bacon -- all respected luminaries of their time -- paying tribute to this very interesting pair of experimenters.

Now, we might also ask about the actual recipe that Neri was using. We have his version, but what about the original by Hollandus? It is an important historical question because Neri's version went on to be reprinted, copied, and plagiarized possibly more than any other glass related technical recipe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. One Hollandus title in Ximenes' Antwerp library was Opera Mineralia, first published in 1600. The subject of this volume is the philosopher's stone and its production. While there are no artificial gem recipes here per se, there are some intriguing connections between artificial gems and the philosopher's stone, both philosophical and practical. It was thought that the colors of metallic based glass pigments were an indication that the metals were "opened" and became susceptible to alchemical transmutation. Of special interest was the deep red ruby color made by adding gold to the glass melt. In the introduction to a 1797 French translation of Neri's book, artificial ruby or "vitrified gold," is equated to the bible's Electrum of Ezekiel —a red glow seen by the prophet in a vision.


By the mid-eighteenth century, Isaac Hollandus was lauded in industrial arts books as a genius of artificial gems. He may well have been, but the evidence does not support it. All of the specific recipes attributed to Hollandus seem to lead back to Neri's L'Arte Vetraria or its translations. A case can be made that Hollandus' reputation for artificial gems stems from a 1697 plagiarized version of Neri's book. A volume published in France by Haudicquer Blancourt that gives no credit to the Italian priest. Blancourt used Christopher Merrett's English edition of Neri as his base and added to the recipes with his own embellishments. The chapter on artificial gems still lauds Hollandus, but its length was now doubled from Neri's original set of seventeen recipes to thirty-five. Each the same basic formulation with different pigments added to simulate different gems. The size of this one section jumped from thirteen to nearly two hundred pages, an increase in page-count larger than Neri's entire book. He was adding pages, but not much new content. The expansion was accomplished largely by inserting the full base glass recipe into each color, and then expand the color range. In 1699, Blancourt's version was then translated back into English, again without reference to Neri. There is no doubt that these two editions, with their expanded chapters on paste gems exerted a strong influence on later craftsmen. They may also be the source of the credit given to Hollandus' for paste gems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A number of intriguing questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is the nature of Neri’s association with the Dutch alchemist(s). Was Hollandus or his son (or brother, or cousin) alive in the first decade of the seventeenth century and did Neri meet with either of them in person? We can only guess. The Hollandus men are notable, if not enigmatic, characters in the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry. Historians would very much like to know them better. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt of the strong impact Hollandus made on Neri. Isaac holds a singular honor as the one person named in Neri's book to whom he gives specific credit. As research on early modern science has progressed, the importance of communication between practitioners has emerged as a central theme. A meeting of the minds between Neri and Hollandus, if it ever occurred, would rank as a prime example of technology transfer with a definite impact.

For a comprehensive look at Hollandus see: Annelies van Gijsen, "Isaac Hollandus Revisited" in Chymia: science and nature in Medieval and early modern Europe, Miguel Lòpez-Pèrez, Dider Kahn; Mar Rey Bueno, eds., (Newcastle upon TyneUK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), pp. 310–324.
*This post first appeared here 2 April 2014.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Neri in Antwerp

"The Blue Tower" Jozef Linnig 1868.
There are three known facilities where priest Antonio Neri worked as an alchemist formulating glass in the early seventeenth century; in Florence, Pisa and Antwerp. If he did work elsewhere, it must have been for a relatively short period since his time at these three locations accounts well for his entire career. Of the three, he is known best for his work at the Casino di San Marco, on the north side of Florence. It is also the facility about which the most is known, since its owner was Medici prince, Don Antonio. However, a good argument can be made that the facility in Antwerp, about which much less is known, was the one most influential to his career as a glassmaker.

Neri traveled to Antwerp in early 1604 to visit his friend Emmanuel Ximenes (Pronounced Se-men-ez), where he stayed for seven years. Ximenes was an international trader (known then as a 'banker') from one of the wealthiest families in Flanders. At the time, Antwerp stood at the center of the bloody Dutch war for independence from Habsburg Spain. The population of the city was a shadow of its former self, after being sacked and burned by Spanish troops a couple of decades earlier in what has become known as "the Spanish Fury." A Dutch blockade of Antwerp's seaports had strangled commerce, but for the ultra-wealthy, life went on.  


"Antwerpen, het Arsenaal" Jan Wildens, 17th Cent.
 In his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, [1] Neri names "the most courteous gentleman Filippo Gridolfi" as the owner of the glass factory in Antwerp. Indeed, records show that Gridolfi was the latest in a long line of who had been granted exclusive rights to make the exalted Venetian style glass known as cristallo. Previously, the facility had been run by Sara Vincx, with Gridolfi her foreman. This is the earliest documented case known to me of a glass furnace run by a woman. After their marriage, the luxury glass business thrived in Antwerp. In the 1590s, they employed seventeen Venetian workers. And later still they hosted Neri, who stayed in the area for seven years.

The most fashionable street in Antwerp was the Meir. This was the address of  Ximene's palace, as well as of his brother in law, Baron Simon Rodrigues d'Evora, who happened to be the most prestigious diamond dealer and jeweler in the region; he was known locally as "the little king." Gridolfi and Vincx had one, and later a second retail space for their glassware here. The factory and furnaces were located a few blocks away, near the fortress wall that ringed the city. Records indicate it was in a district called  the Hopland, near -- or possibly also in -- a huge structure actually built into the defensive wall around Antwerp. Called the "Blauwe Toren" [Blue Tower] for its blue slate roof, this impressive building had at various times functioned as an armory and a storage facility. In this period, a below street level canal led from the basement of the tower directly to the Meir, in later years the canal was filled in. Just on the other side of the city wall was a mote with access to the network of waterways which connected towns and villages throughout the region; this too was eventually turned into usable real estate when the wall was demolished in the nineteenth century. This situation of the glass production facility makes perfect sense. They needed to bring in heavy materials, ship delicate product and occupy a space which was not in danger of burning down the city should disaster strike. 


Blue Tower, 1860. Edmond Fierlants.
Today the foundations of the Blue Tower are preserved just below street level in a busy traffic square. Over the centuries, surrounding structures came and went. A small number of contemporary depictions do exist. Two illustrations that give a flavor of the neighborhood are shown here. One sketch by Jan Wildens  is not in the best of condition, but shows the tower and a few nearby structures from canal level in the seventeenth century. This might well have been typical of the view from a barge making deliveries. The factory would need a steady supply of pure quartz river stones used to make the exceptionally clear cristallo glass. A second view by Jozef Linnig, shows the neighborhood more clearly albeit in 1868. By then a furniture maker was located to the left of the tower, and another structure stood where the canal once was. Also of interest is an early photograph of the tower before it was demolished.

What we know of Neri's experiences in glassmaking come mostly from his book. His activities in Florence included making aquamarine colored glass for beadmaking and chalcedony glass with its multicolored swirls. In Pisa, he made emerald green, pimpernel green and celestial blue glass, he experimented with enamels, constructed a frit kiln and made glass using fern plants. From his early glassmaking activity in Florence, Neri seems to build momentum in Pisa. In these two locations combined he spends at most four years, in Antwerp he spend seven years, and there is no indication that he was slowing down, in fact quite the opposite. There he made artificial gems, a "beautiful aquamarine so nice and marvelous, that you will be astonished." He tinted rock crystal "the colors of balas, ruby, topaz, opal and girasol." He "built a furnace that held twenty glass-pots of various colors" He made ultramarine, the deep blue pigment valued by painters more highly than gold. Finally in 1609, in Antwerp, at Gridolfi's shop he made "the most beautiful chalcedony that I have ever made in my life" and presented two vessels of this glass to the prince of Orange.

[1] Neri 1612.
* This post first appeared here on 1 October 2014.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Dear Friends

The library of the University of Leiden (1610)
Christophe Plantin worked here from 1583 to 1585.
One day in July of 1601, in Florence, early in the morning, we imagine two men shaking hands, embracing and saying goodbye. Both knew it might well be the last time they saw each other. The older man climbs into a coach bound for his home in distant Antwerp and signals the driver to begin his journey. That man, Emmanuel Ximenes, had been in Florence to visit his sister, Beatrice, his brother, Niccolò, and several other relatives living in the area. Antonio Neri first met the wealthy banker at the home of Beatrice and her husband, Alamanno Bartolini. The priest lived there after his ordination and, according to nineteenth century historian Francesco Inghirami, functioned as house-master. Both men wished for more time together; they shared a fascination with alchemy and with the work of Swiss-born physician Paracelsus. They had become fast friends and formed a bond that would last until the end of their lives.

As soon as Ximenes arrived home in Flanders he wrote to Neri, on 17 August, 1601, "to the quite magnificent clergyman Mr.Antonio Neri, in the house of Mr. Alamanno Bartolini, in Florence, or where found." He expressed his great pleasure at receiving a booklet of recipes from Neri and declares him "molto caro" [most dear]. He goes on to warn his friend: "With your permission, I will not fail to bother you with my tiresome letters." Over the next two years, the men corresponded frequently. A set of twenty-seven letters written by Ximenes and one by his brother Eduardo, addressed to Neri, survive in the National Library of Florence. The two men discuss a wide variety of subjects including herbal remedies, glassmaking, enameling and in more careful language, the topic for which they were both most passionate: alchemy. They trade information on the results of their experiments and by 5 December, 1602, the banker wrote:

I have seen the tender affection which Your Lordship shows me and demonstrates with the hope to see me before death, which is no different from my own hope. I have desired this from the start… because if we were together, we could easily set to work on some small projects, being that our talents, if I am not deceiving myself, are very well suited...
Neri would ultimately make the journey to Antwerp, but not for another year. That winter he became quite ill in Pisa, postponing his planned visit. Finally, on 2 May, his friend wrote: "Praise God that your indisposition has ended." By the following spring the two men were reunited and Neri would spend the next seven years in a city that was in the eye of a storm. The low-countries (what today are the Netherlands and Belgium) were in the midst of a bloody civil war. The port of Antwerp was blockaded by the Dutch fleet and the countryside was being ravaged by troops from Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The population of Antwerp was a shadow of its former self, but the city was left untouched by both sides, in an accord of political convenience. It had been burned and pillaged as recently as the 1570's, but by the early 1600's Antwerp was simply too valuable a jewel to be sacrificed.

Emmanuel's immediate family was among the wealthiest in Antwerp and strong patrons of the arts. He counted among his close friends humanist printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Other branches of the Ximenes family topped the social ranks in Venice, Hamburg, Lisbon and Florence. Their ancient ancestors were kings of Pamplona, Navarre, Castile and Aragon. Emmanuel's father Rodrigo headed the prestigious Ximenes (Jiménez) Bank in Antwerp. By the end of his visit, Neri would present the prince of Orange with vessels of his chalcedony glass.


This post was first published here, on 6 September 2013.
For more on Ximenes, see http://ximenez.unibe.ch/

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Neri's Travels

“Roma,” Antonio Neri,
from Tesoro del Mondo (Neri 1598–1600).
The length and breadth of Antonio Neri's travels are far greater in thumbnail biographies and off hand remarks than can be substantiated by actual documentation. While stories of the glassmaker's travels through Europe abound, the truth of the matter is that only a small number of his movements have been verified through contemporary materials. But even if a minority of the wanderings attributed to Neri are true, then he certainly was a man of the world. Writing nearly two centuries after his death, historian Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti claimed the priest left Italy to elude "thugs" in Florence who hounded him for the secret of transmutation. Tozzetti says he fled to England first and then visited Spain, Holland and France. [1] No direct evidence has yet turned up to support any of this. 

Other accounts say he "traveled all over Europe" and that he deceitfully posed as a "common assistant" in order to learn scientific secrets that he could not gain access to by other means. [2] One story I have heard making the rounds among glass workers is that Neri was chased to the "gates of Prague" by assassins. This is most likely confusion with a similar story about Venetian glassmakers leaving Murano without state permission to ply their craft elsewhere.

There are four cities in which Neri is confirmed to have been present: Florence, the city of his birth; Pisa where he worked at the glass furnace run by Niccolò Sisti; Antwerp, where he spent about seven years visiting his friend Emmanuel Ximenes and in Mechelen, at the Hospital of Malines, where he wrote about pioneering medical treatments in a letter to a friend back in Florence.[3] 

In addition, there are other locations that are strongly hinted at in various writings. In his Treasure of the World manuscript, Neri has an allegorical depiction in the form of a simplistic map showing “The Ways to Rome.” It depicts the walled enclave of the Vatican (see illustration) with various paths representing different chemical routes to transmutation. If nothing else, this leaves the door open to a personal familiarity with the eternal city. In his glass book, L’Arte Vetraria, Neri mentions a number of specific locations in northern Italy, but perhaps none as authoritatively as Venice. He comments about the materials and techniques specific to the glassmakers on Murano. There is little doubt that Neri was exposed to Venetian glass workers in Florence, Pisa and Antwerp, so they provide a perfectly plausible source for his knowledge of their distinctive techniques. This would be a sufficient explanation, except that there is also a letter written by his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, detailing a route for Neri's visit to Antwerp; a route that runs through Venice. Below is the passage from a letter, dated 5 December 1602. The glassmaker would be delayed by illness, but the following year he did make the journey. While it seems a good bet that he followed Ximenes' instructions that is another detail in need of confirmation.
Anyway, the lack of peace in these countries prevents me from recommending them for you to come or not, but if you make up your mind to come, God willing, you will have the same fortunes as we have. Besides, after your arrival, is not a marriage indissoluble, having no other bond than mutual affection? If you decide to come I would recommend that you should go with the courier from Florence to Venice, arriving in Venice in time that you would be able to accompany the merchants who come to the fair held in Frankfurt at mid Lent; you will stay there the length of the fair for fifteen days, which will not displease you for having seen it. After that, you would go in the company of other merchants to Cologne and then with them or others, by land or sea to Holland, ending up at this city. This sea, however, is nothing more than rivers. I recently went by land to Basel and from there by water ending here. But for Your Lordship,  who does not speak the German and Flemish languages, I would consider better the way that I say, with merchants from Venice to Frankfurt and then with others by water to arrive here. To this end, if you decide to come, upon giving me notice I will immediately send letters of recommendation to Venice to find a person who will help you to find company that must end up in Frankfurt and another for a friend in Frankfurt to get you started and perhaps it would be the same one with whom Guillelmo Reineri, servant of my brother Mr. Niccolò, came from here. Guillelmo usually goes to every fair by water up to Frankfurt, then back when it ends. He is close to me, a friend and very practical in his travels. This Renieri may give a report of the Frankfurt fair and also details of the voyage, as he made the outward journey for the fair last September. I shall send him a letter by means of my brother to give him the money on my account that would be necessary. But you should decide and advise me immediately, in order to go to Venice in time to find a group. I will wait for your decision, asking God to inspire the best . . .  [4]


[1] “E fatto con prestezza fagotto, la mattina all'aprir della porta uscì el di Firenze e se n'andò in Inghilterra. Girò la Spagna, Olanda, Francia e Germania…” [He packed in haste and in the morning opened his door, left Florence, and went to England. He toured Spain, Holland, France and Germany…] Targioni-Tozzetti 189, p. 149.
[2] See Rodwell 1870.
[3] Neri 1608.
[4] Ximenes 1601–11, 5 December 1602.
* This post first appeared here on 19 Dec. 2014.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Sonnet for a Barber


Possible portrait of Lodovico Domenichi,
British Museum, inventory #1867,1012.650
This is a post about a 16th century poet who was best friends with alchemist/glassmaker Antonio Neri's grandfather, Jacopo, and who may even be the inspiration for the glassmaker's middle name: Lodovico. Neri, born in 1576,  is remembered mostly for his book of glass recipes, L'Arte Vetraria, yet he considered himself first and foremost an alchemist. His father was the personal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and his grandfather was a barber surgeon, who probably lived in the family house until his death in 1594, when Antonio was an 18-year-old. There can be little question that our glassmaker/alchemist was steeped in chemistry and medicine from a very early age, but perhaps also literature. 

In November of 1554, poet Lodovico Domenichi wrote a sonnet to his friend, Jacopo Neri. Jacopo was from Dicomano in the upper Arno River valley, then living in Florence with his young family. Domenichi was serving a sentence of house arrest in a wretched paper mill in Pescia, in the hills north of Florence. He had been found guilty by the inquisition on charges of translating the heretical writing of John Calvin into vernacular Italian, a crime for which the poet could have easily been executed. Luckily, he had friends in high places and after some nervous time spent in the stockade in Pisa, his sentence was reduced and later commuted by Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici.

Jacopo Neri had taken ill with a grave infirmity and when word reached Domenichi, he took pen to paper and composed seventy stanzas in the style of Petrarch. In so doing he bestowed a precious gift, the only one he could under the circumstances; he immortalized his good friend on paper. The sonnet starts:

      As I have now come to understand your
      Perilous illness and health,
      It is both grief and fondness that I show

      So may merciful God help you,
      Without delay, lest this vile world lose
      So much goodness in you, so much virtue.

In the sonnet, he goes on to extol Jacopo's kindness towards patients, his willingness to forgive and his admiration among scholars. Along the way, Domenichi describes his own predicament; the cruelties of the mill workers, the muddy floors, his desire to flee and trying to sleep on a bed of frozen straw among the work animals. The rain has been falling for weeks and he is miserable. Recalling happier times he evokes the memories of many mutual friends, including a dwarf named Don Gabriello Franceschi, who delivered sermons at the Cestello church, Neri's family church, located a few hundred feet from his front door. Franceschi was from the family into which Jacopo's daughter, Faustina, would later marry. 

      There he is called Don Gabriello 
      Franceschi and I am honored, for good reason,
      A giant of men in a small handsome package.

He goes on to describe his saviors; the men who intervened with the Church on his behalf. One was Pompeo della Barba, educated at Pisa and later called to Rome as the personal physician to Pope Pius IV. In the end, Domenichi was pardoned, allowed to leave the damp mill and return to Florence. Within a short time, he was appointed court historian to Cosimo I. Over his career, he published many volumes; translations of works ranging from Xenophon, to Plutarch, to Pliny's Natural History, to a groundbreaking compilation of poems by contemporary women. At the end of his life, Domenichi suffered devastating debilitation, maybe from a stroke, which robbed him of the ability to speak. Even so, he still received regular visits from his old friend Jacopo Neri the barber surgeon. As we turn away from the subject of Lodovico Domenichi, it is hard to resist speculating that a decade after his death, the poet was remembered with fondness by the Neri family in the christening of our glassmaker, whose full name is Antonio Lodovico Neri.

Lodovico Domenichi, "A Mastro Jacopo di Neri, Cerusico, E Barbiere." in Il Secondo libro dell' Opere Burlesche, di M. Francesco Berni.  (Fiorenza: Apresso li Heredi di Bernardo Giunti, 1555), vv. 2. Reprinted many times. 
*This post first appeared 9 September 2013.

Friday, June 12, 2020

A Band of Alchemists

"The Alchemist" 1558, Pieter Brugle the Elder.
Mention the word 'alchemist' and the images that spring to mind are likely the same ones that have been around for centuries. Perhaps you will imagine something like Pieter Brugle’s 1558 depiction; a fool, whose head is filled with fantasies of conjuring gold. He spends all his earnings on exotic chemicals while his children go shoe-less, the cupboard goes bare and his family starves. No? Then perhaps a more classical rendition; a white bearded mystic stirring a cauldron in a deserted castle, summoning unearthly forces, bending the will of nature.    

It is true that outlandish characters like these have existed, but as a fringe element at best.  For every secluded wizard or "get rich quick" schemer there were many more alchemists who lived otherwise unremarkable lives and went to work every day. They interacted with colleagues and used their knowledge to provide valuable services like making painter's pigments or medicines or refining metals. Seventeenth century glassmaker and Catholic priest Antonio Neri fell into the latter category. Another departure from the typical caricature of alchemy is that it was very much a plural endeavor; it was practiced not primarily in isolation but by well connected networks of people, at least in late sixteenth century Florence.
Anibal and Martin
Neri's "Tesoro del Mondo" 1598-1699

Neri's father was the chief physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and as such probably had something to do with Antonio's education and with the position that he landed in Florence at the renowned "Casino di San Marco," the laboratory of Medici prince Don Antonio, inherited from his father grand duke Francesco. Even before his prestigious appointment, Neri wrote an illustrated manuscript in which he shows a number of young men and some women his own age working at the business of alchemy. A few of them are identified by name and must have been Antonio’s friends: Anibal, Martin, Hiroem and Pietro. [1] 
Female alchemist depicted in Neri's
"Tesoro del Mondo"

The female alchemists depicted in the manuscript are not specifically identified, but a strong possibility is that they were nuns from one of the nearby convents. These facilities often maintained their own pharmacies and ran cottage industries that produced and sold goods to raise funds. Alchemy practiced by women is an area of study which still needs much research, but it is known that convents used alchemical techniques to distill their own medicinal remedies and produced their own paint pigments. The famous painter Suor Plautilla Nelli resided in the Dominican convent across the street from the Medici's Casino laboratory. Sculptor Suor Caterina Eletta was a nun at the same convent around Neri's time and was the daughter of Stefano Rosselli, the royal apothecary, another profession steeped in alchemy. Her uncle Fra Anselmo ran the Dominican's apothecary at San Marco, literally a few steps from the laboratory's front door. Suor Caterina was surrounded by relatives deeply involved in alchemy, how could she not be familiar with the subject?

At Don Antonio's laboratory, the Casino di San Marco, or the Royal Foundry as it also became known, Neri worked closely with Agnolo della Casa, another Florentine of the same age. In fact, all three men, Neri, Della Casa and Don Antonio were all born within a year of each other around 1576. Della Casa took notes on Antonio Neri's experiments in Florence over a period that spanned more than a decade. He filled literally thousands of pages. Much of this material is devoted to transmutation and the philosophers stone, both were subjects dear to Don Antonio de' Medici, their boss. The notebooks also indicate a lively correspondence with other chemical experimenters around Italy and wider Europe. Neri himself carried on a correspondence with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes who lived in Antwerp, a city that would become Antonio's home for seven years. 

The network of alchemy in Florence reached outwards to other experimenters and it also reached forward in time. Knowledge was passed from one generation to the next by schooling children in the art. From another branch of Della Casa's family came two brothers, Ottavio (1596) and Jacinto (Giacinto) Talducci della Casa (1601).  As youngsters they were said to have learned alchemy at the knee of Don Antonio. A century later, historian Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti chronicled that these boys would go on to serve Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici  and continue the work by directing the Real Fonderia when, after Don Antonio's death, it was moved from the Casino to the Boboli Gardens. Ottavio would become director of the Royal Foundry. [2]  
Jacinto Talducci Della Casa

Jacinto became a parish priest a few kilometers east of Florence, but he was pressed back into service as an alchemist after his brother died. He succeeded Ottavio as director of the Royal Foundry under Francesco Redi. Little is known about Jacinto's contributions to chemistry, but it must have been a remarkable life. He saw the germ of experimentalism really take hold; it would continue to grow and become the basis of our own modern science. Jacinto died in 1700 at the age of 99, he was the last surviving member of Don Antonio's band of alchemists and quite likely the last living soul to have personally met Antonio Neri.

[1] Neri 1598-1600, ff. 22r, 23r, 24r.
[2] Targioni-Tozzetti 1780, p. 127. Don Antonio de' Medici died in 1621.
* This post first appeared here on 26 September 2014.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

What Goes Around Comes Around

The German city of Ulm in the 16th century
Georg Braun, Franz Hogenberg 1570-78
(Click image to enlarge.)
In the spring and summer of 1525, peasants and farmers throughout German speaking Europe staged a popular revolt now called the Deutscher Bauernkrieg. [1] At the heart of the matter was an oppressive system of taxation run by the Roman Catholic Church, in which little or none of the revenue was used to improve life locally. Often, action was lead by Protestant clergy, but to little effect against the mercenary armies hired by the aristocracy. In the end, up to 100,000 of the poorly armed and organized peasants were slaughtered.

Along the banks of the Danube River in southern Germany lies the ancient city of Ulm. Besides being the birthplace of Albert Einstein, Ulm was, in the sixteenth century, near the center of the Peasant’s Revolt, which brings us to a curious story which traces the migration of a technical recipe from Ulm over the alps to Venice, then to Sienna and finally Florence. The recipe is for the metal alloy to make mirrors, and it is told from one friend to another while chatting amiably in Venice.
Among other things, he said that he had made one [concave mirror] almost half a braccio across [about 13 inches], which extended the clear rays of its brightness more than a quarter of a German league when he caught the sun with it. One day, when for amusement he was standing in a window to watch a review of armed men in the city of Ulm, he bore with the sphere of his mirror for a quarter of an hour on the back of the shoulder armor of one of those soldiers. This not only caused so much heat that it became almost unbearable to the soldier, but it inflamed so that it kindled his jacket  underneath and burned it for him, cooking his flesh to his very great torment. Since he did not understand who caused this, he said that God had miraculously sent that fire on him for his great sins. [2]
The story was told to Vannoccio Biringuccio, who recalls it in 1540 in his Pirotechnia, the first printed book devoted to metallurgy. Specifically, the recipe is a variant of what today we would call white bronze, which as Biringuccio states is similar to the metal used to cast bells. He recites ancient formulations that used three parts copper and one part tin. To this was added 1/18th part of antimony and optionally 1/24th part of fine silver to give it a neutral color. Indeed, other ancient formulations for what was known as speculum metal specify a 3:1 ratio of copper to tin. He continues,
But nowadays most of the masters who make them take three parts of tin and one of copper, and melt these together. When they are melted, for every pound of this material, they throw in one ounce of tartar and half an ounce of powdered arsenic, and let them fume and melt and incorporate well. 
Biringuccio’s version reverses the copper and tin ratio from the classical composition. Compare it with Antonio Neri’s prescription which appears half a century later, it is almost identical:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
To be clear, the tartar, saltpeter and alum act as a surface flux - they form a layer that floats on the liquid metal, preventing oxides from forming, which can foul the melt.  their addition does not change the base alloy composition.

The similarity of the two recipes alone is not enough to draw any conclusions. Biringuccio himself reports that the contemporary artisans favored the tin rich formulation. However, there are other details to consider. The Sienese born Biringuccio was something of a hero in Florence where Antonio Neri was raised. The famous metallurgist helped cast cannons, mortars and guns for the Florentines to defend themselves in the late 1520s, when the city was under siege, just a few years after Biringuccio’s conversation in Venice with his German friend from Ulm.

Neri was definitely familiar with Biringuccio’s book Pirotechnia. In fact, the introduction to Neri’s own book L’Arte Vetraria is patterned after the metallurgist’s survey of glassmaking.  In his chapter 14, book 2 Biringuccio wrote:
… it [glass] is one of the effects and real fruits of the art of fire, because every product found in the interior of the earth is either stone, metal, or one of the semi-minerals.  Glass is seen to resemble all of them, although in all respects it depends on art. [3]
And here is the opening to Neri’s introduction a half century later in 1612,
Without a doubt, glass is a true fruit of the art of fire, as it can so closely resemble all kinds of rocks and minerals, yet it is a compound, and made by art. [4]
Both passages go on to cover much of the same ground, albeit with a change in focus reflective of new thinking about chemistry and nature. In one sense, Neri is paying homage to his distinguished predecessor, and there can be little doubt that he read Biringuccio’s book and its technical recipes closely. 

Lastly, the story of the burning mirror itself mimics a widely known story about the Greek polymath Archimedes. About 200 BCE during the siege of Syracuse, he is said to have set invading Roman ships on fire with a concave mirror, which focused the radiation of the sun.

In fact a depiction of this scene was painted in Florence on the walls of the Uffizi Palace in 1600, when Neri was at the height of his employment for the ruling Medici family. This particular rendering would have been all but impossible for him to miss. 


Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, Wall painting
showing the Greek mathematician Archimedes' mirror 
being used to burn Roman military ships. 
Painted in 1600 by Giulio Parigi.
In the years leading to the publication of Neri’s book, he left his home in Florence and traveled to visit a friend in Antwerp. If he had read the book on metallurgy early, perhaps as part of his education, then he was already familiar with the mirror alloy recipe. If he followed the route suggested by his friend, he would have taken the recipe back to Venice, and then over the Alps and likely through Ulm on his way north to the Low Countries, where he would spend the next seven years before returning to Italy. [5]

[1] For more on the German peasant wars of 1524-25 see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Peasants%27_War
[2] Vannoccio Biringuccio, Pirotechnia. Ed., Tr. Cyril Stanley Smith, Martha Teach Gnudi (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 385-390. (Original Italian published in 1540.)
[3] Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria (Florence: Giunti, 1612). p. iv.
[4] Ibid,  p.126 (in original, ff.41r-44v).
[5] Special thanks to Jamie Hall (@PrimitiveMethod) for inspiring this post.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Reflections on the Mirror

Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
L’Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's 1612 book, would eventually become the glassmakers' bible throughout Europe. By 1900 it had been translated into five different languages besides the original Italian; English, Latin, German, French, and Spanish (and in this century Japanese). Because of its seminal importance in the spread of glass technology, often overlooked are a few recipes at the back of the book, which have only a tenuous connection to the main subject.

Among these is a metallurgical formula for making convex mirrors. Neri gives instructions for producing what we would now call a "white bronze" that may be cast into a rounded form and polished to take on a highly reflective surface finish. This "spherical" form of mirror was popular throughout the Renaissance. It reflected a wide-angle view of the space in which it was hung, but at the cost of distorting the image. Nevertheless, upon looking into such a mirror, objects are still quite recognizable. 

Here is Neri's prescription:
A Mixture to Make [Mirror] Spheres:
Have 3 lbs of well-purified tin, and 1 lb of copper also purified. Melt these two metals, first the copper, then the tin. When they fuse thoroughly, throw onto them 6 oz of just singed red wine tartar, and 1½ oz of saltpeter, then ¼ oz of alum, and 2 oz of arsenic. Leave these all to vaporize, and then cast [the metal] into the form of a sphere. You will have good material, which when you burnish and polish, will look most fine. This mixture is called acciaio and is used to make spherical mirrors.
Of note is the fact that the word Neri uses for this alloy, acciaio, translates to "steel." Over the intervening four centuries, the meaning of this term has been refined so that today it denotes not simply a hard white metal, but a specific range of alloys containing iron and carbon, which Neri's alloy does not. 

This recipe and a few others in the book show the breadth of Neri's experience in arts other than glassmaking. It is a conclusion greatly amplified by a perusal of his other manuscripts on alchemy and medicine. There is good evidence that our priest was a voracious reader, however he was also quite cautious about repeating techniques only after he had verified them personally. Besides, artisans never wrote down much of this knowledge – only passed in confidence between trusted parties – since, in a very concrete way, superior knowledge represented a competitive advantage over ones rivals. Even if Neri was in the business of divulging secrets, it is safe to assume that many of the artisans and craftsmen he interacted with were decidedly not. Apparently, Neri was not familiar with the process of mirroring glass directly with mercury/tin amalgam; a process for which Venetian glassmakers had already become famous for perfecting. It is an interesting omission from his book, since he almost certainly would have seen examples in Florence and in Antwerp.

Two centuries before Neri, the beginning of the fifteenth century saw the invention of moveable type printing in Germany, but also the mastery of perspective illustration in Italy. The contribution of printing to early modern science is well documented, less obvious is the role playerd by artists and perspective illustration. Moveable type made possible the mass production of books; what did get committed to paper now stood a much better chance of survival and transmission. Perspective illustration played a more nuanced role, one that ultimately brings the convex mirror back into the discussion.
Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait (detail).

In Venice and especially in Florence (Neri's hometown), perspective drawing became the rage among artists, largely due to the Italian translation of a book entitled Deli Aspecti, or "Alhazen's Book of Optics." Suddenly, paintings were made to look three-dimensional, with a realistic sense of depth to them. The new techniques were largely kept in Italy, but interest spread across Europe. Patrons placed great value on work depicting scenes in correct perspective, and in excruciatingly accurate detail. 


In Flanders, in 1434, Jan van Eyck produced "The Arnolfini Portrait," (above). Behind the main subjects, hanging on the wall is a convex mirror. The reflection in the mirror shows the backs of the two subjects, but also two other figures further back, one of which is thought to be the artist himself, and beyond him a strong light source. The image in the mirror is distorted exactly as one would experience in real life. 

There is growing speculation that among the secrets of "realist" (or naturalist) painters was a growing arsenal of optical tools and lenses used to map out and understand the attributes of perspective. The mirror, in the Arnolfini Portrait was a sort of boast of the artist's proficiency in recreating reality on the canvas.

The point is that here is a case where art led science into new realms. Painters started to take great pains in reproducing reality "as it is" on canvas. Soon minor experimenters like Neri and major luminaries like Galileo were taking great pains to do the same. They strove to observe nature "as it is," not as was prescribed in ancient texts, or dictated by authority. Once that process started, awareness of the world grew and there was no turning back.

Finally, it is amusing to note that in his many manuscript illustrations, Antonio Neri himself never quite mastered perspective drawing, although he did try.

* This post first appeared here 17 January 2014.