Rudolf II as "Vertumnus"(c. 1590)
When Neri Neri, the father of glassmaker Antonio Neri, studied medicine at the Studio Fiorentino in the mid 1550s, there can be no doubt he spent time at the gardens in Florence, and quite possibly at the ones in Pisa. (The Pisa gardens were moved twice before arriving at their current location in 1591). This was a period of vigorous expansion in the field of herbal medicine. Competition was fierce to obtain and study medicinal plants from around the globe. Cosimo I de’ Medici poured money into the medical school in Pisa, attracting students and faculty from around Europe. In 1554 famed botanist and physician Andrea Cesalpino took over the Pisa gardens from his teacher, Luca Ghini, who first built them.
In 1602, Neri was to be found working alongside Niccolò Sisti at the grand duke’s secondary glass furnace along the Arno River in Pisa. According to Neri’s own account, Pisa is where he worked on ferns as an alternative plant salt for glass and mentions many other plants with which he experimented:
Set about making ash in the way previously described, however use the husks and stalks of broad beans after the farmhands have thrashed and shelled them. The same may be made from the ashes of cabbages, or a thorn bush that bears small fruit, called the blackberry, even from millet, rush, marsh reeds, and from many other plants that will relinquish their salt.In a letter to Neri from his friend Emanuel Ximenes, the Antwerp based Portuguese banker expressed surprise that Neri was able to devise a fern based glass salt recipe so quickly. In all likelihood, Neri would have had access to the botanical gardens and the small adjacent laboratory located just a few blocks from the glass furnace. In the period of time the glassmaker spent there, the directorate of the gardens changed hands from Francesco Malocchi to Marco Cornacchini. Both of these men avidly pursued new botanical based cures, and corresponded internationally.
In his Glassmaking book, L’Arte Vetraria, Neri devotes a number of recipes to making paint pigments from flower blossoms. While he could have easily obtained his stock material from any number of sources, the botanical gardens would have certainly provided a convenient cache of many different varieties.
In the winter of 1603-4 Neri traveled From Pisa to visit his friend in Antwerp. If he followed Ximenes suggested route, he would have passed back through his native Florence, then on to Venice where he would meet up with a caravan of merchants on their way to the Frankfurt spring fair, and then on to Antwerp by river. Upon his return to Italy, seven years later, he wrote his glassmaking book, but then devoted himself fully to alchemy and medicine. In January of 1614, in what might be the very last manuscript he worked on before his death, he wrote about some recipes “copied from an old book here in Pisa.” At that time, the director of the botanical gardens was Domenico Vigna, who continued to direct the gardens on and off until 1634.
It would be interesting to know how Neri the alchemist thought about his raw materials. Did he see all the possibilities of what could be made with them? For instance, how did he approach a towering pile of May ferns, large enough to produce a hundred pounds of ash, or a giant sack of rose petals? Did he ever lean forward and breathe in the delicious musty aroma? Did he ever dig in with his hands and bury his face in an arm-load of soft, pure color? How could he not?
*This post first appeared here 22 Jan 2014.