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

Monday, November 30, 2020

Lead Crystal

 

Roemer type drinking glass c. 1677,
George Ravenscroft.
The entire fourth part of Antonio Neri's 1612 book L'Arte Vetraria is devoted to the preparation of lead glass, a forerunner of what is now commonly known as lead crystal. This section is unique in the book in that it contains the only instance of the author giving direct advice to glass artists themselves:
"To work lead glass into various drinking glasses or other vessels, or even to draw cane for beadmaking, it is necessary to raise the punty [out of the melt], and to make a gather of glass by turning. Take it out, let it cool somewhat and then work it on a well-cleaned marble [marver]. The marble should be somewhat cool, and well bathed with water before use."
He goes on to describe what might be termed a kind of dance with the glass. As with a human partner, gentle patience is required in learning the boundaries of what can and cannot be done. Ultimately, an artist must come to understand the material's behavior and personality in order to result in a great partnership. For the artist who makes unrealistic demands, glass can be a heartbreaker.  
"This sort of glass, lead glass, is so runny that were it not cooled, and taken up by turning [the punty] to wind a gather, it would be impossible to work. It is so runny that it would not even hold onto the punty, because it is as loose as soup. This arises out of [the fact that] the lead calx causes it to become very fluid."
"Namely, gather the glass little by little, allow it to cool, and work it over marble frequently bathed in water. Furthermore, make sure to keep the pot of glass rather calm, and in a place in the furnace where it will not see too much heat, otherwise it will not be possible to work this glass at all."
The formulation of lead crystal as we know it is a relatively recent development. This is a composition of crushed silica (sand or quartz), potash (potassium carbonates) and lead oxide substituting for calcium to stabilize the composition. It is also true that lead has been added to glass since its invention a few thousand years ago. It is not clear that this addition was always intentional, but a Babylonian tablet of 1700 BCE gives a recipe for pottery glaze that explicitly contains lead. At some point, a discovery showed that small amounts of lead and pigment smeared on glass and fired made stained glass paintings possible. The earliest known examples of colored stained glass windows date to 800-820 (San Vicenzo Abbey excavation in Volturno, Italy.)  In medieval Europe, leading up to Antonio Neri's time, lead glass was used in mosaic tesserae and in artificial gems.

Finally, it is worth noting that Neri's childhood church in Florence, Cestello (now called Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi), was then run by Cistercian monks. It was the Cistercian luminary St. Bernard of Clairvaux who, in the twelfth century, built the first church with large windows, urging, "The soul shall seek the light by following the light."

This post first appeared here 15 November 2013.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Report from Parnassus

 

Rafael - El Parnaso (Vatican, Rome, 1511)
Apollo on Parnassus, (fresco detail). 
In the spring of 1612, Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri finished writing L’Arte Vetraria, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition approved it for publication. The book of glass technical recipes passed the Church’s censors despite it containing a large number of alchemy related methods. Contrary to what we might imagine, they did not have any problems with Neri’s work; in fact, one bureaucrat commented that the book was full of useful information. Remember, this was at the same time that so-called sorcerers and witches were being tortured and executed around Europe. One big difference in this case was intent, or rather the perceived intent of Neri's writing. Another factor was his personal connections. The truth is that alchemy was something of a fad among the wealthy nobility, who used the equipment for everything from making rosewater, to distilling liquor, to quietly trying their hand at transmutation. 

To form a better sense of the public image of the chemical arts in the early seventeenth century, we can turn to the satirical critic Traiano Boccalini, who published a book of his own the same year as Neri. Ragguagli di Parnaso [Reports from Parnassus] was an immediate hit. In fact, it became so popular that he and his sharp tongue were forced to leave Rome for the comparative safety of Venice soon after its completion, and soon after that friends found him dead under suspicious circumstances. Initially, Boccalini had been on good terms with Church officials, but perhaps he had seen a bit too much of the institution's inner workingsEventually, he became bitterly disillusioned and wrote Ragguagli as a collection of fictitious news-sheets. These were patterned after the letters that circulated widely as the forerunners of modern newspapers. His reports took place in the mythical state of “Parnassus,” which struck an uncanny resemblance to contemporary Rome. Its monarch, Apollo, struck an uncanny resemblance to the pope, as the princes of Parnassus did to cardinals, bishops and curia officials. Report LXXXIX is illustrative of what were the more practical fears over alchemy, in this case, some creative wealth building among the clergy. It gives a sense of alchemy’s public persona. Apparently, in real life, there was a crackdown by the Church on chemical apparatus, under the guise of concern for public health. Our author slyly suggests, in the very last line, that it may have had more to do with putting an end to clergy lining their own pockets. 
Apollo [the pope] Prohibits the Princes from the Use of Distillers or Alembics At Home: 
In the past few months here, various ailments have emerged in this state of Parnassus, which have caused in some an extraordinary fatigue with frequent agitation: in many a tenacious fever, a faint pulse and a monstrous appetite: in others an intense stomach ache with an ardent thirst.  
The doctors cannot find a single remedy. However, the true cause of these maladies, by decree of Apollo, was revealed before a recent meeting of the grand Asclepius [Society] of prominent Greek, Latin and Arabic doctors, where it was the subject of long and erudite debate. Because neither the enemies of the grand princes nor other eminent gentlemen were spared, it was doubted whether the sickness was caused artificially by powerful poisons. Furthermore, it is clear these troubles were not only happening nearby.  
And we see several modern princes put great study in their most excellent facilities to prepare in their alembics things other than rose water. They conceal subjects dangerous and heinous with their hidden machinations of poison. This cannot be allowed to be covered up; such a scandal must be exposed with the violence of a dagger.  
His Majesty, concurring with the opinion of the congregation, yesterday morning made a public speech, to issue a strict edict, which forbids princes of any color, from ever keeping distillation or alembic operations at home or outside. However, he allowed similar exercises in the hands of experimenters and herbalists. A thing being extremely foul is the minting of counterfeit money in the night and then by day covering so treacherous a crime by running shops openly making medals for the crown. 

In this piece, Boccalini crystallizes the complex social stigma carried by alchemy. Of all the practical tasks that could be performed in this art, the most notoriety by far was derived from the concept of turning base metals into gold. 

In a 1613 ms, Neri openly expressed his fear that true transmutation, in the hands of the masses was likely to collapse the economy. The Vatican’s concerns were more immediate: financial gluttony within the Church. Anyone with enough alchemical knowledge could produce convincing counterfeit money. Turning lead into gold was a theoretical issue; dealing with rogue counterfeiters was a real and immediate one. 

[1] Antonio Neri, Manuscript, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze: Ms. Conv. Soppr., B.3.16. Discorso sopra la chimica (che cosa sia, e sue Operazioni del R.[everendo] P.[rete] Antonio Neri Sacerdote Fio.o) (1613).
*This post first appeared here on 8 August 2014.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Galleria dei Lavori

 

Giovanni Stradano  (Jan van der Straet) 
Alchemy Studio, 1571
(Inside the Uffizi Galleria dei Lavori)

In 1560, Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Georgio Vassari to begin construction on the Uffizi Palace in Florence. Two wings of the structure frame a long, narrow courtyard leading out to banks of the Arno River. Today it houses one of Europe's premier art museums, but its original design was as the central administration of the Medici government. The lower floor held offices of the regional magistrates, and the upper floor of the west wing (above the mint) held a variety of workshops highlighting Tuscan industry. Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici built a glass furnace there, which he staffed with Muranese masters of the art. He won their expertise through long, hard negotiations with the doge of Venice. 

A 1571 painting by Giovanni Stradano is entitled the Alchemy Studio. It shows Cosmo's son, Francesco I, in the Uffizi surrounded by laboratory equipment and workers. Under the watchful eyes of a senior alchemist, he stirs a chemical preparation over a stove with intense concentration. The prolific glassware in this scene drives home the close relationship between glassmaking and scientific investigation.

By 1588 Francesco's brother, Ferdinando I de' Medici, formally declared this space the Galleria dei Lavori or 'gallery of the works'. There is no direct evidence that Antonio Neri gained his education in alchemy at this facility, but it makes a very attractive candidate. Of note to this story is that a demonstration was performed for Ferdinando de' Medici in Rome that purported to turn half of an iron nail into gold; the work of German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser. In the 1590s, when Neri was being schooled, several accounts describe that the nail (chiodo) remained on display for some time in the Galleria. Neri mentions the nail in his Discorso and Thurneysser is discussed in a 1601 letter to the priest from his friend Emanuel Ximenes.

After Neri's death in 1614, his Medici sponsor, don Antonio commenced a search for the glassmaker's secret of transmutation, which Neri had promised. In testimony given by a royal goldsmith, who had, in July of 1596, witnessed a demonstration in which "gold" was made by Neri, he pressed the glassmaker, who told him that the transmutation was a technique learned from a German, done with ordinary vitriol.  

It is interesting to note that when iron is soaked in a solution of "blue vitriol" now known as copper sulfate, an ion exchange reaction takes place, where the liquid deposits copper and takes up iron from the nail. It would be well into the 18th century before this chemistry was adequately understood. What the royal goldsmith would have seen is  a dull iron nail turn the color of yellow metal before their eyes. Perhaps the goldsmith was not given the opportunity to further test the sample. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Bianca Cappello and Francesco de Medici

 

19th century romantic depiction of
Bianca Cappello, Francesco de' Medici 
(with Don Antoni as a child.)
The story of 17th century glassmaker Antonio Neri weaves together closely with that of a Medici prince also named Antonio. The prince was six months younger, living quite a different life, yet holding many of the same interests. Don Antonio de' Medici was the eldest and only surviving son of the second grand duke of Tuscany. He became both Neri's employer and his benefactor. Don Antonio's own fascination with nature's secrets ran in his blood, a fascination that preceded him by at least four generations. His father Francesco and his grandfather Cosimo, both grand dukes of Tuscany, avidly pursued the vagaries of natural secrets. Cosimo had picked up the interest of alchemy from the notebooks of his own paternal grandmother, Caterina Sforza, as preserved by his father, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Don Antonio would carry on the family passion working in the laboratory built by his father on the north side of Florence, called the Casino di San Marco. Shortly after the prince settled in, priest Antonio Neri came to work in the Casino laboratory and there learned the craft of glass formulation. 

Evidence suggests that Don Antonio's mother. Bianca, was also fascinated by alchemy. Although specifics are hazy, she apparently cultivated relationships with women in the city's Jewish quarter who were well steeped in the concoction of various remedies and potions. Furthermore her family was involved in the glassmaking industry in Venice, another craft with close connections to chemistry.

By the time Don Antonio dusted off the cobwebs at the Casino and restarted the laboratory there in his early twenties, he had already experienced more than his share of misfortune. At the age of eleven, his life was suddenly changed forever when he lost both parents. Among many other implications, it meant relinquishing his future as grand duke of Tuscany to his uncle Ferdinando. Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici had been visiting his brother, Grand Duke Francesco and his wife Bianca when they both became violently ill and died within days of each other in the fall of 1587. It was no secret that the brothers had running quarrels on a variety of matters from the cardinal's allowance to the way Francesco was running Tuscany. It was also no secret that Cardinal Ferdinando strongly disapproved of his older brother's wife, Bianca Cappello. She had earlier been the duke's mistress; they married in secret shortly after Grand Duchess Giovanna died in pregnancy. 

As soon as Francesco and Bianca's deaths were made public, rumors began to fly that the cause was poison in their food and not pernicious malaria, as pronounced by Ferdinando's own two doctors, Cini and Da Barga. Related rumors claimed that Don Antonio was an illegitimate child, or adopted, or even the product of witchcraft, none of which hurt Ferdinando's case for succeeding his brother as grand duke. The narrative was that Ferdinando had made a ruthless power grab, assassinating his brother and sister-in-law; it was a narrative that spread and gained momentum over the years, fueled by careless researchers and Victorian era romanticism. In some nineteenth and twentieth century history books, it was reported as all but fact. The poisoning of Ferdinando and Bianca has been the subject of theatrical productions, novels, poetry, paintings and a musical composition. Admittedly, it does have all the elements of a great story: Marriage for love in the aristocracy, sex, murder, intrigue, politics and religion. Truth be told, given the Medici family’s actual history, the story is not all that far-fetched, but it turns out not to be true, at least as far as modern forensics technology can determine.

 Controversy erupted in 2007 when a team from the University of Florence reported that they had unearthed what they presumed to be the long-lost (but partial) remains of Grand Duchess Bianca. Testing revealed a significant level of arsenic, leading some to give assassination another look. Others pointed out that arsenic was commonly used as an embalming preservative in this period. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Pisa confirmed that there are malaria pathogens in what are not disputed to be Francesco's remains, interred at the Chapel of Princes in Florence. 

Ferdinando's two physicians, Giulio Cini and Giulio Angeli da Barga, who were on the scene in October of 1587, reported that symptoms were identical in both patients. Modern forensics pathologists agree that those symptoms are entirely consistent with pernicious malaria. Furthermore, it was recorded that a few days earlier, Francesco and Bianca had ventured into a swampy area on a walk near the estate where they met their end. In fact, Francesco had lost two younger brothers and his mother to malaria, and I can personally vouch that Tuscan mosquitoes are nasty little creatures. If not for an insect bite, Don Antonio might well have become the third grand duke. As it was, Ferdinando took the reigns of power and Antonio Neri's father was appointed to be the new grand duke's royal physician, with Cini and da Barga his assistants.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Torricelli and Glass


Evangelista Torricelli
by Lorenzo Lippi, circa 1647
Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) is remembered as the inventor of the mercury barometer. Lesser known are a number of significant contributions he made to mathematics, astronomy and physics. There is no direct connection to the Florentine alchemist and glassmaker Antonio Neri—Torricelli was only a boy of six when Neri died—yet there are unmistakable echoes left by Neri that are amplified when we examine Torricelli’s time in Florence.   

In 1632, Torricelli wrote a letter to Galileo, which began a friendship that lasted until the famous astronomer died a decade later. In fact, Galileo invited Torricelli to stay at his house where they spent the last three months of Galileo’s life working together. If Torricelli had not heard of Neri before, perhaps he became acquainted through the copy of his book, L’Arte Vetraria that Galileo had on his bookshelf. Afterward, while preparing to return to Rome, Torricelli was intercepted by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de' Medici, who asked him to succeed Galileo as the chair of mathematics at Pisa. He was given a good salary and quarters at the fabulous palace in the center of Florence, that is now called the Medici-Riccardi.  

Historian Mario Gliozzi writes: “Torricelli remained in Florence until his death; these years, the happiest of his life, were filled with the greatest scientific activity. Esteemed for his polished, brilliant, and witty conversation, he soon formed friendships with the outstanding representatives of Florentine culture.” [1]  The ancient palace itself was largely empty in this period, inhabited by a handful of relatives, officials, intellectuals and artists connected with the Grand Ducal court. [2]

Among Torricelli’s companions at the palace were the three sons of Don Antonio de’ Medici, Antonio Neri’s long time benefactor. The boys, Paolo (1616-1656), Giulio (1617-1670) and Antonfrancesco (1618-1659) moved there in 1646. None of the brothers had personally met Neri, as they were all born shortly after his death, but they must have heard plenty about him growing up. As children, they had the run of the Casino di San Marco, the palace where Neri had made glass and pursued the secrets of alchemy. After Neri’s death, their father, Don Antonio spent significant time trying to hunt down Neri’s secret recipe for transmutation. Years later, when Giulio died in 1670, among his possessions were found a box of elixirs and “a booklet, entitled: Material of all the compounds of Priest Antonio Neri; there is a red dustcover, which says ‘experiments.’” [3] The materials were handed over to Jacinto Talducci, the Grand Duke’s chief chemist, and master of the new glassworks established in the Boboli Gardens, a man whom Torricelli depended on for glass. Talducci was also a veteran of the Casino di San Marco Laboratory; according to legend, as a boy he personally witnessed Neri’s transmutation of gold. Curiously, at Giulio’s death he was listed as living on Borgo Pinti in Florence, the same street on which Antonio Neri grew up. Also the same street where Galileo was tutored in  mathematics as a boy -- at the monastery where Neri's family attended church.

While in Florence, Torricelli took a great interest in optics. Again quoting Gliozzi:
[T]here is very good evidence of his technical ability in working telescope lenses, a skill almost certainly acquired during his stay in Florence. By the autumn of 1642 he was already capable of making lenses that were in no way mediocre, although they did not attain the excellence of those made by Francesco Fontana, at that time the most renowned Italian telescope maker. Torricelli had set out to emulate and surpass Fontana. By 1643 he was already able to obtain lenses equal to Fontana’s or perhaps even better, but above all he had come to understand that what is really important for the efficiency of a lens is the perfectly spherical machining of the surface, which he carried out with refined techniques. The efficiency of Torricelli’s lenses was recognized by the grand duke, who in 1644 presented Torricelli with a gold necklace bearing a medal with the motto “Virtutis praemia.” 
The fame of Torricelli’s excellent lenses quickly became widespread and he received many requests, which he fulfilled at a good profit. He attributed the efficiency of telescopes fitted with his lenses to a machining process that was kept secret at the time but was described in certain papers passed at Torricelli’s death to the grand duke, who gave them to Viviani, after which they were lost.
Gliozzi continues to describe that in 1924 one of Torricelli’s lenses was examined optically using the diffraction grating. “It was found to be of exquisite workmanship, so much so that one face was seen to have been machined better than the mirror taken as reference surface, and was constructed with the most advanced technique of the period.”

In addition to precision glass for lenses, Torricelli depended on Talducci and the grand duke’s furnace for scientific glassware; his experiments that demonstrated the measurement of air pressure required glass tubes, sealed at one end, two ‘cubits’ long (about four feet). They needed to be strong enough to be filled with mercury (which is very heavy) without breaking. It took his colleague Mersenne a couple of years (until 1646) to match the Florentines and obtain an acceptable tube from the French glassworks. 

Torricelli worked with former employees of the Casino di San Marco laboratory who knew Neri, he lived with Don Antonio’s three sons and he took a keen interest in glass; it seems impossible for him to be unaware of Neri and the echoes of his work in Florence.

[1] Mario Gliozzi "Torricelli, Evangelista" in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia.com.  http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2830904345.html

[2] 1609-1659 - The last inhabitants of Palazzo Medici http://www.palazzo-medici.it/mediateca/en/Scheda_1609-1659_-_Ultimi_abitanti_di_Palazzo_Medici_

[3] Covoni 1892, p. 193.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Rise and Fall of Glass

 

"Merry Company," (1623)
Gerard van Honthorst
The first decade of the seventeenth century was a golden era for glass in Tuscany. The Venetian techniques brought to the region by Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici in the 1570s had been assimilated. The pioneering work of his son, Francesco, in cross pollinating different crafts under one roof, was by now bearing fruit in unique items that included the handiwork of glass artisans. Grand Duke Ferdinando understood the value of glass as a source of prestige and was willing to invest in it. This was the environment in which Antonio Neri first learned to make glass. Delicate drinking glasses were the toast of the aristocracy throughout Europe. The material was critical to the advancement of chemistry, medicine and by the end of the decade astronomy. 

In 1602, Antonio Neri came to work in the shop of Niccolò Sisti in Pisa. While Sisti was making fancy glassware for the Medici court, the nearby Coscetti firm was supplying Pisa with everyday items. Coscetti made glassware for private homes, but also innkeepers, spice and perfume sellers, winemakers and a baker among others. Their wares included cruets for oil, saltcellars, carafes, drinking glasses, containers for holy water, reliquaries, gilded Venetian style cups and English style flasks. 

By the second decade, momentum started to shift and before long, the glass industry in Tuscany fell on hard times. Apparently the demand for glass could not support the number of factories that had started and the rapid succession of leadership in the duchy added uncertainty to patronage of the arts in general. 

Another factory in Pisa was run by Giovanbattista Guerrazzi, who had acquired the exclusive right to make Venetian style cristallo from Neri's old employer Sisti. In 1623, Guerrazzi had problems of a different sort, not directly related to the sales of glass. He appealed to Pisa’s Office of Rivers and Ditches, pleading with them to modify a recent ruling. He explained that he owned three houses next to his furnace, one for his family and the others functioning as sales space and housing for his workers. Since he was the exclusive maker of cristallo, he had employed a number of girls and women to decorate the delicate glassware, and a constant stream of the nobility showed up to watch the work being done. Guerrazzi's problem was that the Magistrate of Public Decency had recently published a list of seven places where women of "ill repute" were allowed to stay. One of these was located next door to his glassmaking operation. He begged for a change in the ruling, to move his new neighbors elsewhere.

The outcome of his appeal is not known, but Guerrazzi was succeeding in the glass business, and at the same time accelerating the demise of his competitors. He bought-out and demolished the furnaces of a number of other glassblowers and planned the same fate for the Coscetti operation, putting all the craftsmen there out of work. In the mid 1620s, after a quarter century of operation, the fires under Coscetti furnace were allowed to go out forever. Furnaces at Leghorn, Pistoia and Prato had shuttered, leaving only the one furnace in Pisa, two in Florence and two at the castle of Montaione. 

*This post first appeared here on 12 Dec 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Filippo Sassetti

 

Goa, India 1509
Later distinguished as a renowned glassmaker and alchemist, Antonio Neri was born into a patrician household. In the Florentine baptism records, his entry was made on a Thursday, the first of March, 1576. He was born the previous evening, to Dianora Parenti and Neri Neri. His godmother is listed in the document as Ginevra Sassetti. Not a great amount is known about her; she was from a prominent family, at the time in her late fifties. However, there are indications that other members of her family interacted with the Neri's. Her nephew Filippo mentions Antonio's father favorably several times in letters, providing a fascinating glimpse into the way disease was diagnosed and treated.

When Antonio was born, his father Neri Neri was in his early thirties, and already a highly regarded physician. Baccio Valori was director of the famed Laurentian Library in Florence and steward of the Medici's simples (medicinal herbs) garden. He was friend to Neri Neri and godfather to Antonio's oldest sister Lessandra. Between 1583 and 1588, Valori received letters from a mutual friend, Filippo Sassetti, who was living in Goa and Cochin – trading settlements in India. Filippo was a native Florentine; he attended university in Pisa with Valori and they became lifelong friends. After Sassetti's father was forced to sell the family home to pay off a debt. Filippo moved to Lisbon and became a spice trader. Not suited for a desk job, he soon set sail seeking adventure in the orient. 

In a 1586 letter to his old friend Valori, Sassetti discusses an Indian remedy against the plague, with a substance called bezoar. The bezoar stone is a mass that develops and becomes trapped in the digestive systems of certain animals. It often resembles a smooth rock. Some thought ground bezoar to be a universal antidote to any poison. Sassetti was puzzled about how the grindings of bezoar could work to cure the plague. Its Aristotelian elemental properties would not be a match for correcting the imbalance of humors in the body. "This is a principle," he explains, taught to him by Neri Neri. "I have thought about it and I can not understand how it works, because the plague is of the same corruption and this is a lack of heat inherent in the humidity. And the stones, if I recall correctly, they have a cold and dry complexion, hence may not precede the restoration of heat. Messer Neri one time did me the favor of telling me." 

In another letter to Baccio Valori, Sassetti notes that he has collected rare varieties of cinnamon in his travels along the Malibar coast in India. His intention was to rediscover the species thought to be a powerful cure of disease by the ancients. He planned to send a parcel of seeds of these and other medicinal plants. "If it pleases God, in the coming year, I will send this to you, so that you may see it all, together with our Messer Neri Neri, who graces my memories." Later he writes that he is sending Baccio the discourse on cinnamon, which he has compiled, along with some plants. These, it later turned out, were water damaged in the journey. He had hoped for some help from Neri Neri on the question of whether the cinnamon he collected from the island of Zeilan [Ceylon], is the same thing as the curative cinnamon of Mantua described by the ancients. Valori was an authority on these matters in his own right. As librarian for the Medici's imposing collection of books and manuscripts, he had vast academic access. As keeper of the simples garden, he had first hand experience in horticulture and its derivative medicinal cures. 

The principles of "humorism" were passed down from celebrated physicians of the ancient world, like Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides. It was thought that the cure of disease was dependent on the restoration of balance between four substances in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. In turn, each of these was associated with one of the Aristotelian elements: air, water, earth and fire respectively. Each was further associated with specific symptoms and characteristic traits of the patient, even their psychological outlook and physical complexion. This system formed the foundation of Western medicine and was taught and practiced well into the nineteenth century. Although, within Antonio Neri's lifetime newer experimentally based methods did start to take hold. A decade after his father's death, in a 1609 letter, Antonio boasts about his success in curing disease in Antwerp using the methods of the medical upstart Paracelsus. It is unlikely that his father would have approved.

*This post first appeared here 13 August 2014.

Friday, November 13, 2020

A Gift for the Innocent

 

One of the distinctive roundels designed
by Andrea della Robbia for the facade of the
Ospedale degli Innocenti.
In early 1597, Antonio Neri turned twenty-one. He was in his final year of training for the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The war with the Ottoman Empire in Hungary was winding down and men were returning to Florence from the front lines, among them Don Antonio de' Medici, Neri's future benefactor. At this time, there is no indication of Neri's future activity as a glassmaker, but he certainly had been deeply involved in learning alchemy for several years. It is not surprising since his father was the personal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici and his grandfather was a celebrated barber-surgeon. He probably grew up seeing the chemical arts practiced on a daily basis. 

This same year, Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was commissioned along with three colleagues from the physician's guild to make a complete revision of the Ricettario Fiorentino. [1] This was the physician and apothecary's reference used throughout Europe and in Tuscany it carried the weight of law; every medical professional was required to own a copy and adhere to its prescriptions. The first edition had been published almost a century earlier; it was revised periodically to keep it current with the latest thinking and remedies. 

Reviewing the book's recipes is of course interesting. The final prescription, for example, is one for the age-old remedy of chicken soup. However, the preparation of this particular recipe with its raw juices would certainly make most modern patients turn a bit green.  An attempt to look beyond the technical methods is also intriguing; we are rewarded with a glimpse into the personalities of the men who wrote the book. One of the authors in particular has a story that illustrates how shrewd maneuvering can be used for good, even in times when self-serving and corruption were endemic.

The four authors' names do not appear in the book itself, but they are documented in a letter from the college of physicians acknowledging the directive of the grand duke and pledging to purge the text of any preparations that could be dangerous. [2] In addition to Neri Neri and Francesco Rosselli (son of the royal apothecary), the other two co-authors were Giovanni Galletti and Giovan Battista Benadù. [3] Giovanni Galletti, is difficult to pin down. His family resided in Florence and he exchanged letters with a Filippo Galletti in Rome, who may have been a brother or cousin. Adding intrigue to the connection, Filippo was working as a confidential correspondent—read: a spy—for Ferdinando I de' Medici around 1600. [4] The fourth co-author, Benadù, a physician and surgeon from Fivizzano, north of Pisa, died in 1603. [5] His will provided for an annual gift to Santa Maria Nuova hospital [6] and another to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a gift that amazingly supported the orphanage into the nineteenth century. [7]

Little information exists about these men, it would seem impossible to extract any meaningful insight into their personalities, but perhaps we can take a small step in that direction. Neri Neri's coauthor, Benadù, administered his financial gift to the Ospedale degli Innocenti with a large dose of shrewdness. The measures he took to ensure the purposeful use of his money, even after his death, reveal a man who cared a great deal about the less fortunate. In the 1400s, the wealthy silk merchants’ guild started Innocenti to be responsible for the welfare of abandoned children. By the late 1500s, the orphanage struggled under a mountain of debt. Grand Duke Ferdinando made a concerted effort to improve the situation and it became a well run, efficient institution, although throughout its history, it was not without problems. Over centuries of operation, it had seen the abuse of children and exploitation by both parents and the government. Famine hit Tuscany on a regular basis and less of it was due to natural causes than one might imagine. The grand dukes tended to make large trade deals, with Spain and other states, which depleted supplies and drove the local price of grain beyond what poorer families could afford. In those hard times, the Ospedale degli Innocenti experienced overflows of abandoned children. It was discovered under Cosimo I de' Medici's rule that some desperate families had found creative ways to take advantage. Destitute mothers left their infants at Innocenti, where children were assured of a square meal, a warm bed and an education. The same mothers then sold their milk to the orphanage, in effect collecting a wage to wet nurse their own children.

Florentine accountants invented double entry bookkeeping, and the Medici gave that innovation a good workout. They pioneered the use of municipal bonds, the purchase of which was sometimes made compulsory. At the time, they were a novel approach to fund a city’s development, and selling bonds under the banner of the orphanage was an early bit of marketing genius. It is unfortunate that the money often did not stay with the orphanage, but the obligation to pay off these debts did. The Medici often raided the accounts to pay for other projects both civic and personal. Under Ferdinando, the situation improved, but was far from stable. Through a clever maneuver, Benadù ensured his money went to the orphanage alone and not to bondholders. He left an inheritance for the day-to-day operation of Innocenti, putting control in the hands of the monks at the Badia Fiorentina monastery, where it was beyond the reach of greedy hands.

The 1597 edition of Ricettario Fiorentino produced by Neri Neri, Francesco Rosselli and their colleagues proved so popular that Grand Duke Francesco II [8] ordered it reprinted without changes in 1623. [9]

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597. 
[2] Corradi 1887, p. 55.
[3] Giovan Battista di Nicolao Benadù (?–1603), not to be confused with Priest Giovanni Benadù from Lucca.
[4] For more on the Galletti family cf. Crollalanza 1878, p. 222. About Filippo Galletti cf. Zapperi 1994, pp. 50, 71; Liebreich 2005, pp. 67, 281. For letters to Giovanni, see ASR 1591.
[5] He set up a trust fund for his sisters and their female relatives, which was still functioning in the twentieth century. Cf. Arrigoni 1882, p. 34.
[6] Lamioni 1994, p. 530.
[7] Cardini 1968, p. 190. The Innocenti records identify Benadù as both physician and surgeon and his monetary gift played a supporting role in the continued operation of the facility (AOI 1603.) As mentioned above.
[8] Ferdinando II de’ Medici (1610–1670).
[9]  Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1623.
* This post first appeared here 15 Oct. 2014.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Top Physician

 

Frontispiece from Ricettario Fiorentino 1597 ed.
In 1580, when Antonio Neri was four years old, just after the birth of his brother Vincenzio, both his father and grandfather were together granted full Florentine citizenship by Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici. In Tuscany, citizen status was an honor conferred to a small fraction of the population and often through inheritance at around the age of thirty. The fact that Neri Neri gained citizenship at the age of forty and did so together with his father, Jacopo, shows it was not legacy, but perhaps their medical prowess that lead to the award. Antonio's father was a celebrated physician, and his grandfather was a well regarded barber surgeon. This period also corresponds to the first appearance of the unique coat of arms that distinguish this branch of the family. The same arms adorn the central panel of the vestibule ceiling at the Neri's residence. Citizen status bestowed the advantage of direct representation in the government and the right to hold public office. It also carried responsibilities to the city, to its leaders and to the Church. One requirement of citizenship was possession of a domicile within Florence. The baptism register listed Antonio and all of his siblings as residents of San Pier Maggiore parish long before the citizenship grant. However, it is in the 1580s that we see the first reference to Neri Neri's ownership of the palazzo at what is now 27 Borgo Pinti. 

Within a few years, Antonio's father's work on cures for paralysis were published. By the end of the decade he was appointed personal physician to the new grand duke, Ferdinando de' Medici, and to the royal family. The 1590's saw Antonio taking vows, and beginning his career in the Church. The road to priesthood ran on a parallel track to an apprenticeship in a trade. The completion of a trial period led to becoming a novice at the age of sixteen, then deacon and finally priest at around twenty-two. Meanwhile, Antonio's father, along with another doctor and two apothecaries was chosen by the entire Florentine College of Physicians to revise and update the famed Ricettario Fiorentino.[1] This book was the gold standard of doctors and pharmacists in Tuscany and throughout much of Europe. The Ricettario was an official reference for medicinal cures and prescriptions. The law required every apothecary to own a copy and to supply its listed formulas to customers. Many regard this volume as the first European pharmacopoeia. It was a systematic standardization of drug recipes and dosages. Throughout the Medici reign, updated editions appeared as knowledge progressed. The book is a major landmark in the history of medicine. The edition authored by Neri's father and colleagues, in 1597, proved so popular that in 1621 it was reissued without change.

There can be no doubt that Antonio's father and his work had a profound influence on the priest. In the introduction to his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria,[2] he proclaims his desire to publish his own work on chemical and medical [spagyric] arts, saying "I believe there is no greater thing in nature in the service of humanity." In his recipes he uses the terminology of physicians; adding chemicals in 'doses' and measuring 'ana' (in equal parts). In a 1608 letter to a friend, [3] Antonio describes his great success with medicinal cures of Paracelsus, "to the great wonderment of Antwerp." The priest also references experiments he carried out in Brussels and at the Hospital of Malines. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, medicine would continue to be practiced in the Neri family for generations to come. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2]Neri 1612.
[3]Neri 1608.
This post was first published here in a slightly different form on 16 October 2013.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Fabergé and Purpurine

 

Fabergé c.1900. Purpurine cherries,
nephrite leaves, gold stalk, rock crystal pot.
Peter Carl Fabergé is known the world over for producing elaborate jeweled fantasy eggs for the Russian royal family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [1] The artisans of his firm made use of a wide variety of exotic and precious materials in the execution of their commissions and later in items made available to the general public. Among the most exotic and sought after were objects made with an opaque bright red stone-like material known as ‘purpurine’. This was a glass based concoction whose composition was kept a tightly guarded secret. In fact, it was so tightly guarded that the formula was subsequently lost. Purpurine was typically cast into blocks which were then sawed and carved using traditional lapidary and gem carving techniques. The final appearance was of an unknown exotic mineral.


Red Glass Beads, 1st cent. BCE, Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
The origin story of purpurine begins much earlier than Fabregé, in fact, not hundreds but thousands of years earlier. “The art of making this type of glass seems to have originated in India; glass beads of a similar material have been found in the Indus Valley and were dated to the late 2nd millennium BCE.” [2] In southern Sri Lanka deep red opaque glass beads have been found dating to the first millennium BCE; these turn out to be closely related to purpurine, through a long glassmaking tradition. [3] A version of the bright red glass was made in the Egyptian- Roman era. The first century CE historian Pliny the Elder noted that in Greek it was called ‘haematinon’ or blood-red ware. [4] He implied that this specialty glass, was routinely produced in Rome and indeed archaeologists have recovered numerous examples. The glass was used in a wide range of applications from dinner plates to pieces of elaborate mosaics. Eventually, though, the method of making haematinon was forgotten and remained so for several hundred years.


A small (1cm) Medusa's head in
opaque red glass c.1st. cent. CE.

The Renaissance era had been marked by a strong motivation to recover lost knowledge of the ancient world, but many challenges were beyond the technology of the time. However, attempts were made that eventually led to success.  In the second half of the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Vatican mosaic studio to decorate the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, begun by Pope Julius II in 1506. As an aside, this workshop continues today, repairing and conserving the ceilings of St. Peter’s. [5] Having quickly exhausted local talent in Rome, Gregory brought in Venetian masters to teach the art. With the mandate to make the mosaics appear as if painted, the studio developed many new formulations for the glass tesserae – the individual tiles used to form mosaics. It was in this environment that the deep red purpurine [Ital: porporino] was eventually rediscovered.


C. 1st cent. BCE/CE Roman bowl (patella cup) in
red opaque glass (haematinon).

It is still an open question whether the secret was discovered in Rome or brought there. There is evidence that the fabled red glass was being produced in Venice in the eighteenth century and possibly earlier.[6] One (Swedish) source credits Vatican studio employee Alessio Matteoli, in the 1700s, when he oversaw the development of many new colors. In the early 1800s, interest rekindled in the ancient material and by then, analytical methods were up to the task of finding their composition. German chemist, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, analyzed haematinon from the Villa Jovis, a first century palace built by Roman emperor Tiberius on the island of Capri in southern Italy. [7] He correctly found copper, but incorrectly assumed the material was glassy slag, a byproduct of the smelting process. Later, in 1844, Schubarth did further work indicating haematinon was, in fact, a true glass. [8] King Ludwig I of Bavaria intended to build a reconstruction of a Pompeian villa for educational purposes. He assigned Max Joseph von Pettenkofer to the task of rediscovering the method of manufacturing the antique “blood glass,” and the young chemist reported success in 1853. [9] His process fused standard alkali-lead glass with copper oxide and magnetite in the presence of small amounts of magnesium oxide and carbon, followed by very slow cooling of the resultant mass, which would then take on a deep red color.


Roman Mosaicist
Michelangelo Barberi, 1809.
Other sources name one of two students of the famous Roman mosaicist Michelangelo Barberi (1787–1867). Barberi had a long standing relationship with the Russian royal family and accepted Russian pupils at his studio in Rome, he even set up a mosaic shop in St. Petersburg at the request of Tsar Nicholas I. [10] In 1846, these two pupils of Barberi, brothers Giustiniano and Leopold Bonafede were called to St. Petersburg by the tsar to work for the royal court. Giustiniano (1825-66) had served as head chemist at the Vatican studio and both would attain that post for the tsar at the Russian Imperial Glassworks. It is Leopold (1833-78) who is now most often credited with the invention of purpurine as a recreation of the fabled haematinon. His formulation was based on a standard potash lead crystal.


Purpurine taza made at the Russian
Imperial Glassworks, c.1867.
(Shown at Paris Exposition)
The first documented uses in objects of art were five entries of the Imperial Glassworks at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, for which the glassworks was awarded gold medal status. [11] “After Bonafede's death in 1878, purpurine continued to be made at the factory under the direction of the chief chemist, S. P. Petuchov.” [12]

In 1882, after considerable training and apprentice work, which began when he was a teenager, a 46-year-old Peter Carl Fabergé fully assumed control of his father’s small jewelry shop in St. Petersburg. Within a short time, he was supplying the royal family with his exquisite eggs and many other items made by a growing assemblage of master craftsmen. The first use of purpurine by the Fabergé shop occurs early in Carl’s tenure, perhaps as early as 1880. Initially, they use material supplied by Petuchov at the Imperial Glassworks. Over a period of years, though, the Fabergé shop developed its own recipe based on soda lead glass, more similar in composition to the ancient samples of haematinon.[13]  Other isolated examples of purpurine are known to exist made by competitive jewelers of the time, but no documented recipe has been found. [14] Apparently, Petuchov took the Imperial Glassworks formula for purpurine to his grave. As fame grew for Fabergé, their version is the one that became familiar to a growing clientele in Great Britain and in the United States. When the February Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the Romanov dynasty in Russia, Carl Fabergé fled the country, his company disbanded. In the west, the Fabergé name only multiplied in prestige among the elite and wealthy and items made with purpurine continue to command stratospheric prices.

Significant analytical work has been done on the ancient haematinon as well as purpurines of the Imperial Glassworks and of Fabergé. [3,5] The technical differences could easily be the subject of a separate treatment; suffice it to say that knowing the composition of a glass is not the same as knowing the recipe. (Just as knowing the composition of a cake does not mean that one can bake it.) The exact method for making the glass must have involved a long period in which snowflake-like crystals of cuprous oxide (Cu2O) would be encouraged to form, grow and spread throughout the glass forming a tightly interlocking network in the glass. One interesting point is that unlike many other opaque glasses, the ingredients of purpurine do not include a discrete opacifier; it is a clear glass base, which is so loaded with deep red cuprous oxide crystals that light does not pass through even small or thin pieces of the material. Another point is that this glass was not suitable for blowing on a blowpipe and therefore did not take forms typically expected for glass. Perhaps because of this, it has been largely overlooked.

The history of purpurine is a reminder of the fragility of human knowledge; it was discovered in ancient times, lost, rediscovered and lost again in modern times.


[1] Peter Carl Fabergé =Карл Густавович Фаберже. For more, see Abraham Kenneth Snowman, The Art of Carl Fabergé, Faber & Faber, 1974.(original ed 1953). Also see
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Carl_Faberg%C3%A9
[2] Gowlett, J.A.J.: High Definition Archaeology: Threads Through the Past, Routledge, 1997, pp. 276–277. Quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purpurin_(glass)
[3] Rösch, Cordelia; Hock, Rainer; Schüssler, Ulrich; Yule, Paul; Hannibal, Anne. “Electron Microprobe Analysis and X-ray Diffraction Methods in Archaeometry: Investigations on Pre-Islamic Beads from the Sultanate of Oman” in: European Journal of Mineralogy, 9 (1997), 763–783. (Specifically, beads found at Tissamaharama, pp. 771,772). http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/propylaeumdok/volltexte/2009/305
[4] Natural History, xxxvi, LXVII, 198.
[5] For more, see http://www.30giorni.it/articoli_id_10283_l3.htm
[6] RR Harding, S Hornytzkyj, A. R. Date. “The composition of an opaque red glass used by Fabergé”in the Journal of Gemmology, 1989. No.5, pp. 275-287.
[7] Klaproth M.H., Beiträge zur chemischen Kenntnis der Mineralkörper Vol. VI (1815), p. 136
[8] Schubarth. "Einige Notizen über rothes und blaues Glas." Journal für Praktische Chemie Vol. 3 (1844), pp. 300-316
[9] Pettenkofer, M. "Ueber einen antiken rothen Glasfluss (Haematinon) und über Aventurin-Glas." Abhandlungen der naturw.-techn. Commission der k. b. Akad. der Wissensch. I. Bd. München, literar.-artist. Anstalt, 1856. Also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purpurin_(glass)
[10] Alessio Matteoli https://nononsensejewellery.wordpress.com/tag/purpurin-faberge/ , for more on Matteoli see http://www.aiellomosaics.com/about-mosaics/techniques-and-materials/roman-or-byzantineglass-or-marble-tilesmicromosaic-or-glass-enamels/ .  On Michelangelo Barberi, see Renata Battaglini Di Stasio, “Michelangelo Barberi” in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani – v. 6 (1964)  http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/michelangelo-barberi_(Dizionario_Biografico)/
[11] Catalogue Special de la Section Russe a l'Exposition Universelle de Paris en 1867, p. 44, Classe 16, no.111.
[12] See http://art.thewalters.org/detail/77444/pair-of-tazzas/
[13] Op cit. RR Harding, S Hornytzkyj, A. R. Date, 1989.
[14] For more on competitive jeweler’s purpurine, see: Géza von Hapsburg: “Some of Fabergé’s Other Russian Competitors” in Fabergé, Imperial Craftsman and His World, London: Booth-Clibborn, 2000, pp. 323-325.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Neri and the Inquisition

 

Insignia of the Inquisition, 1574.
The mandate of the Catholic Church's inquisition was to stamp out heresy. Although empowered to impose sanctions that included torture and execution, such extreme measures were not imposed casually. Typically, they operated within communities as an extra layer of bureaucracy.  Nevertheless, the Holy Office of the Inquisition  was not an organization with which to trifle. In 1600, just over a decade before Antonio Neri's glassmaking book was printed, former Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in Rome's Campo de' Fiori market, albeit after nearly a decade of confinement and numerous opportunities to recant. Shortly before that, the inquisition ordered Neapolitan polymath Giambattista della Porta to disband his group of scientific investigators and to cease all publication without special written permission from the Church, an order with which he readily complied. Famous French essayist Michel de Montaigne complained of having books confiscated upon entering Rome, although in Florence he was welcomed with open arms by Francesco de' Medici at the Casino di San Marco, where Antonio Neri would later work.

The Inquisition paid special attention to books and pamphlets because they carried the potential to 'corrupt' large numbers of people over a wide geographic area. In the Church's view, heresy was considered a disease of the mind, the devil's work. Books were seen to be a potential source to spread the infection, especially books from the Protestant quarters of Europe, but also from the 'misguided' notions of early scientific investigators. Antonio Neri was an alchemist with deep knowledge of materials that, to the unsophisticated, could easily be viewed as "magical" and therefore heretical.

The last page of Neri’s L'Arte Vetraria [The Art of Glassmaking] is devoted to the official permissions that were necessary to print and sell the book. Here we read that Pie[t]ro Niccolini, Vicar of Florence (a man destined to become the archbishop) ordered Canon Filippo del Migliore of the Florentine archdiocese to review the manuscript. Upon doing so, he found nothing that "contrasts with Christian conscience." Next, it was passed to the Holy Office of the Inquisition, where the head inquisitor of Florence, Fra Cornelio Priatoni from Manza, assigned that the manuscript be reviewed by Agostino Vigiani, Regent of Servants. Final approval came from Florentine Senator Niccolò dell’ Antella.

Within a few years, Cornelio Priatoni would  be embroiled in the investigation of Galileo. In fact, the reviewers of Neri's glass book reads like a cast of characters from the initial investigation of the famous astronomer. The Galileo case would also include Ferdinando Ximenes, the brother of Antonio Neri's good friend Emmanuel. Ferdinando was prior of Santa Maria Novella where the inquisition was based. In fact, Emmanuel's uncle, after whom he was named, also worked in the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Florence and would later give testimony in the Galileo affair.

Writing perceived to defy the Church's teaching was a serious concern for authors in Italy, even those under the protection of the liberal Medici family. Although not overtly heretical, Neri's other manuscripts could have easily fallen into this category. Thankfully for our alchemist and glassmaker, upon reading Neri's book, Vigiani stated "I have not found anything repugnant to the Christian conscience and good customs, but [a book] full of things and natural secrets, no less useful than curious." Neri's book went on to become known throughout Europe. Over the next two centuries, it was translated into English, Latin, German, French and Spanish. L'Arte Vetraria became an indispensable reference for scientific, artistic, and practical glassmakers everywhere. 

This post is based on one that originally appeared here in a slightly different form on 13 November 2013.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Descendants of an Alchemist

 

Ecce Homo by Titian, circa 1570-1576
Antonio Neri was the son of a royal physician and the grandson of a well respected barber-surgeon. At the turn of the seventeenth century he pursued a career as a priest in the Catholic Church, but with the rare distinction of alchemy as his specialty. He is best remembered for his book on glassmaking, but he also wrote on the subjects of chemistry and medicine; an area of study that his family had embraced and would continue to practice  for several generations. 

According to Florentine genealogy records, Antonio's mother died in 1594, at the age of 42. She had given birth to ten children; Alessandro was the youngest, born in 1587. The same year as her death, the family would loose, Antonio's grandfather Jacopo, the barber surgeon. He had moved the family back to Florence after the turbulent 1520s; the years of what would be the final attempt to re-establish a self governing republic.  In 1598, just as Antonio finished seminary his father died leaving his ten children orphaned. A year later fifteen year old Emilio died on Christmas day.  Details of how the family survived this series of calamities may never be known, but in the end it was the youngest child, Alessandro who inherited the family house and fortune. Only eleven years old at the time of his father's death, an administrator was appointed by the court to oversee his and his siblings interests until they were of age. By all indications, the Neri children were well cared for; the list of godparents reads like a who's-who of the Florentine elite, including wealthy bankers, lawyers, senators and curia officials at the Vatican.

Alessandro would become the royal physician’s main heir. We might expect this honor to fall to the eldest son, and how the youngest of the seven brothers could end up in this position is a matter ripe for conjecture. Antonio and perhaps Francesco were in the clergy and therefore ineligible. We can surmise that the first of the sons named Jacopo died in infancy and if the second Jacopo survived he along with Vincenzio were somehow also out of consideration. One compelling scenario passes the family inheritance to fifteen-year-old Emilio, who would also die within a year leaving the mantle to Alessandro. Not yet of legal age, the family assets would have been held in trust, perhaps by his mother’s brother, notary Agostino Parenti.

Future research will likely uncover more details about the family after Antonio's death in 1614, however, a nice outline is already in place. In 1620, Alessandro inherited a second house from his uncle Agostino. It was located outside the city walls in a wealthy neighborhood, just to the southeast of Florence. It was along the old road called Via del Ponte a Ema.

In a 1630 court case in Rome, Orazio Morandi, abbot general of the Vallombrosans gave testimony. One  incidental remark he made indicates he was a Neri family friend; he told prosecutors that when he lived in Florence he often saw fellow astrologer Simon Carlo Rondinelli at the home of Alessandro de’ Neri. [1]

Although the exact date is not clear, Alessandro would marry Caterina di Becci and have three children; Neri, Dianora and Filippo. We can speculate, the first two were named after their grandparents, and the third after distant cousin Saint Philip Neri, canonized in 1622. Dianora was married to Ottaviano Buonaccorsi and had a son named Alessandro.

The bloodline would continue for another generation through Alessandro's son Neri, who would enroll in the medical program at Pisa and become a physician in his own right, taking a degree in 1646, where his diploma is still on file. [2] He in turn would marry Margherita Scalandroni who gave birth to Ottaviano. Alessandro, Francesco and Caterina.

At the end of the seventeenth century, historian Giovanni Cinelli wrote about our glassmaker’s nephew, who at the time had been practicing medicine for twenty years:
Succeeding M. Neri Neri, is a grandson [Neri di Alessandro], alive today, [1677] a man of good taste, who is delighted by pictures and sculpture, who has imitated his grandfather Neri, by [collecting] many paintings and gallant statues by talented artists. Two small bronze horses by Giambologna, many works of [Simone] Pignoni and others, among which are two marvelous holdings; a waist-up Ecce Homo by Titian and a Satyr of beautiful ancient bronze which is wonderfully captivating; it is of the Greek manner and expresses an attitude of prompt movement that recalls liveliness, the muscles are very well prepared. Finally, a statue of Cupid flanked in marble in the best Greek style. [3]
The elder Alessandro’s daughter, Dianora, would marry Ottaviano di Camillo Buonaccorsi, who gave birth to seven children. Her son named Francesco would marry into the Medici Family, coupling with Aurelia de’ Medici, daughter of Luigi di Francesco.

In 1768, historian Domenico Maria Manni wrote about the family. [4] In a short pamphlet about ancient Christian tombstones, he reports on the lineage of his patron, Girolamo Neri, a Camaldolese abbot. It traces the family back through two centuries, back to our doctor Neri Neri and to Antonio the glassmaker. Manni connects Girolamo to the family through the elder Antonio, the brother of Jacopo Neri, the barber surgeon.

Although further work is needed, all indications are that our glassmaker’s branch of the family died out by the end of the eighteenth century. [5] The family arms do not appear in use again, nor is there any evidence of a Neri tracing his heritage to the noble family of physicians. It seems finality is provided by Manni. He references a court judgment which awarded inheritance of the property of the extinct branch to Girolamo Neri’s kin. 


[1] Dooley 2002, p. 32. Dooley states that Alessandro is not related to Antonio Neri, but I feel otherwise; the name, timing, and circumstances are a perfect fit. His conclusion may be based on the scant family history available to him. Cf. ASR 1630.
[2] Mazzatinti 1917, p. 44, n. 549.
[3] Cinelli 1677. 
[4] Domenico Maria Manni, a member of the Messina scientific society known as the Accademia Pericolante. Manni was a prolific historian, although has on occasion been accused of careless work. For instance, he misidentifies Antonio’s mother as ‘Dianora di Ser Agostino di Ser Francesco Parenti’ Manni 1763, p. i-vi.
[5] Mecatti 1754, p. 77; Manni 1763, p. v.
*This post first appeared here on  29 Oct 2014.