Dear Readers,

As you may have seen elsewhere, in mid February my wife and I suffered the loss of our home in a fire, in the hills of central Massachusetts. The good news is that we got out safely and had no animals in our care at the time. The fire crews were able to contain the fire from spreading, in what turned into a 3-alarm, 5-hour-long ordeal in subzero temperatures; they did amazing work, and no one was injured. The bad news is that all of my physical historical materials and research of 30 years have gone up in smoke. As a result I have decided to suspend this blog for the time being. It will remain online as a resource for those interested in the history of glass and glassmaking in the seventeenth century and beyond. I do intend to resume writing when I can, but for now my time and energy are required in getting us back on our feet.

Friends are providing temporary shelter for us nearby and our intention is to rebuild as soon as possible. To those who have reached out with a steady hand, to those who have opened their wallets, and offered advice in our time of need, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. In what are already difficult times for all of us, you have made a huge difference in our lives.

Paul Engle
6 March, 2021

Friday, February 12, 2021

Archiater

 

Antonio Neri's family arms, from the vestibule
of the Palazzo Marzichi-Lenzi, Florence.
Archiater was a title used in ancient times for the doctors of Roman Emperors. Later, this term was applied to the head physicians of rulers throughout Europe. Even today, the pope’s chief physician holds the official title of archiater. 

In 1612 Florence, Antonio Neri wrote the first book devoted to glass formulation. His benefactor was Don Antonio de’ Medici, an alchemist prince from the royal family. There is no doubt that Antonio Neri gained some of his expertise at the prince’s laboratory, but his start in the chemical arts is probably owed to his own father. In the late sixteenth century, his father Neri Neri was appointed to the position of personal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I. For Antonio’s childhood and teenage years his father was the most esteemed doctor in all of Tuscany. 

Today, the connection between medicine, alchemy and glassmaking might not be so obvious, but in the early seventeenth century all three professions required use of similar materials, equipment and techniques. In the late 1580s, approaching the age of fifty, Antonio Neri's father was appointed the personal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. The son of a barber-surgeon, Neri di Jacopo Neri - or Neri Neri, as he was known - had parlayed a degree in medicine into a successful and prosperous career. His elevation to 'citizen' status, a decade earlier, gave him entree into the world of the patrician elite and his appointment as royal physician secured a place for his young family near the top of the Florentine social hierarchy.

The fact that Neri Neri gained citizenship at the age of forty and did so together with his father shows it was not a legacy, but perhaps their medical prowess that lead to the award. One requirement of citizenship was possession of a domicile within the city. The baptism register lists 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.

Baccio Valori was librarian, keeper of the royal herbal gardens and the godfather of Antonio Neri's older sister Lessandra. In 1587, Valori received a letter from Filippo Sassetti, sent from India. Filippo was a native Florentine, the nephew of Antonio Neri's godmother, Ginevra Sassetti. He attended university in Pisa with Valori and they became lifelong friends. In the letter, he notes that he has collected rare varieties of cinnamon in his travels along the Malibar coast. 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."

In the autumn of 1587, Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici and his wife Bianca Cappello both became ill and died during a visit by the grand duke's younger brother Cardinal Ferdinando. Pernicious malaria was to blame and accounts by physicians on the scene described identical symptoms for husband and wife. The thirty-eight-year-old Cardinal Ferdinando relocated to Florence from Rome; he took charge and assumed power as the new grand duke of Tuscany. Shortly after, he appointed Neri Neri as his head physician.


*This post first appeared here on 14 August 2013.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

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.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Duke's Mouthwash

 

Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549-1609),
Scipione Pulzone (1544 - 1598), Private collection.
Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was royal physician to the family of Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici. As such, he regularly interacted with other members of court, ranging from the archbishop of Florence, to his colleagues in medicine, including the royal apothecary (speziale), Stefano Rosselli. Rosselli shared more than a professional relationship with Neri Neri. They both admired the work of an ancient Greek physician named Dioscorides; Rosselli was something of an authority on his methods. In addition, he ran the 'Speziale al Giglio' shop, once owned by Tommaso del Giglio, who's chapel Neri Neri took over at Cestello church. Rosselli's son, Francesco, and Neri Neri were among the four chosen to revise and update the famed 

On 21 September 1589, Rosselli started to compile his own book of recipes to pass down to his two sons, Francesco and Vincenzo, who would go on to continue the pharmacy.[2] The book begins with a poison remedy credited to none other than Cosimo de' Medici. Recipe no. 9 is the grand duke’s antispasmodic oil, presented by Niccolò Sisti, with whom Antonio Neri would later work at the glass house in Pisa. No. 20 is the duke's oil for deafness, also presented by Sisti. No. 41 is a poison antidote revealed to Francesco de' Medici by the Archduke of Austria. It was tested on a prisoner at the Bargello prison, a "volunteer" who was intentionally poisoned as part of the experiment, then revived with the antidote in the presence of Stefano Rosselli and Baccio Baldini, the long time physician to Cosimo I. Supposedly, the prisoner's reward for surviving was early release.

Recipe No. 30 carries perhaps a bit less risk; it is titled "Acqua da gengie di messer Nerj Nerj" (Mouth wash of Neri Neri):
Take a quarter of a bushel of mastic buds,a quarter of a bushel of myrtle buds, a quarter of a bushel of red roses, three ounces of alum, a half ounce of salt and a quarter ounce of hard rose honey. Mash the herbs with a mortar and pestle and put them in nine pounds of Greek wine for twenty-four hours, then boil in a bain-marie and reduce to two-thirds. In this, we bathe the gums: it makes them dry and firm.
Mastic
Myrtle
Alum
Rose Honey
Greek Wine

The date that Stefano Rosselli started his book of secrets is interesting because it is the same day that Neri Neri, with the grand duke's two other physicians, Cini and Da Barga, were busy making medicinal wine based on Dioscorides' ancient recipes. Perhaps they all met that day at Rosselli's shop, for his advice. 

[1] Neri, Benadù, Rosselli, Galletti 1597.
[2] Rosselli 1996; an Italian transcription and French translation of Rosselli's recipes, with a very entertaining introduction.

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

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Duke's Oil

 

Trajan's Column, Rome
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1758)
In the seventeenth century, alchemy was a dangerous business. Yes, there were risks of sanctions by the authorities, which could be very harsh, but great dangers also lurked in the chemicals themselves. Some like lead and mercury accumulated in the tissues slowly, over a period of years, others could kill a man within a few minutes. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte had personal knowledge of just how deadly the products of alchemy could be.

In Rome, Del Monte was the unofficial ambassador to Florence and the Medici family. He regularly greeted dignitaries from around Europe and dazzled them in his sumptuous palace. He was an avid glass collector, a patron of the arts and more quietly a dedicated student of alchemy. He was a lifelong friend to Don Antonio de' Medici and visited the prince's laboratory in Florence several times. This is where Antonio Neri was making glass early in his career. Later, Neri worked at a secondary Medici glass furnace in Pisa, where the cardinal had fancy glass table service made for the Vatican.

About a two mile walk from Saint Peter's Basilica, over the Tiber River, directly toward the Colosseum, is Trajan's Column. It commemorates Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars at the beginning of the second century. It displays a scroll in base relief that winds all the way from the pedestal to the capital. The monument is large enough to contain an internal staircase leading to an observation platform at the top. In 1587, it was crowned by a bronze statue of Saint Peter that still stands today; the initial model was sculpted by artist Tommaso della Porta, who was under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte. 

Giovanni Baglione picks up the story in his book 
That man [della Porta], I think, suffered mentally and it showed at the end of his days. When he felt some kind of tingling in his abdomen, he went to the Cardinal del Monte his friend and master and asked for some of the "grand duke’s oil" that he hoped would relieve the tingling. The Cardinal indulged him; gave it to him and said that he should apply it only to the wrists and only a little, because the oil was potent and it could make him feel sick. He took it and went back to his house and after dinner he sent for the barber, to administer the medication, and while the messenger went on, Tommaso impatient and simpleminded, applied the oil himself and instead of touching the wrists, as the Cardinal had instructed, he lathered the arms, chest, body and entire abdomen, so that the powerful oil went to the heart and in fact killed him. The barber arrived to medicate him, found him dead and all attempts at revival were in vain. Tommaso della Porta, was buried at Santa Maria del Popolo.
The "grand duke's oil," was widely known, and widely cited in references throughout Europe well into the 19th century. Its other name was oil of tobacco – essentially a distillation of almost pure nicotine. In very small doses, it acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system, in slightly higher doses it is a narcotic, even greater, but still relatively small amounts act as a quick and lethal poison absorbed directly through the skin. Ingesting a single pill capsule of typical size full of pure liquid nicotine is more than enough to kill an adult in short order.

This story has one final twist. Antiques dealer Domenico Lupo was one of the men present at the reading of Della Porta's will on 7 March 1607. Twenty-five years later, an inventory of Lupo's assets listed a "small figure half old and half new that is said to be of Prior Ant. Neri," either the glassmaker or possibly his great uncle. 

* This post first appeared here 5 February 2014. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Alchemist Cardinal

 

Portrait of Francesco Maria del Monte
Ottavio Leoni (1578–1630)
In the early seventeenth century, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte served as the unofficial Florentine cultural ambassador in Rome. He regularly entertained visiting dignitaries and represented the Medici family's interests within the Vatican. He was an avid art collector, glass enthusiast and amateur alchemist.  He was a patron to the artist Caravaggio, to the astronomer Galileo and a dear friend to Antonio Neri's employer Don Antonio de' Medici.

The strong bond of affection between Don Antonio and Cardinal Del Monte is clear from their extensive correspondence and gifts to each other.  In addition to their passion for alchemy, the two shared a strong interest in glassmaking technology. There is a chance that the cardinal met glassmaker Antonio Neri in Florence; in 1602 he visited the Casino di San Marco, where the glass foundry was located and he returned in 1608, although by then Neri was in Antwerp. Del Monte's biographer Zygmunt Waźbiński offers, "It is very likely that Cardinal Del Monte, with his interest in glass, had known then (in 1598) the [future] author [Neri] of L'Arte Vetraria." [1]

Del Monte collaborated with Niccolò Sisti, the grand duke's glass foundry master at Pisa, where Neri also worked for a time. Sisti often provided Del Monte with glassware for Medici customers within the College of Cardinals in Rome. The cardinal's patronage also brought many glassmakers in Rome to the appreciation of the papal court.  After his death, Del Monte's will shows that at his main residence, the Palazzo Madama, he maintained an entire room, "gabinetto dei vetri" [cabinet of glasswork] that housed five hundred pieces of glassware. It cannot go without mention that he was also the proud owner of what has become one of most celebrated pieces of ancient glass, now referred to as the Portland Vase.

There are indications in Neri's 1600 manuscript that he visited Rome. If so, it is hard to imagine him not seeking an audience with the cardinal, either at his villa on the Pincio,  overlooking the city or at the Palazzo Madama, now offices of the Italian Senate. The palazzo was appointed in fabulous luxury and arranged to accommodate a constant flow of dignitaries from around the world. The villa, on the other hand, was where the cardinal's alchemy laboratory was located. This was a more secluded retreat where the cardinal could entertain guests with more discretion.
   
Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597
Casino Ludovisi.
As the sixteenth century ended and a new one dawned, Del Monte sheltered the rough-and-tumble painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he set up with an in-house studio and an allowance. However, in 1606, the master of Realism fled Rome after reportedly murdering a tavern waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the vaulted ceiling of Del Monte's own alchemy laboratory. Looking out over Rome, on the panoramic Pincio, in the Villa that later became the Casino Ludovisi and is now known as the Casino dell'Aurora, Caravaggio put his brush to work. 

According to Gian Pietro Bellori, the early biographer of artists, Caravaggio executed the oil painting sometime between 1597 and 1600. [2] Depicted in the mural are the three brothers Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: the masters of the universe. The image is a double allegory of the three basic chemical substances of Paracelsus (salt sulfur and mercury) and the four Aristotelian elements (air, earth, water and fire). Jupiter with the eagle stands for sulfur and air, Neptune with the seahorse stands for mercury and water and Pluto with the three-headed dog Cerberus stands for salt and earth. Jupiter is reaching out to move the central celestial sphere in which the sun (fire) revolves around the earth. [3] 


The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests discretely, including his friend Galileo–Del Monte and his older brother Guidobaldo helped land Galileo the chair of mathematics at the university in Pisa. This is also where Galileo demonstrated his telescope for interested dignitaries in Rome. It would be interesting to hear the astronomer’s comments on Caravaggio's tribute to heliocentrism.

[1] Neri 1612.
[2] Bellori 1672, pp. 197-216.
[3] Wallach 1975, pp. 101-112.

*The material in this post first appeared in a different form on  27 Nov. 2013 and 4 Jul. 2014.

Monday, February 1, 2021

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.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Don Giovanni de' Medici

 

Don Giovanni di Cosimo I de' Medici
In July of 1621, a man lay dying in his bed, in his palazzo on Murano, the glassmaker's island in Venice. This fifty-four year old had recently become a father and his wife Livia was expecting a second child, but the tumor in his throat meant he would not see his two year-old son Gianfrancesco Maria grow up, nor would he live to hold his yet unborn daughter in his arms. His death would also trigger a series of unanticipated ugly events. Don Giovanni de' Medici was the son of Grand Duke Cosimo I and Eleonora degli Albizzi. He had been general of the Venetian army and before that led Tuscan troops in Flanders, France, Hungary and served as ambassador in Madrid. But he was far more than a soldier; he was an architect who helped design the Chapel of Princes in Florence, he was a strong patron of the arts and he was a devoted alchemist. He plays a somewhat tangential role in the life of glassmaker Antonio Neri, yet their paths cross repeatedly through common associates, interests and locations.

Don Giovanni's palazzo on Murano was the grandest on the island; previously owned by the father of Grand Duchess of Tuscany Bianca Cappello. She spent time at the palazzo as a child and was the mother of Antonio Neri's sponsor, Don Antonio de' Medici. King Henry III of France stayed there on his tour of glass factories on the island. Later, the palace would be the residence of the bishop of Torcello and ultimately, in 1861, became what it is today: the famous Museum of Glass (Museo del Vetro).[1]  If, in the winter of 1603-4, Neri followed the route through Venice to Antwerp suggested by his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, then a visit to this palazzo would have certainly been in order, although not yet occupied by Don Giovanni.

Early in his career, in the 1590s, Don Giovanni commanded troops against the Ottomans in Hungary and his young nephew Don Antonio was directly under his command. The two men would both set up alchemy laboratories in their respective Florentine residences; Don Antonio in the Casino di San Marco on the north side of town and Don Giovanni at his Casino del Parione (today the Palazzo Corsini al Parione) along the Arno River behind the Santa Trinita Church. Don Giovanni's was only steps away from Antonio Neri's residence, the palazzo Bartolini,  after his ordination. Santa Trinita was a Benedictine church and the office of yet another alchemy enthusiast: Vallombrosan Abbot-General Orazio Morandi. It is unknown if Neri had any association with this church, but Morandi wrote that times spent in Don Giovanni's laboratory were among his "most cherished memories." Much later, in 1630, Morandi gave testimony at court concerning a Simon Carlo Rondinelli, saying: 
I have known Signor Rondinelli for twenty years, from the time I was in Florence. I met him often there in the house of Alessandro de’ Neri. The said Rondinelli is very well versed in astrology.[2]
The timing places Morandi in the Neri family house when Antonio's younger brother, Alessandro (who had inherited the house), was twenty-one years old. It was shortly before Antonio's return from Antwerp.

While Neri was in Antwerp visiting his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, Don Antonio was leading Tuscan troops nearby, in Flanders, on the side of the Spanish against the Dutch independence movement. Nevertheless, he found time to submit his design for the Chapel of Princes in Florence, and to quarry marble for the project and have it shipped back to Tuscany. It is unknown if Neri and Don Giovanni ever shared a meal in Antwerp, but the decorated soldier/polymath did commission a series of paintings there, for the grand duke, to be hung in the new Medici villa 'La Ferdinanda' at Artemino in Prato. The interior decoration of the public spaces in this villa were being executed by artists Passignano and Poccetti, fresh from finishing their recent collaborative masterpieces; the Neri Chapel and Cestello church on Borgo Pinti, financed by Neri's late father.

[1] For a full  treatment of the history of the Palazzo, see Canal 1909 in the Bibliography (to the right).
[2] Translation by Brendan Dooley “Morandi's last prophecy and the end of Renaissance politics” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), p. 22.
*This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on September 25, 2013.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Neri and the Kabbalah

  

Kabbalistic Sephiroth Tree,
from Portae Lucis, Paulus Ricius (Trans.)
Augsburg, 1516.
Kabbalah is a form of mysticism practiced within the Jewish tradition. In the early seventeenth century, there was a great deal of interest in Kabbalistic teachings among Catholic alchemists and natural philosophers. It was recognized that Christian alchemy had its roots in Hermetic and earlier Arabic societies, (the word "alchemy" itself is of Arabic origin.) It was thought that the Jewish Kabbalah was yet another branch of the same traditions of relaying secret knowledge by word of mouth. 

In early modern Florence, Italy, there were some interesting connections between the Kabbalah and glassmaker, alchemist and Catholic Priest Antonio Neri. Here is Neri’s own description, of Kabbalah in his 1613 manuscript Discorso: 
Some call it Kabbalah: in ancient times fathers communicated it to their children only by voice, preserving [this knowledge] for posterity, not for history, but as simple tradition. Others finally gave it the name of 'wisdom' [sapienza] because they rightly believed it was impossible, without this art, to know perfectly the nature and the qualities of natural bodies. In order to achieve the end they wanted, which was the perfection of the bodies, they separated the pure from the impure through various chemical operations, which can all be reduced to six principal phases.*
He goes on to describe basic chemical operations that were thought to be fundamental to purifying materials, and ultimately to the production of the Philosopher's Stone. These techniques are the same as practiced in Christian alchemy, and Neri uses them in his glassmaking recipes. Clearly, he had more than a passing knowledge of the subject, and it is interesting to speculate on how he might have come to learn about Jewish alchemical traditions. 

Early seventeenth century Florence contained a city within a city: the Jewish Ghetto. A walled perimeter encircled what is now the Piazza della Republica. This was the mandated home for all of Florence's Jewish population. Each night, entrance gates were closed and locked from the outside. Within the Ghetto, residents were allowed to live and warship freely, even maintaining a Synagogue. In the daytime, the gates were opened, and residents were allowed to go about their business and leave the city with special passes. Among the Ghetto's most prominent residents was the family of alchemist Benedetto Blanis (c.1580-1647.) Blanis served as librarian to Medici prince Don Giovanni. Giovanni maintained an alchemical laboratory in his residence, which was run by Blanis, located only a short distance from where Antonio Neri was living when he first worked at the Casino di San Marco.  

Don Giovanni maintained a close relationship with Neri’s benefactor Don Antonio de' Medici. So close, in fact that when two of  Blanis' relatives were implicated in a gambling scheme, Don Antonio hid them at his residence and then spirited them away, out of Florence, in his own coach until matters cooled off. Furthermore, Blanis came from a family of doctors who must have been known to Neri's father, royal physician to Grand Duke Ferdinando. Antonio Neri was probably a couple of years older than Blanis, if they did not meet through mutual connections with the Medici family, then perhaps they met on the street. The walk for Neri, between his living quarters near Santa Trinita, and the Casino laboratories would have passed around or through the Ghetto, and the walk for Blanis to Don Giovanni's palazzo on Via Parione took him past Neri's front door. The paths of the two men may have crossed, but there is not direct evidence.

Of course, in the absence of hard facts, there are many other possibilities of how Antonio Neri might have become acquainted with Kabbalistic tradition. By taking a look at Blanis and his connections to the Medici family, we can at least see an area of cooperation between Jewish and Christian alchemists in what we might otherwise assume to be an inviolable separation.** 

* “Discorso sopra la Chimica: The Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri”, M.G. Grazzini / Nuncius 27 (2012), p. 337.
For more on Blanis, see Edward L. Goldberg, The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis. (2011).
** This post first appeared here on 6 January 2014.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Knights of Malta

 

Fra Antonio Martelli, Knight of the Order of Malta,
Attrib. Caravaggio, c. 1608.
"Of me, Priest Antonio Neri, Florentine 1598." So starts the inscription on the first of 61 ink and watercolor illustrations in a manuscript titled "Tesoro del Mondo" [Treasure of the World]. It is the earliest manuscript known to exist by the respected glassmaker and alchemist, started when he was just twenty-two years old. Given the Church's rules and the typical length of training for ordination, twenty-two is about the youngest age possible for a priest. In fact, it is likely that the responsibility was granted to him mere months or weeks before the ambitious manuscript was begun, which he dedicates to the exposition of "all of alchemy." 

This scenario raises the intriguing question of which religious order would have taken on the sponsorship of educating a future priest as an alchemist; a mystery that remains unanswered to this day. Recently, we looked at two promising possibilities; the Canons Regular, and the Dominicans. Today we investigate a less conventional possibility: the Knights of Malta. The knights were ancient aristocratic military order that originated during the crusades and in Neri's time ran the papal navy. 

The Knights of Malta headed two churches in Florence and Neri can be connected to both. With the first, our priest has an indirect association. San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, (formerly called San Giovanni Decollato) is located a few steps from the Casino di San Marco, where Neri made glass at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His sponsor and owner of the Casino was Medici prince Don Antonio, whose daughter Maddalena later served as a nun at the associated convent. [1] The second church, San Jacopo in Campo Corbolini, is directly connected to Neri in a story recorded shortly after his lifetime. [2]

The following passage contains much that is contradicted by the facts, yet infused enough with the truth to make us wonder. Historian, courtier, genealogist and Florentine senator Monsignor Girolamo da Sommaia [3] recounted that:
M. Antonio who had died in Florence five or six years earlier and was from San Jacopo in Campo Corbolino,[4] said that he had the [philosophers] "stone," which he found in a pen-written book of secrets and took the paper and showed it to Casa (Agnolo Talducci della Casa, from the reign of Ferdinando I) who said what he was holding was sophistry, but that the cost was very little to try, so he tried it, and saying he succeeded, he told Casa and a goldsmith on the Ponte Vecchio, who did the first assay and later in his presence threw a bag of that powder into the Arno.[5]
A number of notebooks chronicle Neri's long working association with Della Casa at Don Antonio de' Medici's laboratory. These and other documents cast considerable doubt on the veracity of Sommia's story. Nevertheless, individual details do ring true. Of particular interest is the name of the church, San Jacopo in Campo Corbolini. It still stands today, a block west of the mercato centrale in Florence. The Knights Templar occupied it since 1256 and when that order died out, the Knights of Malta took it over. Neri's affiliation may have been through his work for Don Antonio, who belonged to the order. Another possibility is that Neri was attached to the knights through his father's connections at court. The order maintained a great deal of independence, reporting directly to the pope and curia. Their main presence was on Malta, Neri was not a knight but he could have occupied a place in their clergy.

The knights followed the rule of Augustine and enjoyed a close relationship with the Augustinians. The order traces its roots to the crusades [6] and has various associations with alchemy, notably George Ripley. [7] The fifteenth century English physician and alchemist was ordained into the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, but he later joined the Carmelites. He is purported to have used gold produced through alchemy to help finance the Knights of Malta in the war with the Ottoman Empire. [8] Folklore maintains that Ripley learned transmutation as part of his Italian schooling in alchemy.

[1] Luti 2006, pp. 171, 172.
[2] See Targioni-Tozzetti 189.
[3] Girolamo da Sommaia (1573–1635). He served as provost of the university (studio) at Pisa and prior of the convent church of the Knights of Saint-Etienne in the years 1614–1636. He was also a friend and supporter of Galileo.
[4] Today, this church is called S. Jacopo in Campo Corbolini. It was founded in 1206.
[5] Related in Targioni-Tozzetti 189, thanks to Maria Grazzini for pointing me to this passage.
[6] Known variously through history as the Knights Hospitaller, the Knights of Rhodes, the Knights of St. John of Jerulsalem and the Knights of Malta.
[7] Sir George Ripley (ca. 1415–1490), Bridlington, York. Cf. Rampling 2008; McCallum 1996.
[8] Fuller 1840.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Don Antonio de' Medici

 

Don Antonio de' Medici
Frontispiece from Pierfilippo Covoni 1892
In 1612, Priest Antonio Neri published his book of glassmaking recipes. L'Arte Vetraria went on to become a primary reference for glass artisans throughout Europe. He dedicated his book to Prince Don Antonio de' Medici the son of Grand Duke Francesco I:
I have considered dedicating this book to none other than you, most Illustrious Excellency; for you have always been my outstanding patron and you understand this and all other worthy and precious knowledge. In fact, you always practice all the arts requested of a true and generous Prince. I implore you therefore to accept if not my work, then my complete devotion to your great merit and virtue, Excellency. I pray that God will fill you with happiness.
As an eleven year-old, Don Antonio was slated to succeed his father as the next Grand Duke of Tuscany, but that situation changed quickly. In the autumn of 1587 the young prince lost both of his parents in the space of a few days. They both fell extremely ill and died within a short time of each other. Rumors flew that Francesco de' neri and Bianca Capello had been poisoned, but forensic investigators have found pernicious malaria pathogens in Francesco’s remains, a disease with symptoms consistent with the reports of physicians on the scene. Historians trace their infection to an outing in the damp forest a few days earlier, where they had probably been bitten by mosquitoes carrying the disease. 

The boy’s uncle, Cardinal Ferdinando took charge, consolidated power and excluded Don Antonio from the royal succession, although he was given a prominent place at court as a diplomat. As part of a deal that he would never marry, he was allowed to keep the title of Prince of Capestrano, to which was added Grand Prior of Pisa, in the Knights of Malta. The deal also gave him possession of the laboratory facility that his father had built and several other properties. That laboratory, the Casino di San Marco would become the prince’s residence and the place where Antonio Neri would learn about glass formulation.

Poor health attended Don Antonio from his first months through the end of his life. Doctors and medical examinations were to become a regular part of his routine; they may well have inspired his later pursuit of medicinal cures, as well as his foray into alchemy, which also involved Antonio Neri. At some point, probably as a teenager, Don Antonio contracted syphilis, a condition that may well have been treated by Antonio Neri’s father who was physician to the royal family.

The prince had played a major part in Neri's life, elevating him into the upper stratum of Florentine craftsmen and to the forefront of alchemical research in Europe. However, in another manuscript, Discorso, we see a different side of Neri. On the subject of turning base metals into gold, the priest was less forthcoming:
I would add that God's providence over human affairs must not easily allow many to acquire this art, particularly not the great princes. It should not be made clear and common to the vulgar, because in this way, gold and silver and consequently coins lose their value, so that the good order of human trade will be disrupted and we should go back to the ancient barter of things that are necessary to a civil life, creating great disruption and confusion.
Although never allowed to marry, over his lifetime Don Antonio managed to have a number of children; his last three sons were ultimately legitimized by the pope as Medici heirs. In the end, it was the slow, progressive ravages of syphilis that brought him down. He died in 1621, at the age of forty-five, unable to leave his bed. He was given a proper funeral, and interred at the Medici chapel of princes in Florence.

*this post first appeared here on 12 May 2014.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Eyes of a Lynx

 

The seal of the Accademia dei Lincei.
In the spring of 1612, Florentine priest Antonio Neri published his book on glassmaking. L'Arte Vetraria was the first printed book devoted to the formulation of glass from raw materials, but unfortunately for him it did not exactly take the world by storm, at least not at first. Sales were such that a number of copies still exist from the initial printing; they remain in pristine condition, never bound. 

Initially, the book received scant attention, but it was noticed. In fact, within a couple of years word had reached Rome, where Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of a scientific society, asked a Pisan member of his group to obtain a copy. That other member would go on to become one of the most recognized scientists in history. Meanwhile, L'Arte Vetraria gained prestige and readers, slowly but steadily.  By the end of the century, Neri’s book would be translated into English, Latin, German, French and then back into English from the French. It became the bible of glassmakers throughout Europe. 

In 1614, the year of Antonio Neri's death, naturalist Prince Federico Cesi wrote to his good friend Galileo. He complained of the difficulties in getting material from the Roman libraries, urging the astronomer to send him a copy of Antonio Neri's book.
The poor management of these libraries in Rome makes me feel continually thirsty for good books that come to light, which I can use for my study of compositions. They are scarcely giving me the titles, and after a long wait, only a tenth of what I asked. […] now I hear that printed in Florence is L'Arte Vetraria by Priest Antonio Neri, and I think there is some good in it. Please, your lordship, send me a copy, and believe me that I will gladly give them trouble.
 Shortly after, having received the book the prince wrote,
I thank your lordship for the book on glass, which I find very rich in experiments and beautiful artistry.
In 1603, Cesi founded the Accademia dei Lincei (Society of the Lynxes), an early scientific society whose members (with eyes as sharp as a lynx's) eventually included both Galileo Galilei and Giambattista della Porta.[1] Within a few months of Neri's death, his book was already on its way to making history.

[1] In classical Greek mythology Lynceus was the grandson of Perseus, and had preternaturally keen eyesight. See Apollodorus, Bibliotheke I, viii, 2 & ix, 16; III, x, 3 & ix, 2.

* This post first appeared here in a shorter form on 1 August 2013.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Glassmaker and The Astronomer

 

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636 (detail),
by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681).
Galileo Galilei lived almost simultaneously with glassmaker and alchemist Antonio Neri. Both were employed by the Medici royal court in Tuscany and both spent considerable time in Florence and Pisa, possibly also in Venice and Rome. No direct contact is known to have occurred between the glassmaker and the astronomer, but their paths did cross many times, orbiting like two celestial bodies in the cosmos - albeit one with a bit more gravitas than the other. 

As a youth, Galileo was taught at the Cestello monastery by court mathematician Ostilio Ricci. This was around 1580 when Galileo was sixteen, and Neri was a four year old toddler, living only a block away and attending the Cestello church with his family. Neri's father and grandfather had just been granted citizen status, already well known for their medical prowess, and his father served on the board of the artist's guild based at Cestello. Galileo would go on to become good personal friends with Prince Don Antonio de' Medici, Neri's sponsor. Later, the astronomer would have telescope tubes made by Jacopo Ligozzi, a regular at the Casino di San Marco, where Neri worked as an alchemist and took his first steps into the craft of glassmaking. As Galileo started to experiment with lenses, Neri was leaving Italy for Antwerp and would be absent for seven years. Meanwhile Galileo landed a job at the Florentine court as mathematics tutor to Grand Duke Ferdinando's son, Cosimo II. 

Both Galileo and Neri worked hard for their achievements. In the hindsight of history, innovations are often romanticized into shining moments of inspiration, forgetting the painstaking effort and dogged persistence required to bring those ideas to fruition. For his telescopes, Galileo encountered tremendous difficulty both in the production of suitable glass and in grinding that glass into usable lenses. His celestial observations included sunspots, lunar craters and the planet Jupiter with its moons, which he named "Medicea Sideria" after his Medici benefactors. As these revelations became known, there was a clamor of orders for telescopes from princes throughout Europe and Galileo struggled to keep up. He maintained a circle of trusted craftsmen on Murano in Venice, and elsewhere, but still, the majority of output was unusable.

Initially, he had reasonable success grinding and polishing broken pieces of mirrors. In early 1610, Galileo held a demonstration in Pisa for his former pupil, Grand Duke Cosimo II. A short time later, the grand duke ordered that a special batch of glass be made for Galileo by Niccolò Sisti, for whom Antonio Neri had worked just a few years earlier. At the time, Neri himself was still in Antwerp and would not return until the following year.

Neri returned to Tuscany and wrote his book on glassmaking,  L'Arte Vetraria, but then turned his attention to other pursuits. This, just as Galileo's quest for high quality glass to make his lenses took off in earnest. Neri’s final manuscript places him in Pisa working on alchemical recipes. There was no more optimal moment for the two men to meet; both were working in Pisa, both knew Niccolò Sisti, Neri had just published his book and the astronomer was becoming desperate for clear flawless glass. If such a meeting ever occurred, it has not been recorded, and shortly thereafter, in 1614, Neri died of an unspecified illness.

On 20 December of that same year, four days before Christmas, Tommaso Caccini, Neri's childhood next-door neighbor, delivered a scathing denouncement of Galileo from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella church. While the sermon earned Caccini a reprimand, and was an embarrassment to his family, it did also serve as a start to Galileo's troubles with the inquisition.

While Antonio Neri may have never encountered the astronomer, shortly after the time of the priest’s death, the astronomer acquired Neri's book on glassmaking. One copy was sent to Rome, to Federico Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, a scientific society to which Galileo belonged, and another copy was saved for the astronomer's personal library. Galileo continued his quest for flawless glass and in his correspondence he takes on the same obsession with purity of ingredients that Neri exhibits throughout his book.  

* This post first appeared here in a slightly different form on 18 Novenber 2013.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Aventurine Glass

 


Small amphora in aventurine glass,
Murano, Salviati.
With all its glitz and sparkle, aventurine (avventurina) stands out as a flamboyant extrovert among the varieties of glass. Developed and perfected on the Venetian island of Murano, also known as 'goldstone', it consists of a transparent base glass with myriad reflective crystalline "spangles" running throughout. The classical version is a deep golden brown with crystallites composed mainly of metallic copper, with a few related compounds as supporting cast. However, numerous colors have been developed, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, black and white. 

Folklore holds that aventurine was discovered by accident ("a venturi") when unknown monks inadvertently dropped copper or brass shavings into a glass melt as early as the thirteenth century. [1] However, more thorough investigations have recently identified 1620 as a likely date for the first appearance of aventurine glass. [2] No example or written account has been found that dates prior to the seventeenth century. An alternate story accounts for the name aventurine being derived from 'adventure'; referring to the difficulty and uncertainty involved in its production.[3] At first, the formula was a closely held secret among a few glassmakers and subsequently it was lost and then rediscovered not once but  twice.

To complicate matters, natural minerals with a similar appearance were named after the glass, leading to the misconception that they were also discovered after the glass was invented. This is clearly not the case. Early examples of mineral aventurine artifacts date to the Neolithic era [4] and can be found throughout history. First century Roman writer Pliny mentions a type of stone with silvery flecks, a passage that was well known when the glass was developed.  The compositions of these minerals were also identified early; either species of quartz that contain flecks of mica, or a type of feldspar (sunstone).[5] Mineral aventurine turns up as the eyes of Greek statues, in stonework mosaics and later in the 'pietre dure' art perfected by the Medici artisans in Florence around the time Antonio Neri started making glass there. The chances are good that examples of the mineral were known to Neri as well as to the glassmakers on Murano, but a recipe for the glass version does not turn up in Neri’s 1612 book; he was apparently too early by a decade.  

The story of aventurine's accidental discovery by monks may well be apocryphal; nevertheless, it is a great entrée to understanding how the formulation works. First, contrary to what the story implies, aventurine is not the result of dumping metallic confetti into glass. The reflective "spangles" (as early researchers were fond of calling them) are actually uniformly sized, mirror-like crystals that are grown in the glass. In truth, the formula is quite similar to recipes already in use by Neri and others; the difference was in proportions and in how the glass was treated after it was in the furnace. The formula for aventurine calls for the addition of copper, iron and tin oxides, to a base that was a hybrid of soda, potash and lead glass. Neri’s recipe #128 is titled "A Proven Way to Make Rosichiero" [6] and provides for all of these ingredients, albeit in lower concentrations. Rosichiero was a transparent tawny red colored glass that was a staple of furnaces throughout Italy. 

The secret to producing the reflective "spangles" was to mix the glass and heat it in the furnace in a normal way, but then to slowly reduce the heat while creating a low oxygen “reducing” atmosphere. The furnace draught was shut; the glass pot was fitted with a tight lid and then covered with ashes and allowed to cool very slowly.  

Initially, the batch is saturated with copper oxide. This means the glass has dissolved as much copper, iron and tin as it can and any further addition of these powders will simply float to the bottom of the pot.  The exact amount of powdered metals able to dissolve is a function of temperature; the hotter the glass the more that will dissolve and the cooler the glass the less that will dissolve. The key concept here is that as the glass slowly cools, the metals start to come out of solution and crystals start to form. There is some complex chemistry happening at the same time; the reducing atmosphere encourage the metals to stay in a pure un-oxidized form,  Furthermore any oxygen or sulfur  that happens to be present will preferentially combine with the iron, leaving the copper crystals pristine. Once cooled to room temperature, a successful batch would be broken away from the glass pot by workers and divided into smaller pieces. Glass artisans wanting to incorporate the aventurine into their work needed to work quickly. They carefully reheated an appropriate nugget and coated (encase) it in a layer of clear glass; once molten, direct exposure to the air would destroy the glittery effect. 

Over time, it was discovered that various colors could be produced with the addition of different chemicals, but the central principal of growing tiny metallic crystals is the same.


[1]  The earliest instance of this story in print that I can find is fairly late;  Faustino Corsi, Delle pietre antiche: libri quattro (Rome: Salviuccio e figlio, 1828)  pp. 166-167.  
[2] Cesare Moretti (†), Bernard Gratuze and Sandro Hreglich,  “Le verre aventurine (‘ avventurina ‘) : son histoire, les recettes, les analyses, sa fabrication”, ArcheoSciences, 37 | 2013, 135-154.
[3] For instance see  Giulio Salviati, “Venetian Glass” Journal of the Society of Arts (Proceedings), Volume 37 (7 June,1889), p. 630
[4] Neolithic Quartz Aventurine Pendant - 7 Cm/ 2. 76 ", green - 6500 To 2000 Bp – Sahara. Item Id: 106549,  Weight: 83 gm. Sahara - Mauritania - Tagant country.
http://ancientpoint.com/inf/106549-neolithic_quartz_aventurine_pendant___7_cm_2___76____6500_to_2000_bp___sahara.html
[5] Dizionario del cittadino, o sia Ristretto storico, teorico e ..., Volume 1 pp. 38-39.
[6] Antonio Neri, L'Arte Vetraria (Firenze: Giunti, 1612).
[7] Sauzay, A. (1870) Marvels of Glassmaking in All Ages. London, 1870 pp. 173 - 175.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Adventures of Adam Olearius

 

Adam Olearius
In the autumn of 1633, a trade mission heavily laden with gifts headed east from northern Germany. The great duke of Holstein was sending an ambassador to Moscow to request the czar’s permission for travel rights along the Volga River. Holstein was the northernmost tip of the Holy Roman Empire, in many ways more  closely tied to Scandinavia than to their Habsburg overlords. This expedition was part of an attempt to establish an inland silk-trade route between Europe and the Orient. Such a route would eliminate the circumnavigation of Africa, shortening the trip and reducing risk. After several years and initial high hopes, it became clear that the effort was doomed to failure. Czar Michael I of Russia was enthusiastic about the project, but at the southern end of the route, the king of Persia was not so receptive. Nevertheless, the expedition did become famous for a different reason: a written account of the adventures of the diplomats.

Upon the delegation’s return to Holstein, their secretary Adam Olearius (1599-1671) published a book that chronicled their travels. [1] As a mathematician, astronomer and general polymath, Olearius provides an uncommon perspective of the various cultures, practices and technologies encountered. Ultimately, he was appointed royal librarian and keeper of the duke’s cabinet of curiosities. The book proved so popular that more comprehensive editions soon followed, adding the contemporary accounts of another traveler, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo. [2]

Glass is not the central theme of his adventures, yet this and related subjects are discussed in a number of different passages, giving us a unique insight into the material’s place in those societies.

In August of 1634, the group arrived in Moscow. Having been granted audience with the czar, Olearius describes the procession of the entourage and enumerates a long list of the gifts they brought. Among them was “a great looking-glass, being an ell and a quarter high and half an ell broad, in an ebony frame, with boughs and fruits carv'd thereon in silver, carried by two Muscovites.” [3] An ‘ell’ was the northern european equivalent of a cubit or about 25 inches, so the mirror measured about 12 inches wide by 30 inches tall, not enormous by current standards, but quite an achievement in the seventeenth century. Glass workers would have to blow a large cylindrical bubble, cut it open and lay it flat on a polished marble surface. To be usable, the sheet of glass would have to be made without waves or defects and it would have to be cooled slowly, over a period of many hours in order not to form cracks. Silvering the back was a whole other ordeal performed by an artisan schooled in alchemy.

Speaking of the chemical arts, gifts from the duke of Holstein to the czar of Russia also included “an ebony cabinet, garnish'd with gold, like a little apothecaries shop, with its boxes and vials of gold, enrich'd with precious stones, full of several excellent chymical extractions, carried by two Muscovites” [4]

While in Moscow, Olearius put on a demonstration of optics for some locals. “I shew’d them upon a wall of an obscure chamber, through a little hole I had made in the shutter of the window, by means of a piece of glass polish’d and cut for optics, all was done in the street, and men walking upon their heads: This wrought such an effect in them, that they could never after be otherwise persuaded than that I held a correspondence with the devil.” [5] Here he is describing a ‘camera obscura’ in which scenes from outside are projected upside-down onto the wall of a darkened room.

A couple of years later, after a return to Holstein to ratify a treaty with the czar, the delegation arrived in Persia. They were treated to a sumptuous meal by the king’s chancellor. “The walls were all set about with looking-glasses, to the number of above two hundred, of all sizes. So that when a man stood in the midst of the hall, he might see himself of all sides. We were told that in the king’s palace, in the apartment of his wives, there is also a hall done all about with looking-glasses, but far greater and much fairer than this.” [6]

“For the teaching of astronomy they have neither sphere nor globe, insomuch that they were not little astonished to see in my hands a thing which is so common in Europe. I asked them whether they had ever seen any such before. They told me they had not, but said that there was heretofore in Persia a very fair globe which they call ‘felek’, but that it was lost during the wars between them and the Turks. They haply meant that which Sapor, king of Persia, had caused to be made of glass, so large, that he could sit in the center of it, and observe the motions of the stars and must no doubt be like that of Archimedes, where of Claudian speaks in the Epigram which begins thus: Jupiter in parvo cum cerneret aehera vitro.” [7]

Olearius goes on to describe the Persian army in some detail, including this account of an early form of chemical warfare. “At the siege of Iran, in the year 1633, they had the invention of casting into the place with their arrows, small glasses full of poison, which so infected the air that the garrison was extremely incommodated thereby and made incapable of handling their arms for the defense of the place.” [8]

In 1637, near Tehran, Iran, he describes a royal tomb “adorn’d all about with glass of all sorts of colors, which are preserved by iron grates.” [9] And in the same area,

“At Kimas, in the province of Kilan, there was one of these mountebanks, who having found out the trick of setting cotton on fire by means of a crystal cut in half-round and held in the sun like a burning-glass, would have people persuaded that by operation, which he affirmed to be supernatural, that he was of the kindred of Mohammed. After our return to Holstein, I shew’d the Persians, whom Schach-Sefi [king of Persia] sent thither, that it was the easiest thing in the world to get fire from the sun, and I lighted paper in the very depth of winter by means of a crystal full of cold water, or a piece of ice, which I had made half round in a pewter dish. They were astonish’d at it, and said, that if I had done as much in Persia, I should have pass’d there for either a great saint, or a sorcerer.” [10]

As an addendum, in later editions of Olearius’ book, the recollections of Johan Albrecht de Mandelslo (1616–1644) were added. He accompanied an unrelated trade mission to Isfahan,Persia, and then split from his group to continue touring the region. He traveled through India, and then down the African coast. In 1639, the German traveler passed through Madagascar. He commented on the inferior quality of European glass trade-beads, compared to those of India, which he acquired earlier in the trip.

“The glass-bracelets, beads and agates, we had brought from the Indies [India] were incomparably beyond what they were laden with out of Europe; so that it was resolved ours should not be produced, till the others were sold. By this means, we bought every day four oxen for forty pair of glass bracelets, which the inhabitants call ‘rangus’; a sheep for two, and a calf for three ‘rangus’; and for a brass ring, ten or twelve inches about, a man might have an ox worth here six or seven pound.” [11]

Much has been made of the use of glass trade-beads by Europeans around the world.
In Madagascar and along the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, European traders were fairly late to the party. For a thousand years earlier, [12] beads had been used as the currency of choice among disparate cultures from Indonesia and China to India to Africa who did business with each other.[13] The above quote from Mandelslo’s diary provides a fascinating firsthand account of transactions with beads. The passage also hints at the superior quality of Indian glass beads. Today, glass beadmaking continues on an industrial scale there, and the glass bracelet industry still survives, notably in Firozabad, northern India.

[1] Adam Olearius: Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reise, (Schleswig: 1647).
[2] Adam Olearius, John Davies, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo, Philipp Crusius, Otto Brüggemann: The Voyages and Travells of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia... (London: John Starkey, and Thomas Basset, 1669).
[3] Ibid, p. 11.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, p. 58.
[6] Ibid, p. 212-213.
[7] Ibid, p.252. Jupiter in parvo quum cerneret æthera vitro [When Jove a heav’n of small glass did behold,] see Henry Vaughan: Silex scintillan, Hermetical physick, Thalia redivava, Translations, Pious thoughts and ejaculations. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914) v. 2, p.635.
[8] Ibid, p. 271.
[9] Ibid, p 182.
[10] Ibid, p. 280-281.
[11] Ibid, p.204.
[12] For example warring states beads in China, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Chinese_glass
[13] Carla Klehm has a nice post on the subject of trade beads used around the Indian Ocean; see “Trade Tales and Tiny Trails: Glass Beads in the Kalahari Desert” in The Appendix, Jan. 2014, v. 2, n. 1. http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/1/trade-tales-and-tiny-trails-glass-beads-in-the-kalahari-desert