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Antonio Neri: Alchemist, Glassmaker, Priest

All About Glass

Cristallo goblet, blown. Italy, Venice, 1575-1625. (2000.3.11)

One of the most interesting figures in the history of glass lived four hundred years ago in Florence, Italy. He was an alchemist, a glassmaker and a Catholic priest. His name was Antonio Neri and he worked for a prince from the Medici royal family. 1 Neri is famously known as the author of the first book devoted to the subject of making glass—L'Arte Vetraria, 1612.2 He has often been considered a mysterious figure, steeped in the intrigues of alchemy and transmutation.3 On the other hand, he put great store in careful experimentation and research. As a contemporary of fellow Florentine Galileo Galilei, he experienced both the germination of modern science and the waning days of Aristotle’s four-elements. It was a time when art, religion, ancient philosophy and the pursuit of Nature’s secrets all went hand-in-hand.

Calcedonio covered beaker, blown. Europe, 1700-1799. (79.3.487, Bequest of Jerome Strauss)

Today, we recognize Neri’s L'Arte Vetraria as the first printed book solely devoted to the art of glass formulation. It is a work committed to the subject of refining raw materials and combining them into a range of glasses and a rainbow of colors. The book divides into seven parts, each devoted to a different aspect of the glassmaker’s art. He starts with the basics: preparing the fundamental ingredients of glass. Next, he combines those materials into “cristallo.” Named after its mineral cousin, rock crystal, cristallo was a sophisticated Venetian specialty renowned for its delicate clarity. Neri details its traditional composition as brought to the Medici court by Venetian masters and then innovates with variations of his own.4

Antonio Neri, L'Arte Vetraria. In Firenze: Nella Stamperia de'Giunti, 1612. (CMGL 78964)

At the other end of the spectrum is his “common” glass used for daily utilitarian purposes. He shows the standard formulas used in shops throughout the region and then proceeds to improve upon them. He presents a gamut of colors as well as advice for the glass “to emerge in full beauty and perfection.”5 He shows the way to decolorize glass, to take away even a slight tinge of hue that may be present and bring the melt to perfect crystal clarity. He walks us through numerous recipes in preparation for making an iconic Renaissance glass, including the exquisite chalcedony—engineered to replicate the swirling colors of its namesake mineral. Beautiful to behold and thought by many to engender mystical properties, Neri describes it as “adorned with so many graceful and beautiful areas of undulations and enhanced with the play of diverse, lively, flaming colors.”6 He goes on to describe leaded glasses, artificial gems, enamels and glass paints. Each time he innovates, each time he guides us with encouragement, admonition and painstaking clarity.

Antonio Neri, Libro intitulato Il tesoro del mondo di Pietre Antonio Neri... (MS Ferguson 67, GB 0247, Glasgow University Library, Special Collections, 1598-1600) f. 38r. Courtesy of Paul Engle.That Neri’s book was the first of its kind in print is a notable distinction, but one that his deeper accomplishment easily surpasses; L'Arte Vetraria preserves a rare glimpse of skilled practical knowledge. In his era, prized techniques were frequently lost to subsequent generations, lost because artisans so often spared the pen. Their precious knowledge went purposely unrecorded, passing in strict confidence from master to apprentice working side by side. In 1612, Neri published his expertise to the world, preserving the techniques and science of glass practices, but also its art. Just as a great painter relies on the quality of pigments at hand, so must a master glass artisan depend upon the materials of the melt. For the glassblowers and furnace workers who shaped hot glass, a superior batch was crucial to superior results. A great piece of glasswork owes its form to the talent of the artist, but its substance is the province of the craftsmen who make the glass.

Neri wrote L’Arte Vetraria shortly before his death at the age of thirty-eight. Soon after, Galileo sent it to a friend in Rome, who was anxious for a copy; demand for the book slowly grew. The book would go on to be translated into multiple languages in two dozen editions before 1900. Ultimately, it became the standard reference for glassmakers throughout Europe.

Paul Engle, researcher and writer, Conciatore: The Life And Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri

1 Don Antonio de’ Medici, son of Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici. For Neri’s dedication to Don Antonio, see Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria, Firenze, 1612, pp. ii, iii. For a facsimile copy, see Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria, 1612, Rosa Barovier Mentasti, ed., Milano, 1980. For a modern English translation, see L’Arte Vetraria, The Art of Glass, Paul Engle, tr. ed., Hubbardston, 2003, v. 1, pp. 2, 3.

2 Ibid.

3 For a discussion of Neri’s alchemical philosophy, see Maria Grazia Grazzini, “Discorso sopra la Chimica: the Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri” in Nuncius, n. 27, 2012. pp. 411-467. For a comprehensive list of Neri’s known manuscripts, see Pieter Boer and Paul Engle, “Antonio Neri: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary References”, Journal of Glass Studies, v. 52 (2010), pp. 51-67.

4 After successful negotiations with Venice, In September of 1569, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici brought Bortolo d’Alvise and two assistants to Florence from the Island of Murano to practice and teach the coveted techniques of Venetian style glasswork.

5 See Antonio Neri, L’Arte Vetraria,  Firenze, 1612, p. 24 (ch. 27).

6 Ibid, p. 34 (ch. 37).

Published on December 23, 2013