All About Glass

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Vannoccio Biringuccio, De la pirotechnia, 1540

All About Glass

The technology of printing with movable type, which had been invented in the mid-15th century, was still in its youth when Vannoccio Biringuccio’s comprehensive work on metallurgy, De la pirotechnia, was published in Venice in 1540. The phenomenon of the printed book spread knowledge and encouraged literacy in unprecedented ways. In the midst of this revolution, De la pirotechnia signaled a change of its own. Translated loosely as The Arts of Fire, it stood in contrast to the lofty Greek and Latin texts of philosophy, theology, and law that had been written by ancient and medieval scholars. Biringuccio aimed to teach craftsmen and entrepreneurs how to make a living from the “fiery arts,” including the manufacture of glass. He succeeded brilliantly, bringing together for the first time in print a wide range of practical knowledge theretofore transmitted almost exclusively through oral tradition.

Title page of Vannoccio Biringuccio, De la pirotechnia, 1540. CMGL 93699.Dense with information compiled over the years and featuring a compressed typeface, the book has the initial appearance of a dry read. But a closer look reveals that Biringuccio made fascinating digressions from the instructional text to discuss matters that were important to him. He gave voice to the Humanist sensibilities of the Italian Renaissance, applying the concepts of hard work, skill, planning, patience, and a good head for business to the pursuit of riches. Thus he advised those wishing for wealth to “turn their attention to the excavation of mines rather than to warfare.” He also rejected the pursuit of financial gain through overseas exploration in favor of mining “a wealth that is nearby,” in Italy’s mountains. Finally, he discredited alchemy as a means to economic advancement. In a scathing and somewhat satirical discourse, he debated alchemists’ claims of transforming base metals into gold. If such claims were true, Biringuccio argued, alchemy would be able to generate enough wealth to meet the needs of all humanity and, even more incredibly, exceed nature in its own perfection.

Woodcut plate illustration of men working at a furnace from De la pirotechniaBiringuccio also gave free rein to his poetic inclinations. He expressed a special affection and admiration for the “incorruptible” material of glass, which did not have the rust, odor, or bad taste of metal. While he placed glass in the book’s section on “semiminerals,” he made it clear that this material could not properly be considered as such. He called glass a “fusible material that is almost made mineral by art and by the power and virtue of fire.” The connection between art and fire is especially strong in the chapter on glass. For Biringuccio, glass was a creation of art and thus a case of art surpassing nature. Were it not for its breakable nature, he wrote, glass would be a perfect material, an embodiment of both beauty and utility, submitting to the will of its creator. He also warned that, despite a beauty that endears glass to us, its fragility should prompt us not to love it too much.

Biringuccio died before De la pirotechnia was published. The book’s last chapter is a paean to “the fire that consumes without leaving ashes, that is more powerful than all other fires. . . .” Looking back at his own youthful passions, Biringuccio invoked the “smoke and warmth” accompanying the “memory of acts of love of long ago”—a fitting epilogue for a life and a work that bore loving witness to the transformational power of fire.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Biringuccio, Vannoccio. De la pirotechnia. Venice: Venturino Roffinello, 1540.

______. De la pirotechnia: 1540. Edited by Adriano Carugo. Milan: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 1977.

______. The Pirotechnia. Translated by Cyril Stanley Smith and Martha Teach Gnudi. New York: The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, 1943.

Published on January 6, 2014