The Correspondence between Ximenez and Neri

The correspondence between Ximenez and Antonio Neri was initiated after the two men met when Ximenez visited his sister Beatrice (who was the wife of Neri's landlord, Alamanno Bartolini) in Florence. We have only one side of the correspondence: Ximenez's letters to Neri preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, though some excerpts from Neri's letters in response to Ximenez, copied by Angelo della Casa, who worked with Antonio de' Medici at the Casino San Marco, are preserved in the same library. In total there are twenty-seven letters. Twenty-six of these were written between 17 August 1601 and 31 October 1603; thereafter correspondence was interrupted because Neri traveled to Antwerp where he stayed as a guest of Ximenez. Only after Neri's visit, which lasted for eight years, did the correspondence continue. One final letter, dated 31 March 1611, from Ximenez to Neri, who was then back in Florence, is preserved. Not long thereafter Neri died.

Who was Antonio Neri? Neri is mostly known today for L'arte vetraria. Published in 1612, this was the first printed book in which the secrets of Renaissance glassmaking were made public. The book is dedicated to Neri's Florentine patron, Antonio de' Medici, under whose guidance Neri began his work in the glass workshop of the Casino San Marco in 1601. The Casino was built by Bernardo Buontalenti for the alchemically minded Francesco I de' Medici to house the court workshops, including a glass workshop. In this workshop, under the direction of Niccolo Sisti, cristallo glass was made, as well as all sorts of colored glass in imitation of precious stones. This was also the central topic of Neri's book.

Beginning with Neri's inquiries about 'burning mirrors,' the correspondence rapidly developed threads in several directions. A good part of the correspondence is made up of an exchange of information about the war in the Netherlands, which could make communication more difficult, but not impossible, not even with the North. In 1602 Neri asked Ximenez for information on how chalcedony glass was made in Amsterdam, and after initial difficulties and delays, Ximenez's contact in Amsterdam, Marten Papenbroeck, delivered the requested information. Papenbroeck was a member of a German merchant family who had moved from Antwerp to the North and who, like the Ximenez family, invested in both glassmaking and Western African trade.

The letters also offer us insight into Ximenez's 'chymical' interests. Occasionally, they even allow us a glimpse inside Ximenez's "alchemy and distillation chamber." It seems that the laboratory was operated with the help of an assistant: in 1602 Ximenez complained to Neri that the lack of such an assistant meant that for him alchemy was temporarily only the work of the mind, not of the hand. The letters reveal Ximenez's interest in the production of glass; a considerable part of the correspondence consisted of exchanges of knowledge on glass and of material pieces of glass for Ximenez's inspection. For example, in 1603 Ximenez wrote to Neri that he experimented with the fusion of rock crystal: "I am sure that this will succeed. Because I have already demonstrated it here, mixing in the salt of the bean plant, it really worked very well, and was much better when made in the kiln." Since Ximenez's "alchemy and distillation chamber" was not suitable for high-temperature operations, these experiments must have taken place elsewhere, likely in the nearby glassworks of Filippo Gridolfi.

Another issue that the correspondence between Ximenez and Neri brings out is that the shared chymical interests of Neri and Ximenez were not limited to glassmaking. In recent years our image of Neri has changed from that of a writer on glass to an alchemist. It has become clear that Neri fully participated in the Florentine Paracelsian culture of the Casino of Antonio de' Medici. This Paracelsian culture emphasized the importance of chemical technology, not only in the decorative arts (such as glass), but also in medicine. Neri and Ximenez were especially interested in the chemical preparation of pharmaceuticals, a practice central to Paracelsus's medical doctrines. Unlike his interest in glassmaking, which was commercially inspired, this interest was fuelled by more domestic concerns: Ximenez was searching for a cure for his wife, who was ill, and had also asked Neri to treat his sick brother. Finally, although the transmutation of metals was a less important aspect of their alchemical exchanges, Neri also sent Ximenez his incomprehensible recipe for the philosophers' stone: the Donum Dei.

Sven Dupré, Max Plank Institute for the History of Science, Berlin


Dupré, Sven. "Trading Luxury Glass, Picturing Collections and Consuming Objects of Knowledge in Early Seventeenth-Century Antwerp." Intellectual History Review 20 (2010): 53-78.

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