ALCHEMY IN THE SERVICE OF MEDICINE

Liber der arte distulandi simplicia et composita : das nüv bůch d[er] rechte[n] Kunst zů distilliere[n], ouch vo[n] Marsilio Ficino vn[nd] andere[n] hochberömpte[n] Ertzte natürliche vn[nd] gůte Kunst, zů behalte[n] den gesunden Leib vn[nd] zů vertreibe[n] die Krankheiter[n] mit Erlengeru[n]g des Lebe[n]s.

[Strassburg, Johan Grüniger, 1509].

£43,500

Folio. ff. cxxx (i.e. cxl), (lviii) in double column. A⁸, B-D⁶, DD⁶, DDD⁴, E-T⁶, V⁸, X⁴, Y-Z⁶, AA-CC⁶, DD⁴, EE-FF⁶, GG⁸. Gothic letter. First title with two large woodcuts, the other two with half page woodcuts, one double page woodcut, innumerable half page and column width woodcuts, all in fine contemporary hand colouring, capital spaces with guide letters, white on black and floriated woodcut initials. Light age yellowing, slight water staining on lower blank margin of a few leaves, early restoration of three holes to lower blank margin of title, backed at foot, the odd marginal thumb mark or spot. A very good copy, with woodcuts and colouring in wonderful fresh state of preservation, crisp and clean with good margins, in excellent contemporary German calf over wooden boards, covers triple blind ruled to a panel design, middle panel filled with a fine blind scroll of hunting scene of three dear and a huntsman with spear, central panel filled with repeated blind floral scroll, semé of flowers stamped in black, “Distillirrbuch’ stamped in large black Gothic letter in upper panel of front cover, spine with three blind ruled raised bands with blind ‘crown’ fleurons above and below, lacking clasps and catches, small restoration in places, a little rubbed and scratched.

A wonderful copy of this rare and most interesting compilation, beautifully illustrated and vividly coloured in a contemporary hand, preserved in a fine contemporary binding. It is a pharmaceutical and alchemical collection first published in 1505 under the title ‘Medicinarius. Das Buch der Gesundheit’ and including books I and II of Brunschwig’s ‘Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus,’ also called ‘Kleines Destillierbuch; Ficino’s Das Buch des Lebens,’ translated by Johannes Adelphus; and a treatise on compounds by a Strassburg master, Konrad.

Hieronymus Brunschwig (c. 1450 – c. 1512) was a German physician, surgeon, chemist, and pharmacologist whose ‘Liber de arte distillandi simplicia et composita’ (‘Little Book of Distillation’), was the first book to systematically describe essential oils, their distillation and extraction from plants, and their medicinal applications. The wonderful hand-coloured woodcuts show detailed instructions on the distillation process. The first part of the treatise describes the methods and apparati for the distillation of extracts from various plants and animals. The second part describes certain medicinal plants, and the third part contains an exhaustive list of maladies along with a corresponding list of plant distillates and extracts recommended.

“Because of their completeness Brunschwig’s compilations of the technical terms adaptable to pharmacy in the early sixteenth century and his records of his experience in the treatment of gunshot wounds and in surgery are noteworthy accomplishments. Even if they are not the first of their kind, they still represent an important link between the Middle Ages and modern times.” (DSB I, p. 547) The work is most beautifully and interestingly illustrated including vivid images of gardens and banquets. “With detailed instructions, ranging from the right times to collect herbs to the exact specifications for constructing distillation equipment, Brunschwig hoped to make medicinal alchemy accessible to ‘the common people that dwell far from medicines and physicians and for them that not be able to pay for costly medicines,’ he wrote.” Cristina Luiggi ‘Medicinal Alchemy, circa 1512.’

Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 99) was one of the leading intellectuals in Florence, a magnet for the most brilliant scholars of fifteenth-century Europe. His ‘De vita’ is a curious amalgam of philosophy, medicine, ‘natural magic’ and astrology, and is possibly the first book ever written about the health of the intellectual and its peculiar concerns. It includes astrological charts and remedies, philosophical digressions, medieval prescriptions for various ills, attempts at reconciling the Neoplatonism of Plotinus with Christian scripture, and magical remedies and talismans.

“The work that Ficino composed alongside his commentaries on Plotinus, his influential astral-medical treatise, ‘De vita libri tres,’ or ‘Three books on life,’ published in 1489 … is listed is Borel’s ‘Bibliotheca Chimica’ as another of Ficino’s alchemical works.  … One of the most revealing examples of how Ficino’s de Vita was assimilated into the alchemical tradition can be found in the translation of the first two books as ‘Das Buch des Lebens’ in 1505 by the Strasbourg physician and humanist Johannes Adelphus Muling. The German version was re-edited several times and printed together with editions of two of the most highly regarded works on distillation. One of these was Hieronymous Braunschweig’s ‘De arte distillandi’ and anyone familiar with the 1500 title page of Braunschweig’s much reprinted work will notice how it has been adopted by the publisher of the 1505 edition as an illustration for Ficino’s text.” Peter J. Forshaw. ‘Laus Platonici Philosophi: Marsilio Ficino and His Influence.’

Unfortunately, we have not been able to identify the binder from the tools, though the Einbanddatenbank has other tools with very similar hunting scrolls. Interestingly, the copy illustrated at the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek, BSB Call Nr.: Res/2 M.med. 35 has the same title blind-stamped on its binding, suggesting that this was probably the production of the same binder, or probably the publishers binding. A beautiful copy with the colouring absolutely fresh and clean.

Wellcome 1113. Not in BM STC Ger. C16th, Osler, Durling or Duveen.

K55

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