Dell’elixir Vitae

Naples, Secondino Roncagliolo, 1624.


FIRST EDITION. Folio. pp. (xii) 182 + 19 full-page engraved plates depicting distillation equipment and techniques (on ink splashed on blank verso). Roman and Italic letter, woodcut initials throughout, head- and tail-pieces, title page in architectural engraving surrounded by cherubs and two figures of alchemists. Title page dusty, light age yellowing, occasional foxing, worm trails to rear endpapers, contemporary vellum over boards, spine with a few worm holes, marbled edges.

Very rare first edition of Fra Donato’s treatise on distillation, with beautiful illustrations of alchemical equipment and experiments in progress (perhaps by the author himself), including a description of his pursuit of the elixir vitae, thought to grant eternal youth and immortality, illustrated in serial plates. The work also demonstrates how to produce different varieties of alcohol as well as olive oil. The first three chapters discuss the elixir or life, but the longer fourth book details the ingredients and processes by which it can be made. The work also discusses the merits of distilling trees, herbs, spices, fruits, and the uses of each essence, as well as its chemical properties. Occasionally, the distillation of animal and mineral essences is described. In this way the work fits its seventeenth century setting: not just uncovering alchemical secrets, it also offers the results of practical experiments with a wide range of materials. The beautiful and highly detailed plates are present here in very fine and clear impression.

Fra Donato d’Eremita was a Dominican from Rocca d’Evandro, in Caserta. He was an apothecary of some repute at the monastery of Santa Caterina, and a peripheral figure in the Accademia dei Lincei, as he counted among his friends Giambattista della Porta, Ferrante Imperato, and Nicola Stiglioa. His name turns up in correspondence with the Academy, and Johannes Faber describes visiting him while passing through Naples collecting plant and seed specimens for his patron Prince Cesi. ‘The author of the kingdom’s first published pharmacopoeia, the protophysician Quinzio Buongiovanni, insisted that apothecaries be prohibited from preparing “compositions with simples” without having been inspected first by one of the guild officials and the protophysician. For this reason, Buongiovanni was present when the head apothecary of the Dominican monastery of Santa Caterina a Formello in Naples, Fra Donato D’Eremita, prepared his famous “elixir vitae”. But then again, Buongiovanni may have been invited by d’Eremita, along with other dignitaries  (Giambattista della Porta and Nicola Stigliola), to launch his product as part of a publicity stunt’ (Gentilecore cit. infr.).

The work is dedicated to Ferdinand II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose arms are engraved on the title page. Known for his passion for science and his vast collection of scientific instruments, Ferdinand’s own alchemical and scientific experiments are registered in the archives for the Academy of the Cimento, founded by his younger brother Leopoldo. Doubtlessly Ferdinand would have been fascinated by d’Eeremita’s experiments in immortality. (cf. Acton).

Not in BM STC It. C17. Wellcome I 2069; Krivatsy 3672. “His substantial treatise on the Elixir of Life shows he was thoroughly conversant with alchemical processes and practices. The fact that this striking book has escaped the researches of most of the bibliographers must be due to its rarity.” Duveen p. 176. Gentilcore, Healers and healing in early modern Italy, pp 41-42. Harold Acton, The Last Medici, 38. Not in Caillet, Ferguson,  Thorndike, etc.


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