BIRINGUCCIO, Vannuccio Pirotechnia

[Venice, per Giovan Padovano], 1550


Small 4to in 8s. ff. (viii) 167 (i). Roman letter. T-p within handsome woodcut border with female figure (Venice) and background marine scene, sundry apparatus, fireworks and furnaces, large printer’s device to last recto otherwise blank, 83 half-page metallurgical woodcuts, decorated initials. T-p a little soiled, small oil stain to fore-edge of first gathering, slight yellowing, light water stain extending from gutter in first and last two, lower outer blank corner of B8 cut away, occasional finger-soiling, smudged early pen trials to few margins and last verso, scattered ink splashes to n4 recto, small worm trail at blank of last leaf. A good copy in slightly later vellum over later carta rustica, morocco label, a little dust-soiled. Early ms. ‘12’ to front pastedown, armorial bookplate of Thomas Francis Fremantle (2nd Baron Cottesloe) to front pastedown, C18 bookseller’s note ‘Libro di lingua £4’ to ffep verso, the odd C17 annotation.

A good copy of the second edition of this very influential, handsomely illustrated book on metallurgy—‘the earliest printed work to cover the whole field of metallurgy’ and the one ‘marking the beginning of a true technological literature’ (Smith & Gnudi). Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-c.1539) worked as a metallurgist for the powerful Petrucci family, whom he followed into exile. Upon his return to Siena, he was briefly in charge of local saltpetre mines. In the late 1530s, he was appointed head of the Vatican foundry and the papal arsenal. His ground-breaking ‘Pirotechnia’ was a technical manual of all C16 knowledge of mining, iron-smelting and foundry work, with beautiful explanatory woodcuts. Biringuccio thought his work would ‘reveal “secrets” previously jealously guarded by craftsmen, on the ground that this provision of “fresh knowledge” [would] help generate “fresh inventions”’, leading to an advancement of craft and learning (Short, 163). Based on his extensive experience, it is interspersed with brief anecdotes on information he overheard, metals or rocks he saw, and mining sites he visited. The first part discusses ‘mining in general’, with sections on gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, mercury, sulphur, and alume di rocca; on foundry work, how to separate metals fused together, refine or separate gold and silver; and how to create alloys. The second part deals with iron-smelting, including bronze statues, artillery, and bells, and foundry work, with techniques for the fusion of metals, including the making of cannon balls, bronze artillery, and containers. The last part discusses the arts of chemistry and distillation, of gold-, copper- and iron-smiths, how to make mirrors, saltpetre, gunpowder, and fireworks. The early annotator of this copy was interested in the making and application of ‘lutum sapientiae’, used by alchemists to seal containers during distillation and to protect their instruments against heat. Indeed, Biringuccio engaged in the heated debates on the relationship between alchemy and metal arts and crafts. ‘Rejecting transmutational alchemy as “false” and the alchemists who practiced it as fraudulent, [he] carved out space for true alchemy as one of the arts of fire’ (Dupré, xiv), whence the title ‘Pirotechnia’. These arts of fire took place in artisanal shops, which he saw as places where ‘techne’ (craft skill) and theoretical knowledge came together to create innovation. Parts of ‘Pirotechnia’ were translated into Latin by Agricola for his influential ‘De re metallica’.

Brunet I, 357; Cicognara, 1591; Cockle 931; Duveen p.79; Harvard C16 It. 66 (1540 ed.). Not in Ferguson or Sander. D. Dupré, ed., Laboratories of Art (2014); V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance (2016).

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