All About Glass

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Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria, 1612

All About Glass

As the Italian Renaissance entered its last century and Galileo Galilei was using his telescope to advance the science of astronomy, a Florentine priest named Antonio Neri was writing a guide for glassmakers that would inform their craft for the next 200 years. Titled L’Arte vetraria (The art of glass), Neri’s book was published by the Giunti printing house of Florence in 1612. It received only modest recognition in its first few decades, but it eventually gained sufficient attention to warrant a reprint in 1661 by the Florentine Marco Rabbuiati, as well as publication in Venice by Giacomo Biatti in 1663. In addition, Christopher Merret, an English physician, botanist, and librarian of the Royal College of Physicians, produced a translation in 1662 to which he added a substantive commentary. Translations into German, Latin, French, and Spanish, some of which were based on Merret’s work, further broadened the book’s distribution, and L’Arte vetraria became the manual for a pan-European glassmaking world. As well, scholars who produced the grand encyclopedias of the 18th century used Neri’s publication as a major source for their articles on glass.

Antonio Neri, L'arte vetraria distinta in libri sette, In Firenze: Nella Stamperia de'Giunti, 1612. CMGL 78964One possible explanation for the popularity of L’Arte vetraria was that it disclosed Venetian glassmaking techniques, which had been carefully guarded secrets. Neri gained his knowledge of Venetian glassmaking, not from spending time in Venice, but from working alongside Venetian craftsmen who had relocated to Pisa and Antwerp. He also worked in Florence under the patronage of Don Antonio de’ Medici, to whom he dedicated L’Arte vetraria.

The original Italian edition of L’Arte vetraria has the look and feel of a personal notebook, with recipes Neri developed from hands-on experience and experimentation in making glass. In the book’s preface, Neri expresses his love of glass, calling it a noble thing and a “fruit of the art of fire.” Then, in 133 “chapters,” he instructs the craftsman in the making of crystal, calcedonio (glass made in imitation of chalcedony), other colored glasses, enamels, and other materials. He describes his tests and their results. Sometimes he gives more than one recipe for the same kind of glass and for variations in a color. For example, there is a recipe for lead glass “of a wonderful Emerald color,” followed by “another wonderful Green Emerald beyond all other Greens.” He calls attention to specifics such as the geographical locations of the elements used to produce the most beautiful of glasses. Clear instructions make this a no-nonsense handbook for craftsmen aspiring to create glass of the finest quality, both physically and aesthetically, in a wide range of varieties and for many purposes.

Antonio Neri died in 1614, the year of Christopher Merret’s birth. Scholars such as Merret who carried forward Neri’s work recognized the many achievements embodied in L’Arte vetraria. Among the most valuable for posterity was Neri’s ability to strike a balance between glass art and glass technology—a principal reason for the enduring appeal of this important cultural artifact.

Diane Dolbashian

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

Neri, Antonio. The Art of Glass: Wherein are Shown the Wayes to Make and Colour Glass, Pastes, Enamels, Lakes, and Other Curiosities. Written in Italian by Antonio Neri, and Translated into English, with Some Observations on the Author. Whereunto is Added an Account of the Glass Drops Made by the Royal Society, Meeting at Gresham College. London: printed by A.W. for Octavian Pulleyn, 1662.

——. L’Arte vetraria, 1612. Introduction by Rosa Barovier Mentasti. Milan: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 1980.

——. L’Arte vetraria distinta in libri sette. Florence: Nella Stamperia de Giunti, 1612.

——. The World’s Most Famous Book on Glassmaking: The Art of Glass by Antonio Neri, Translated into English by Christopher Merrett [sic]. Edited by Michael Cable. Sheffield, [England]: The Society of Glass Technology, 2001.

Published on June 24, 2013