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Descartes Centre colloquium: Florentine Medical Alchemy in the Renaissance and a practical hands-on experience in the ArtLab

Participation in this colloquium is on a first-come, first-served basis. Please email infodescartescentre@uu.nl to reserve a place. 


Talk 1 (Jo Hedesan): Francesco I de Medici’s Alchemical Laboratory as Depicted by Jan Stradanus (1570)
My talk will revolve around a painting of an alchemical laboratory created by Jan van der Straet or Stradanus (1523-1605), a Flemish-born artist settled in Florence. In 1570, Stradanus, who was at the time part of the workshop of the better-known Giorgio Vasari, was commissioned for two paintings meant to adorn the Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-1587). The best one is known as The Alchemist’s Laboratory, and was a depiction of the distillation works in Palazzo Vecchio.

I will be discussing what this image and connected information might tell us about the Palazzo Vecchio laboratory and princely alchemy at the Medici court. The laboratory was set up by Cosimo I (1519-1574), the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. His son Francesco was also enthusiastic about laboratory practices: Stradanus’s painting portrays the prince working on the premises amongst other artisans. It seems that the primary purpose of the laboratory was focussed toward making medicines. My talk will present the depiction of the laboratory, instruments and practices by linking them with what we know about 16th century medical alchemy. I will also discuss the complexity of ‘reconstructing’ the Palazzo Vecchio laboratory in light of Stradanus’s depiction, which draws on other contemporary representations and is meant to convey an underlying ideology.

The laboratory of the Palazzo Vecchio seems to have been closed soon after Stradanus’s painting was finished. Francesco commissioned a new Medicean palace, and once the Casino di San Marco was finished in 1575, he relocated the majority of the alchemical works there, hence creating one of the first purpose-built scientific institutions in the world.

Talk 2 (Stefano Mulas): Don Antonio de’ Medici’s Casino di San Marco and its Book (La fonderia, 1604).
In this speech, I would like to present some of the testimonies of the alchemical interests carried out in the Casino of San Marco during the time of Don Antonio, i.e. the book of La fonderia. This work provides practical information, describing a collection of recipes according to the three principles of the Paracelsian philosophy, such as salts from herbs and plants. Moreover, through the reproduction of some of these remedies, we will delve deeper into this practical literature to understand some of the instruments, methods, and results of alchemical practice in 17th century Florence.

Hands-on workshop (Jo Hedesan, Stefano Mulas and Thijs Hagendijk)
In this workshop, we aim to rework an early 17th-century demonstration of Paracelsus’ tria prima. In his chymical textbook, Tyrocinium chymicum (1610)The French iatrochemist Jean Beguin (1550-1620) described various ways to experientially illustrate the Paracelsian approach to medicine, which described the composition of medicines (or matter, more generally) in terms of three principles: mercury, sulfur and salt. During this workshop, the participants will try to recover these principles from organic material.

Location:  ArtLab, Nieuw-Gildesteingebouw (Utrecht Science Park), hall 3.87. Since authorization is needed to enter the building, we pick everyone up at 15.30 in front of Bolognalaan 50.

Georgiana (Jo) Hedesan
Georgiana (Jo) Hedesan is Departmental Lecturer in History of Science at the University of Oxford, specialising in the history of alchemy and alchemical medicine. Her first book, An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644) was published in 2016 by Routledge. A co-edited book (with Tim Rudbøg, Copenhagen), Innovation in Esotericism from the Renaissance to the Present, was published in 2021 by Palgrave Macmillan. She is currently a Descartes Senior Fellow at the University of Utrecht.

Stefano Mulas
Stefano Mulas is a PhD student at the University of Bologna. His current research focuses on the reception of Paracelsian medicine and philosophy in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Florence, with a particular interest in Don Antonio de’ Medici and the Casino di San Marco foundry.

Thijs Hagendijk
Thijs Hagendijk is assistant professor in technical art history at Utrecht University. He investigates the history of practical knowledge and is currently investigating historical heating technologies. Thijs works at the intersection of technical art history and the history of chemistry, and is specialized in performative methods, such as reworking, re-enacting and reproducing historical techniques, materials and processes.