Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The Uffizi, alchemy and art in the Cinquecento

If I say “alchemy,” what do you think of? Pseudo-science? Strange boiling liquids? Magic? A mad attempt to turn everything into gold? All of these associations are more or less correct, though if today alchemy has some negative connotations, in Early Modern Europe it was a much more respectable tradition. Knowing this, you might be less surprised to learn that Francesco I de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was really into alchemy, and that the Medici family set up an alchemy workshop in the Uffizi Gallery.

Unknown painter of the 16th century, Francesco I de Medici, Galleria degli Uffizi (Photo: Francesco Del Vecchio)

L’alchimia e le arti: la fonderia degli Uffizi da laboratorio a stanza delle meraviglie”, in the Uffizi Gallery’s Sala delle Reali Poste until February 3, 2013, is a small but highly intellectual exhibit that reveals a part of Medici history that is little known to the general public. The presentation of material both in the physical space and in the exhibition catalogue (published by Sillabe) is complex and rather Italianate, perhaps of more interest to the specialist than to the casual museum-goer, though without a thorough reading of the texts it is possible to enjoy the exhibit simply for the strange objects it contains. But we’re going to read the text, just a little bit.

Alchemy is not an easy topic at all; thankfully this exhibit does not try to explain the entire phenomenon but rather concentrates on a local aspect of alchemy: the reconstruction of the ambience present at the Medici court at the end of the Cinquecento. In the 15th and 16th centuries, alchemy involved primarily the distillation, first, of herbs and plants, second, of metals and elements. Especially the first, had an impact on pharmaceuticals, and made progress towards one of the goals of alchemy – the elixir of life. Whereas the distillation of metals had as its goal transmutation into gold, and made its contributions in the fields of sculpture, ceramics (especially porcellain), glass, and jewelry.

The very utility of the many products of the study of alchemy made necessary the creation of a series of laboratories refered to as the Fonderie Medici. From the introductory article to the catalogue I learned that there was a laboratory in Palazzo Vecchio, but Vasari complained was making a mess of his frescoes, so it was moved to the Casino di San Marco (the long dirty building opposite the Church of San Marco on via Cavour), and then moved closer home again into the Uffizi in the 1580s. A map of the Uffizi from 1742 shows the “Stanze della Fonderia” right behind the rooms that now house works by Michelangelo.

Monkey Skeleton, Firenze, Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università di Firenze, Sezione di zoologia (Photo: Saulo Bambi)

Numerous documents conserved in the State Archives in Florence attest to the activities that took place at the Fonderie through orders for things like minerals and test tubes, and there is an inventory from 1771 (reproduced in the catalogue’s appendix) that lists everything in the Fonderia degli Uffizi when it was dismanteled at that date. The inventory reminds me why I love reading documents: it lists funny things, described in a burocratic and uninformed manner, that are also highly revealing because in some cases it also says where something was located in relation to another. Am I the only person here who gets kicks out of reading a list that bundles mummies with monkey skeletons (see above), fruits and taxidermied fish?

Portable pharmacy from the Medici Fonderie, Roma, Museo dell’Accademia Nazionale di Arte Sanitaria (photo: Baggieri-Boccassini)

Amongst the things produced here in the late sixteenth century were neat cases of medicine, which were sent off as gifts to illustrious types like the King of Poland, various cardinals, and one lucky soul in Mexico, via Spain, all of whom probably appreciated the anti-poisoning oil and the “olio da spasimo,” the precise function of which was illustrated in a multi-lingual instruction book that is sadly not detailed in the catalogue (I bet it’s a fun read).

By the seventeenth century, it appears that the rooms of the Fonderie in the Uffizi had also become a brilliant cabinet of curiosities, and this aspect is nicely recreated in the center of the exhibition space, with an intimate showcase containing the obligatory crocodile suspended from the ceiling (every good wunderkammer had to have one, though I have no idea why). There were also Egyptian mummies, bezoar balls (basically an exalted hairball), and other strange objects, which have been reunited for modern viewers to marvel at as once did visitors four centuries ago.

Philips Galle, The Alchemist

Prints play an important role in the exhibit because they illustrate aspects of the information collected here: cabinets of curiosities in other parts of Europe, and alchemical instruments as well as concepts. Although few of these sources are Italian, they circulated in Florence at the time and illustrate pan-European philosophies that help us understand certain parts of Medici iconography and thought. But the negative moralizing of Northern prints like The Alchemist by Philps Galle, in which alchemy leads to poverty and folly, is not present in the glorification of the science found in the Uffizi grotteschi by Antonio Tempesta.

Blowfish, Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università di Firenze, Sezione di zoologia (Photo: Saulo Bambi)

Exhibition curator Valentina Conticelli notes that the presence of the Fonderia at the Uffizi reminds us that the gallery of paintings we see today is quite different from the initial desire of the collectors to create a rationally structured “collection as theatrum mundi” that appears in the Studiolo of Francesco and less so in the Tribune. Our modern day distinction between art and science, instruments and painting, animal life and sculpture, is exactly that – modern. In the Cinquecento, a preserved pufferfish might have been put on the same level as a Bronzino, a hairball or a narval horn could be as valuable as an ancient sculpture.

 

Visitor info:

L’alchimia e le arti: la fonderia degli Uffizi da laboratorio a stanza delle meraviglie
(Alchemy and the arts: the Uffizi worshop from laboratory to cabinet of curiosities)
Curated by Valentina Concicelli
December 15, 2012, to February 3, 2013
Galleria degli Uffizi, Sala delle Reali Poste (separate entrance)
Open daily except Monday, 8,15-18,50.
Free!

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://twitter.com/3pipenet Hasan Niyazi

    Thank you for this Alexandra!

    While at once seeming esoteric and fantastical, alchemy really is the precursor to several modern scientific disciplines, which seems to be the one of the themes of this exhibition. I loved the details you presented on the little bytes of curious data that jump out at us in inventories. They can of course be incredibly dry, but quite often give us such poignant glimpses of time, place and person in situ.

    Were you able to sight he catalogue? I am curious to know if it contains thematic essays or was published in English? Quality resources on Francesco I are not easy to come by so I’m always on the lookout.

    Many kind regards
    H

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Hasan
    I bought the catalogue for a friend who is in fact the person who asked me to go and review the exhibit – she used the prints showing alchemy in her dissertation which is now in book draft. Unfortunately the catalogue is only in italian. The exhibit curator, Conticelli, has published widely on Francesco’s studiolo and her essay in the book is the source of most of what I write here.
    AMK

  • Lia

    Wonderful review, Alex! Thanks so much. It almost makes up for being there to see the exhibition myself. Can’t wait to see the catalogue. . .

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    You’re welcome, Lia!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.andrews.581 Stephanie Andrews

    This was a fascinating read. I appreciate you sharing your expertise in this forum. It’s great for the layperson who wants to cultivate an awareness of other disciplines. I am an economist, having taken some serious detours into economic history precisely because I love the surprises to be found in archival material. Very cool stuff!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Stephanie
    Thanks so much. We’re lucky that sometimes exhibits opt for something less “pop” that allow us to cross into other disciplines. Economy and the Renaissance of course have very strong ties (did you see stuff written about Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibit on that theme last year?), and my knowledge of that aspect of the period is about the maximum of my knowledge and understanding of economy in general, which is much harder to approach for the layperson than is art.
    AMK

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.andrews.581 Stephanie Andrews

    You know, I did know about that exhibition but I have not read the material. I should definitely do so. Usually when I am in Italy I am soaking in everything *but* economics…intentionally! You’d actually be surprised at how readily a layperson can understand economics (OK, maybe not all of our silly models), because at the root it’s about how people respond to incentives (and most of us have pretty good intuition about that).