LECTURES | Distilling Alchemy

If you’re not sure what alchemy is, don’t look it up in the dictionary. Come to Bruce Moran’s lecture in Friends’ Hall, where he’ll explain it with some concrete examples from the 16th and 17th centuries. His talk, “Better Living through Alchemy: Private Lives and Applied Science in the Early Modern Era,” takes place Wed., Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Bruce Moran at The Huntington“For a very long time we’ve inherited a definition of alchemy that was really constructed in the 18th century,” explains Moran, professor of history at University of Nevada, Reno, and the Dibner Distinguished Fellow at The Huntington this year. “And that meant the more or less foolish efforts of people trying to make gold and silver out of base metals.”

Moran says the best way to get a sense of alchemy is to look at how people used it in their private lives. He’ll tell the story of Diogini Marmi, an Italian potter who briefly served time for murder in 1632 but went on to revive his family’s pottery business. While conducting research at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine in London, Moran came across what he calls an artisanal autobiography, where Marmi listed recipes for making colored glazes but also copied out a treatise on alchemy. Potters, after all, knew the subtle differences between wet and dry, hot and cold. They had to pay attention to the color of the fire inside their kilns in order to turn clay into something beautiful.

“Alchemy is not always about conjuring the philosophers’ stone or decoding mystical symbols,” Moran says while referring to a seemingly mundane illustration from 1531 that shows someone selling necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. The image caption, translated from German, reads, “The proper uses of alchemy.” Like pottery, glass making is about creating something precious from nature, mastering complex—yet everyday—procedures in the process. Alchemists also knew how to separate things with acids, refine metals, and whiten silk with sulfuric vapors.

Title page from 1531 showing everyday alchemy.Moran admits that his interest in hands-on alchemy is not the only way to look at the subject. His colleagues this year in The Huntington’s fellowship program include Tara Nummedal, of Brown University, who studies how early modern Europeans distinguished fraudulent and improper uses of alchemy from the real thing. Margaret Garber, of Cal State University Fullerton, looks at how alchemy affected a medical society in Germany in the 17th century.

Moran is amazed how much the history of science has expanded in his 30-year career. “When I first started teaching about the 16th and 17th centuries, there might have been 10 people to talk about—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle to start,” he says. “But now—thanks to the work of my colleagues and the rich collections here and elsewhere—you have a cast of thousands.”

He’ll tell a few of those stories in his lecture Wed. night, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Friends’ Hall.

Moran is the author of Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry and the Scientific Revolution, published by Harvard University Press in 2006. You can listen to Huntington lectures on the history of science on iTunes U, including one by last year’s Dibner Distinguished Fellow: Kathryn Olesko, of Georgetown University, spoke about “Water in the Prussian Frontier.”

Matt Stevens is editor of Huntington Frontiers magazine.

Captions: Bruce Moran in the gardens of The Huntington; Rechter Gebrauch der Alchimei, 1531, from the Burndy Collection, Huntington Library. Copyright 2011 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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