De la pirotechnia. Libri X. Dove ampiamente si tratta non solo di ogni sorte & diversita di miniere, ma anchora quanta si ricerca intorno a la prattica di quelle cose di quel si appartiene a l'arte de la fusione over gitto di metalli come dogni altra cosa simile a questa.

[Colophon:] Venice: Venturino Ruffinello for Curtio Navo and brothers, 1540.

First edition, very rare in contemporary binding, of the “first comprehensive treatise on the ‘pyrotechnic’ or fire-using arts, including mining, metallurgy, applied chemistry, gunpowder, military arts and fireworks. Virtually all of Biringuccio’s descriptions are original, based upon first-hand information garnered during his various employments as a mine and forge operator, director of the Sienese mint, cannon caster and fortification builder, director of building construction at the Duomo, and head of the papal foundry and munitions works. His account of the adaptation of metals to use by alloying, working and casting excels those of Ercker and Agricola, and his sections on glass, steel and the purification of salts by crystallization were copied almost verbatim in Agricola's De re metallica (1556). Biringuccio’s work is important to art history for its description of the Renaissance methods of casting medallions, statues and bells; and to the history of printing for containing the earliest known account of typecasting. His contributions to chemistry include the first account of silver amalgamation and liquation, the earliest mention of cobalt blue and manganese, and the first description of antimony, antedating that of Basil Valentine by fifty years” (Norman catalogue). It “was written for the practicing metallurgist, foundryman, dyer, type-founder, glass-maker, and maker of gunpowder, fireworks and chemicals used in warfare” (Dibner).The woodcuts show the use of various furnaces, pulleys and tools, and illustrate the making of bells, pottery and firearms. Biringuccio was “one of the principal exponents of the experimental method” (DSB II, 143). He entered the service of the ruler of Siena, Pandolfo Petrucci, undertook a period of travel in Germany, then the metallurgical capital of Europe, was involved in such politically useful activities as the manufacture of guns, gunpowder, and counterfeit money. He later served the Dukes of Parma, Ferrara, and the Venetian Republic. ABPC/RBH list only two copies in contemporary binding since the Kenney sale in 1966.

Biringuccio’s reputation derives from a single work, his Pirotechnia, published posthumously in 1540. The work is divided into ten books, which deal with (1) metallic ores; (2) the ‘semiminerals’ (including mercury, sulfur, alum, arsenic, vitriol, several pigments, gems, and glass); (3) assaying and preparing ores for smelting; (4) the parting of gold and silver, both with nitric acid and with antimony sulfide or sulfur; (5) alloys of gold, silver, copper, lead, and tin; (6) the art of casting large statues and guns; (7) furnaces and methods of melting metals; (8) the making of small castings; (9) miscellaneous pyrotechnical operations (including alchemy; the distillation of acids, alcohol, and other substances; the working of a mint ‘both honestly and with profit’ the goldsmith, silversmith, and ironsmith; the pewterer; wire-drawing; mirror-making; pottery; and bricks); and (10) the making of saltpeter, gunpowder, and fireworks for warfare and celebration … The Pirotechnia contains eighty-three woodcuts, the most useful being those depicting furnaces for distillation, bellows mechanisms, and devices for boring cannon and drawing wire.

“As the first comprehensive account of the fire-using arts to be printed, the Pirotechnia is a prime source on many practical aspects of inorganic chemistry. Biringuccio emphasizes the adaptation of minerals and metals to use – their alloying, working, and especially the art of casting, of which he writes in great detail. In this area he is far better than the two other sixteenth-century authors with whom he is inevitably compared, Georgius Agricola and Lazarus Ercker. Although Agricola excels on mining and smelting, his famed sections on glass, steel, and the purification of salts by crystallization are in fact taken nearly verbatim from the Pirotechnia.

“Biringuccio’s approach is in strong conflict with that of the alchemists, whose work he evaluates in eleven pages of almost modern criticism, distinguishing their practical achievements from their theoretical motivations. His interest in theoretical questions is limited to the repetition of an essentially Aristotelian view of the origins of metallic ores and the nature of metals, with a rather forced extension to account for the observed increase in weight of lead when it is turned to litharge [lead monoxide].

“Biringuccio has been called one of the principal exponents of the experimental method, for he states that ‘It is necessary to find the true method by doing it again and again, continually varying the procedure and then stopping at the best’ and ‘I have no knowledge other than what I have seen with my own eyes.’ He gives quantitative information wherever appropriate. He was certain that the failure of an operation was due to ignorance or carelessness, not to either ill luck or occult influences: Fortune could be made to favor the foundryman by paying careful attention to details. Biringuccio’s method, however, is not that of the scientist, for none of his operations is planned to test theory or even reflects the conscious application of it. He represents the strain of practical chemistry that had to develop and to be merged with philosophy before it could become science. Yet the enjoyment of the diverse properties of matter and the careful recording of a large number of substances and types of reactions that had been established by various craftsmen were just as necessary as the works of the philosophers, and in some sense were nearer the truth” (DSB).

“First and foremost [Biringuccio] stands out as the practical man, concerned with carrying out operations on metals for profit and for use. He realizes the advantages of large-scale operation and advises the use of power-driven machinery in place of hand labor whenever possible. The availability of adequate water-power is the first thing to consider in establishing a smelter. Fuel and transportation are the next requisites. Biringuccio’s work reflects an established capitalistic economy. In an amusingly naive justification of his profession on moralistic grounds, he recommends mining as a safer way than soldiering to acquire wealth and as a pleasanter one than that of the merchant with his uncomfortable voyages to unfriendly foreign shores – in mining the danger is only to one’s hired assistants. He recommends short shifts in mining (six or eight hours) but does so only because new and rested men enable the proprietor sooner to achieve profit. Biringuccio has little respect for the authorities that enslaved literature for so long. Though he was familiar with the classics and is not averse to quoting Aristotle and Pliny on the nature and origin of ores, references to literature are meager and are sometimes given with a hint of skepticism. Albertus Magnus in particular is the target for derisive comment combined with mock respect for his authority. Biringuccio’s source of information is almost entirely his own observation and experience in the shops where metals were smelted, worked, and cast. What alchemist could say with Biringuccio, ‘I have no knowledge other than that gained through my own eyes’. He obviously enjoys the application of skill and knowledge to the working of metals and finds intellectual satisfaction more in accomplishing a desired result than in contemplating the causes of things. The modem metallurgist will recognize a kindred spirit when, after comparing the foundryman to a stevedore and a fool and describing his burned and dusty clothes and muddy face, Biringuccio says that bronze founding is a profitable and a skilful art, and in large part delightful.

“Few sixteenth-century works are so utterly devoid of superstition. Biringuccio recognizes that ill luck is nothing but ignorance or carelessness and says that the founder can assure Fortune's favoring him by careful attention to details. He laughs at those who use the divining rod and scorns the pseudo-magic of the alchemists. His evaluation of alchemy is astonishingly modern. Though he ridicules their general approach, he concedes that practical alchemists have produced a number of useful things and believes that they delude themselves more than they do others. He shares the perplexity of modern man when he sees how scientific knowledge can be used for good or ill, and wonders if men make inventions in the desire to serve mankind, or from some inner or outer necessity. He sarcastically refers to the good and lofty men of intelligence who, not satisfied with cannon and shot, devise yet more effective means to injure their fellow men.

“Biringuccio’s approach is largely experimental; that is, he is concerned with operations that had been found to work without much regard to why. The state of chemical knowledge at the time permitted no other sound approach. Though Biringuccio has a number of working hypotheses, he does not follow the alchemists in their blind acceptance of theory which leads them to discard experimental evidence if it does not conform. It was men like Biringuccio, the practical metalworkers, dyers, pottery makers, alum boilers, and kindred artisans, who accumulated the basic facts for a chemical science during the period in which learned men of church and university were engaged in lengthy but barren theological disputation. The artisans were the true scientists of this period, and if they lacked the flash of genius to produce a consistent theoretical framework, it must be remembered that even genius could do nothing without a reservoir of established fact. Many chemical reactions had been discovered and put to practical use long before their interrelation and significance were appreciated. If development of the chemistry of metals in this period was slow, this was a result of the small number of men interested in such things, the lack of encouragement that they received, and the difficulties of communication with each other, increased by a certain reluctance to share knowledge of possible advantage to a competitor.

“Printing was just a hundred years old when Biringuccio’s work came from the presses. Of the thirty thousand works printed in the fifteenth century, not one was on metallurgy and very few dealt with science of any kind. Most, indeed, were the works of men dead some centuries. Biringuccio states that one of his objects in writing is to record information for the specific purpose of arousing intelligent minds to action, and on the basis of new information to arrive at certain conclusions that they could not otherwise approach. Many followed Biringuccio’s example, and as a result of this growing literature of technological practice and experimental fact, science eventually became the concern of the educated man. Biringuccio records those processes that he has seen working and the materials that have served him. He realizes that in other localities other materials may be more economical and hence advises experiment with whatever related substances are readily available. He advises trying out many things to see which ones work. ‘It is necessary to find the true method by doing it again and again, always varying the procedure and then stopping at the best.’ In most cases Biringuccio gives quantitative information and records appropriate weights and dimensions. He says that whatever is promised by the assay should be obtained in large-scale operation. Quantitative chemistry was well established and the law of fixed reacting proportions understood and utilized, if not expressed. The balance for weight assays and furnace charges and the pen for computing them were as important to Biringuccio as the furnaces themselves. Weigh everything, he admonishes – and trust no one! In designing cannon and their carriages, he advises careful attention to dimensions and design in order to avoid having parts either too heavy for transport or too light for safety. To the bell founder he gives complete information on design and a linear scale of bell dimensions for any desired weight.

“Although Biringuccio can be credited with the first description in full working detail of many of the arts and processes in his field, he lays no claim to being actually the originator of any of them. Of course, like any artisan worthy of his salt he must have made many minor adjustments and adaptations to local circumstances, but the broad principles seem to be those slowly accumulated throughout the previous years. Biringuccio’s work is valuable primarily because it records the technical details of applied chemistry as practiced in his day, but inseparable from his account of an early stage in the growth of an experimental science is the picture of the beginnings of capitalistic industrial economy as it related to a most vital type of production. Here we have science working hand in hand with industrial organization in beginning to produce a new society. His work should be as valuable to the historian of economics as to the historian of science and technology.

“It is hard to judge the influence of Biringuccio’s work on the development of science. Some descriptions attributed to others are in reality copies of Biringuccio. Georgius Agricola in his famed De re metallica says of him: ‘Recently Vannoccio Biringuccio of Sienna, a wise man experienced in many matters, wrote in vernacular Italian on the subject of the melting, separating and alloying of metals. He touched briefly on the methods of smelting certain ores, and explained more fully the methods of making certain juices; by reading his directions, I have refreshed my memory of those things which I saw in Italy; as for many matters on which I write he did not touch upon them at all, or touched but lightly.’ Agricola's ‘refreshing of his memory’ consisted of copying in extenso, without further acknowledgment, the earlier author’s accounts of mercury and sulphur distillation, glass and steel making, and the recovery by crystallization of saltpeter, alum, salt, and vitriol together with other less important sections. Agricola usually added a superior illustration and often provided valuable additional details.

“Biringuccio was certainly popular among men of his own kind, as attested by the fact that no fewer than nine editions of the Pirotechnia appeared over a period of 138 years. Men like Robert Hooke used it for practical information, for in 1675 when Hooke heard of the finest steel’s being made by casting cemented steel and forging the ingots – this 65 years before Huntsman – he made a note to look up more of this in ‘Vannuchio Beringochio.’ Nevertheless, references to Biringuccio in scientific literature are few. Agricola's works were soon absorbed in the snowball accretion of literature references and were quoted by almost everyone writing on metals, at first as a current authority and later as an important milestone in the historical development of metallurgy, mineralogy, chemistry, and engineering. On the other hand, Biringuccio was rarely mentioned in contemporary literature and to this day is frequently ignored by scientific and technological historians, particularly those writing in English. It seems likely that the greater popularity of Agricola was a result of his more scholarly approach and the fact that he wrote in Latin, the language of the educated throughout Europe. The German and Italian translations made him available to the nations of greatest metallurgical activity at the time. Biringuccio’s best descriptions are of the more practical aspects of metalwork, and these were, for several generations, of little interest to those who wrote books. Perhaps, too, the beautiful format that the house of Froben gave to Agricola’s works appealed to those who were more concerned with the physical form of books than with the knowledge to which they were the key. While Agricola was, and is, proudly owned and displayed, the smaller and inferior format of Biringuccio’s work and its inferior literary style caused it to be placed on the topmost shelves – when, indeed, it ever got away from the company of the moulders’ tools and assay furnaces that were its fit companions” (Smith & Gnudi, pp. xiv-xviii).

Adams B2080; Censimento 16 CNCE 6156; Duveen p.79; Philip B110.1; Mortimer Italian 66; Hoover 129; Mortimer Italian 66; Norman 238; Partington II, 32-37; Wellcome I, 873; Cockle, Military Books 931. Smith & Gnudi (tr.), The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio, 1943.

Small 4to (208 x 150mm), ff. [xvi], 168, title within elaborate woodcut border, woodcut initials, and 84 woodcut illustrations in text. Contemporary limp vellum, spine with manuscript lettering (edges with some wear, later but matching end-papers pasted over original, probably to keep text securely in the binding). Internally very fine and clean.

Item #5330

Price: $60,000.00