Carlo Lancillotti starts his long speech on mercury from traditional sources and gives the first method to purify the metal.
In Il Trionfo del Mercurio, the triumph of mercury, 1683, the Italian chemist attributes to the ancient greek physicians, especially Dioscorides, and Galenus, the medieval European lack of knowledge on the appropriate use of common mercury. They will be proven wrong by Arab chemists, especially Ibn-Sīnā Avicenna. Concerning the greeks, Lancillotti puts Zosimos, Olimpiodorus, and Democritus Dioscurus’s names only at the end of the chapter as examples of those having the right idea. Strange enough, they are all basically known as alchemists.
My translation from Il Trionfo del Mercurio, Introduction: to the reader.
“In the book’s part dealing with antimonium, there is talking of its relative mercury. It deserves an entire book, as mercury can provide an entire pharmacy to remove any disease. But many scorns it, even if mercury can heal morbo gallico (syphilis), so mercury could be useful. But, and here I warn everybody, it must be properly prepared and never taken, both internally and externally, on hot summer days. I even know a mister Ramazzini who suffered from syphilis and was prepared a mercury preparation in pills by a tin artisan. Sadly, he soon developed gangrene in his mouth. The situation went so bad that the poor man must cut half his tongue ( by himself as, because of the disgusting miasma discharging from his gangrene, no surgery practitioner wanted to get close to the unlucky man).
Second book. First Chapter: According to the ancient Greek physicians.
The vulgar mercury is called quicksilver. From what we can infer from their writings, it was scarcely known by ancient physicians, starting from Dioscorides, who said in his fifth book: Quicksilver, aka Minium, aka fake Cinnabar, is called. It can be found in silver veins as drops concretions. It can also be found in Lead and Tin.
Oribasius, in his book Colectorium Medicinalis, runs along Dioscorides lines, and the same does Atuarius in his book Meth. Med. As well as Galenus says that quicksilver is prepared like litharge, but he doesn’t specify if the remedy should be taken internally or externally. Only Paul of Aegina specifies: ” Argentum Vivum in medicinae usum non adeo accomodatur quod Venenum representes…….or I don’t recommend quicksilver use in medicine as it represents a venom”. But we must consider the scarce knowledge they have of mercury; in fact, they say it is made from Minium, which is lead calcined by reverberation, as taught in our Guida alla Chimica, the first book, chapter 3. Concerning cinnabar, they scarcely know it too, since the commercial cinnabar is a fake, made out of quicksilver and sulphur, by sublimation, then mercury has to be rectified again by distillation joining the cinnabar with quicklime, as you will be taught in the right place, and another mineral cinnabar which is known as Hemaxtis, from which the cinnabar is extracted by descensum ( distillation by descent), so if the said cinnabar wasn’t what Dioscorides called Minium, from which they extracted their mercury, which I doubt they have the slightest knowledge, since recommending to keep it in lead and tin containers, in fact there is nothing, being contained, which attaches better to the mentioned metals than mercury, and incredibly they still preferred them to glass, naming them as first, in fact we can note Servatur in Plumbeis, Staneis aus Vitreis Vascolis…. and still they daily send mercury from Venice into leather or pig’s bladder and even in earthenware without noting any corrosion by that minium or cinnabar of Dioscorides, as said Scroderus in his Pharmacopea Medica Chimica, book 3 chapter 16, talking of cinnabar. Scroderus concludes the so-called Dioscorides minium is different from cinnabar as it is made from lead (ex plumbo factum).
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that some ancient greeks had a clear knowledge of the real mercury. Among them was Zosimos, who wrote on the composition of waters, instruments, and ovens used in Chrysopeia, Olimpiodoros, Archilaos, Pelagius, Democritus Dioscurus, and others.
Chapter 2: Definition of Mercury and its origin. Qualities according to the ancient Arabian physicians.
Ibn-Sīnā Avicenna, and the other Arabs who wrote after the greeks, make fun of what the greeks say. Arabs have a long acquaintance with cinnabar. They sold it. Avicenna: Argentum vivum aliud est purgatum a minera sua et aliud extrahitur ex lapidibus minerae suae. Sicut sit aurum et argentum….quicksilver is purged by its mines and extracted from the same. Like gold and silver are. And further: Galenus and others affirmed it is made, like litharge, not from its matter extracted with fire, and its substance is not similar to Uziphur. Galenus also stated it is not to be kept in a closed vessel where to set fire above and sublime. Uziphur (cinnabar) is made from it and sulfur, so it is possible from this substance to extract quicksilver.
Nevertheless, in his treatises Ars Aurifera ( golden art) and almost in De Philosophici Lapis ( on the philosophers stone), Avicenna starts to describe quicksilver in a very different way, saying that quicksilver is water, white and volatile, lush serpent, living spirit. Moon. But he continues to name it quicksilver. He speaks of a tinging red, living soul, Sun, passing through black cinder to white, orange, and then red. Here Lancillotti goes on for a while, putting on display he has some ( more than some) knowledge in Alchemy too. Ultimately, he quotes Gratarole to explain why metallic mercury has been taken as a symbol of alchemic Mercurius, to an extent to be named after it. Because metallic mercury is not a symbol, it is a metaphor for the alchemical Mercurius, being cool and humid and naturally searching for a Sulphurous companion to fix and shape it.
Chapter 3: A medley of quotes from ancient authors like Arnau de Vilanova, Ibn-Sīnā Avicenna, and Richardus Anglichus to demonstrate that metallic mercury is not only an alchemical metaphor but also a real raw matter from what our Mercurius( spirit of life) can be made from and contains in itself the sulfur able to congeal it. Of course, we are not discussing reunifying cinnabar here, the alchemical sulfur being no metallic sulfur but the fixing and shaping part.
Chapter 4: Dear reader, don’t go any further to search for exotic and difficult raw matters, such as desert mummies, as in mercury and antimonium; you have all that you are looking for. As well as preparing excellent remedies to remove all diseases.
First Book, chapter 1: On the picking of mercury.
Two species of mercury can be found, that’s to say, natural or artificial. The natural one is found in Slovenia, in the surroundings of Goriza, and in a castle called Idrija. That mine is rich both in running mercury and inside cinnabar and is extracted by fire, like the oil of the holy wood, by descent (descensum); similarly, mercury can be found in Spain, in the reign of Castilla in a place called Almagro. This mine is not as abundant as the previous one. Still, the mercury is purer, and best it is preferred by those willing to succeed in the grand opera, as more easily the matter is reduced to perfection when separating from wastes than that from Goriza, which is instead abundant of superfluous humidity, in certain places it can be still found in the surface, particularly during the autumn and around the summer solstice, when it can be found near spear grassroots in the shape of grains as big as chickpeas. Of the same species, it is found in Poland, near Cracow, a friend of mine assured me he found similar in Piemonte (Italy) but never told me exactly where, but this one seems to be the less quality as it is abundant of a great humidity. In some forests, one can also find it, particularly in gold and silver mines; some say mercury can be found in England and Transylvania, surpassing all others in quality.
Artificial mercury is made in a way very well known by the sons of the Art and is extracted from semi-minerals and metals using resuscitating salts. But, as mercury, if it is not of such a quality as required for the Operations, they don’t succeed. Still, to test the mercury, one can take a silver spoon, put a little mercury into it, and place it to evaporate on red hot coals, and once evaporated, one must observe the kind of stain in the spoon. If the stain is dark, the impurity is from lead; if light blue from tin; if golden from copper; if white from gold; if red-yellow from silver, and so one should choose the mercury leaving red-yellow or white stains, the latter being the best. The first doesn’t need excessive purgative operations. Nevertheless, for every situation, one who wants strong mercury has to purify it diligently. I will present here different and various methods.
Chapter 2: First Purging of Mercury.
Take some excellent spirit of wine, put the mercury into a long neck flask, and shake well till you see the spirit turning black, then remove the spirit from the flask by tilting and pouring another spirit of wine on the remained mercury, shaking as before, and, when black, remove as said above. Repeat the operation till all the mercury turns black; when that blackness will dry, mix it with lime and place it in a retort to distill with the neck into a cool water container, and very pure mercury will distill.”
To be continued at Lancillotti, Operations on Mercury. Part 2.