Carlo Lancillotti starts his long speech on mercury from traditional sources and giving a 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 european medieval 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 names only in the end of the chapter, as example 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, and I think it deserves an entire book, as mercury can provide an entire pharmacy to remove any desease. But many scorn it, even if mercury can heal morbo gallico (syphilis), so mercury could come 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 and sadly he soon developed a gangrene in his mouth. The situation went so bad than 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 and, 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, who 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 recommed 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, 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. In fact Scroderus concludes the so-called Dioscorides minium be totally different from cinnabar as it is made from lead (ex plumbo factum).
Nevertheless it is fair to say that some ancient greeks had instead clear knowledge of the real mercury. Among them, Zosimos, who wrote on the composition of waters, instruments and ovens used in Chrysopeia, and also 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 greeks, make fun of what greeks say. Arabs have a long acquaintance with cinnabar, in fact 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 and not from its matter extracted with fire, and its substance not being similar to Uziphur. Galenus also stated it is not to be kept in a closed vessel where to set fire above and sublime. In fact Uziphur ( which is cinnabar) is made from it and sulphur, and 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 still continues to name it quicksilver. He goes on speaking 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. In the end 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, is a metaphor of 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 sulphur able to congeal it. Of course we are not talking of reunify cinnabar here, the alchemical sulphur being no metallic sulphur at all, but a 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 look for. As well as preparing amazing 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 is found in Slovenia, in the surroundings of Goriza, in a castle called Idrija, and that mine is very 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 so abundant than the previous, but the mercury is purer and best, in fact it is preferred by those willing to succeed the great 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 grass roots in the shape of grains as big as chickpeas, and of the same species it is found in Poland, near Cracow, a friend of mine assured 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 and particularly in gold and silver mines, some say mercury can be found in England and in Transylvania, which It surpasses all others in quality.
The artificial mercury is made in a way very well know by the sons of the Art and is extracted from semi-minerals and metals by means of resuscitating salts. But, as mercury if it is not of such a quality, which is required for the Operations most of the times they don’t succeed, but to test the mercury one can take a silver spoon and put a little of mercury into 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 choice the mercury leaving red-yellow or white stains, the latter being the best and the first don’t need excessive purgative operations. Nevertheless for every situation one wants a strong mercury has to diligently purify it. I will present here different and various methods.
Chapter 2: First Purging of Mercury.
Take some very good spirit of wine, put the mercury into a long neck flask and shake well till you see the spirit turning black, then removed the spirit from the flask by tilting and pour other spirit of wine on the remained mercury, shaking as before, and, when black, remove as said above. Repeat the operation till all the mercury will turn black, when that blackness will dry, mix it with lime and place 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.