Nicolas Lemery, in his “Cours de la Chimie”, walks through a step-by-step Aqua Regia preparation. But before he instructs us to get a chemical Sal Armoniac,
Lemery, like his teacher Christophle Glaser, was a royal apothecary and apparently tried to walk in his teacher’s footsteps when writing, in 1675, a treatise with a similar name: “ Cours de la Chymie”.
Luckily for us, they are complementary. But, unlike Glaser, the examination of Lemery’s treatises is all but plain, and consequently, my translation from original french was not so effortless.
Is chiefly the lack of a chemical accepted definition, for us moderns, of sal armoniac to prevent a smooth reading. In fact, Lemery’s Sal Armoniac is neither sal armeniacum, nor sal armoniacum, whose definitions you can find in my post-Universal Sal Armoniacum & Hollandus Sal Armeniacum, and apparently nor the very sal ammoniacum, or Ammonium Chloride, needed in the classic ancient process to obtain Aqua Regia. Nevertheless, the Sal armoniac here presented by Lemery appears to be enough volatile to certainly own something to alchemical sal armeniacum, as well as partaking in Aqua Regia preparation as a common Sal Ammoniacum, Ammonium Chloride.
As we will see, in Lemery, the preparation of Aqua Regia is slightly different from the modern one presented by Phantomplay.com in 2005 and which I retook in my post-Aqua Regia & Fulminating Gold. But we cannot define Lemery’s recipe to be quite alchemical just due to his poor concern about salt purity, or because volatilization of salts is involved. Nevertheless, if we read carefully this preparation, we will notice how Lemery prepares us for the very alchemical idea of volatilization of no volatile salts. But let’s get down on the very pages now:
Nicolas Lemery Cours de la Chymie, page 307 chapter XVI, On Sal Armoniac: “Sal armoniac is either natural or artificial. The natural one is being formed in very warm countries, like Africa in its hot zone. We can find it on the ground soaked in animals’ urine. That’s to say these urine volatile salts get sublimated by the sun’s heat and these salts are known under the name Sal Armoniac. The artificial one is composed of urine salts, soot, and sea salts”.
Urine salts (1) have a place that not only contains the nitrogen compounds useful to obtain the ancient Sal Ammoniacum, but also because one of its components seems to be benzoic acid, a subtle powdery white substance that easily sublimes. And Lemery does not seem so concerned about salt purity. In ancient french suye, then suie, means soot. Does Lemery here really intend that black powder consisting largely of amorphous carbon we find in our flues? Or the Potassium and Sodium salts produced by the burning of organic matter? As for sea salts being plural, seventeenth-century chemists used to differentiate rock salt, sea salt, and fountain salt.
“These three salts are a mixture that seems fixed,
since sea salt, which is acid, prevents the other ones’ volatility. In fact, if sal armoniac is to get calcined inside a crucible it flies away because the volatile salts lift the fixed ones with them”.
Don’t be concerned about Lemery pointing at sea salts, which we know predominantly being Sodium Chloride, as acid. In a coming post, we will see some ancient chemists’ theories. Instead, pay close attention to Lemery’s last sentence, since this is an Alchemy key, axiom, and foundation: volatile salts, or easily sublimated, can lift the other ones. And we know volatilization of not volatile salts is the ultimate method to achieve or extract Secret Fire/Mercurius.
“ In order to purify Sal Armoniac, you have to dissolve it in a sufficient quantity of water and then make it evaporate till dry into a glass vessel. You will obtain a white salt which can be given from six to twenty-four grains in some suitable liquor.
Flowers of Sal Armoniac, page 308: powder and put exact equal parts of Sal Armoniac and sea salt “decrepité”. Pour the mixture into an earthen cucurbit (2) placed on the sand and fit over a blind hat. You need to give it all a bit of fire at the beginning and increase it little by little, till you can see your Sal Armoniac raising, getting floor texture, and sticking to the hat and top part of the cucurbit. Keep on with fire, till nothing will raise again then let chill the vessels. You will cautiously remove your cap and gather your flowers (3) with a plume. Keep all in a well-closed phial. These flowers have the same virtue of Sal Armoniac, but you will use a lesser quantity, let’s say from four to fifteenth grains”.
Back in the seventeenth century, there was a poor concern about salts’ chemical purity. As a matter of fact, pure salt was mainly salt-free from humidity. That’s what the decrepitation process was for, indeed. From latin de+crepitus or out creaked-rattled. In fact sea salt used to be calcinated before any chemical use, that’s to say put in a pot with a great fire to remove any residual humidity till cracking sounds were no more heard. Lemery presents the whole process in the same Cours de la Chymie, page 274 when talking of common salt.
“Notes, page 309: This operation is performed to have the sal armoniac volatilized since we will set the part of its salt fixed by the calcinated sea salt. Thus its flowers are a bit more penetrating than sal armoniac, even if they are composed of the same salts. One can also use either iron or steel powder in place of sea salt, according to Schroeder, and that will result in yellowish powder since flowers take the color of Mars (4).”
Sal armoniac was all but pure, as we have already observed, thus in Lemery’s proceeding the sal armoniac not volatile parts bond with the calcined sea salt. Of course the volatile parts of this not-so-pure sea salt to ends up enhancing the volatility of sal armoniac flowers.
Next: Lemery & the Spirits of Salt Armoniac , the conclusive is Aqua Regia and Fulminating Gold According to Lemery .
- On Urine Volatile Salts see also Hollandus, How Urine Salts Extract a White and Red Dye , Lancillotti and the Magisterium of Urine on Caput Mortuum , Glaser and the Unladylike, but Volatile, Salt of Urine ;
- Cucurbit is the main part of an alembic, the very place where matter is being put;
- Flowers is an allegory for salts either volatilized or sublimated;
- In Alchemy Mars, among other meanings, also stands for iron and alloys;