The MS Ashburham 1166 facsimile is today protected by copyright. However, a monochrome press version was entirely reproduced in Fonti Storiche dell’Alchimia by Giovanni Carbonelli.
Arbitrarily attributed to Johannes von Teschen, or Ticinensis, the manuscript is known today mainly for the representation of a dying man shot with an arrow and being used as soil by a tree growing up from his genital area. To the school of another Ioannes, the venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, are attributed, perhaps less arbitrarily, the elegant watercolor drawings. The whole collection of the 33 images photographed in 1924 by Carbonelli is here reproduced in a gallery on the bottom.
Among Alchemy researchers the manuscript is simply known as Codex Laurentianus, and so was often cited by Carbonelli too. But this heads to mistake the code we are examining with other manuscripts kept in Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana. So I prefer to call it Ashburham 1166, as historians do, from the name of his last owner, Bertram Ashburham, whose huge collection of manuscripts is now entirely conserved in Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Firenze. The MS Ashburham 1166 is of course available for the online consultation, but without title and author and out from logic keywords. To tell the truth, there would be a “nom de plume” the manuscript is also known for, that’s to say Miscellanea di Alchimia, con disegni ad inchiostro con tenui acquerellature, or Miscellaneous of Alchemy, with ink drawings with soft watercolors, but any of these words proved to be useless as keywords or title in the Laurenziana search box. So, unless you get any help from the library staff or know the exact pluteo number (pluteus in latin means shelf), it won’t be easy to find out (sir Ashburham will be turning in his grave). As said in the incipit, the facsimile is protected by copyright. I think this is one of the few alchemical manuscripts in our era to be set aside for a privileged class of researchers to view. The allowed facsimile edition has been edited by Mino Gabriele and Ida Giovanna Rao with the title Miscelánea De Alquimia. Florencia, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ashburnham 1166. Edición Facsímil. Ediciones Grial, Valencia, 2004. Anyway the price is outrageously expensive for an amateur or an independent researcher, in fact some 900 euros for 30 paper sheets are out of budget for most of us. Below, the three kind concession images from the publisher.
I think the last chance for the Ashburham 1166 to gain a wider audience is to be recognized by an authoritative art critic as undoubted watercolors by the painter Giovanni Bellini. In this case its captivity would be as absurd as to keep hidden a Raffaello Sanzio watercolors collection. But I’m not positive about it, I definitely think we have as many hopes to see the entire Ashburham 1166 freely online as we have of freely seeing the whole original collection of watercolors by Francesco da Barberino in his Officiolum or Documenti d’Amore (Francesco da Barberino was Dante Alighieri’s master). The paradox is that even if I sacrificed myself to pay that a bit exaggerated price for the facsimile, I then should keep it for my own private use, while we know the private use of a blogger is to “share”. I don’t think this is only the Italian context feature; the main problem is the money-consuming era we are living in. In fact I guess the same would have happened to Cabala Mineralis or Splendor Solis collections if discovered now. Certainly it would be a common law of market to try to keep prices as low as possible to positively encourage the would be audience-customer.
Nevertheless, we should thank the fate for the Codex Laurentianus Aschb. 1166 to be still existing. In fact, as the reader will see, the upper margin of the pages was damaged by fire, at an extent that in some cases the written upper part becomes unreadable. Anyway, in my opinion, the burning typology could suggest that the manuscript did not come in touch with an extensive large fire, but perhaps with a little localized flame, as though someone has tried to set fire to it with a candle: in fact all the sheets present the same position of the burns, as if the whole folded manuscript has been put close to a candle, or a lantern. That’s just my impression, mostly the result of examining the kind concession images of Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana below.
The damages from burning are not the only cause of the difficulty in reading the already succinct written part. As Carbonelli often complaints about, and tells us, the struggling doesn’t lie only in the ruined hand writing, but in the author’s poor knowledge of the latin language, which in his opinion was so bad that some sentences should have been translated with the help of imagination. Carbonelli additionally reveals that, at a thorough examination, later corrections do appear here and there on the manuscript.
What brought MS Ashburham 1166 out of its shadowy shelter on some Laurenziana’s pluteus, was unquestionably the Carbonelli’s decision to make it one of the two cornerstones (the other being Codex 74 of Pavia Library) of his catalogue on what was buried in the Italian public libraries about Alchemy. Nevertheless, Sulle Fonti Storiche della Chimica e della Alchimia in Italia is not just that. It is an astonishingly meticulous research carried out by a passionate will, daringly supported by the Istituto Nazionale Medico Farmacologico, which in the 1925 published the book. Moreover, the manuscripts notes and images are not simply listed, but commented and embedded as notations and explications for the previous ones. The final impression of Carbonelli’s work is of a huge reconstructed puzzle. Although, of course, the codex and manuscripts in Italian libraries are not forming a planned puzzle.
On Carbonelli’s book title the word Chimica precedes Alchimia, which could made the first impression to be just another work like Marcelin Berthelot’s Alchemy of the Ancient. But as Berthelot was sure he was digging up the origins of chemistry, so Carbonelli took with decision the alchemical thread. Berthelot was a second half of the nineteenth century virginal and unaware explorer of what he considered an unseemly and ignorant vanished world. Carbonelli was in its full cultural maturity in the 1920’s, the pioneer era of the alchemical renaissance. In the same mid 1920’s someone was writing Les Mystères des Cathedrales and Les Dimores Philosophales and the same someone soon got Carbonelli’s book and very much appreciated it, Canseliet witnessed. So to try to demonstrate that Carbonelli was a historian of chemistry is a climbing of mirrors operation, which can successfully be carried out only before the not well-read Italian audience. I can assure you that there is no trace of chemistry, iatro-chemistry and pharmacology history in his work, apart from the first paragraph. As the second already starts with: ” Pliny, as we can read in his History, did know the names and writings of the skilled in the occult oriental sciences, among which there was Egyptian Chimia, and called them Magi……” . From that paragraph on, the word chemistry was only a necessary shield used as the word alchemy could not be written without shame (and suspicion). Carbonelli seems perfectly aware when he names the alchemical matters with their name. He moves with the help of Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the ancient nomenclature. He knows what he’s saying, while Berthelot is an elephant in a china shop, happy to break the old age majolica. The medical doctor and university teacher Giovanni Carbonelli plunges so deeply in his researches to retire from all his public positions already in 1918.
The theatre in which Carbonelli sets his script is that of the Italian manuscripts’ elegant art. He cannot help but starting from art, as this is the Italian alchemical labyrinth wherein the subtle Ariadne’s thread of symbology helps to orientate. In Italy, Alchemy was hiding behind elegance and aesthetics, the only acceptable safety valve of a millenary wisdom that in this country, more than any other European context, could undermine the basis of a power that for too long has been no longer secular.
But let’s get back to Carbonelli. His purposive book soon became legendary and a must to have among the alchemists of the late 1920’s. A book that Jean Julien Champagne soon bought, as Canseliet witnessed. And that leads us to Fulcanelli. So assonant with Carbonelli. But while Carbonelli was a real name (from carbone: coal. A carbonello is a red hot piece of coal), Fulcanelli was nom de plume from the god Vulcan (the initial letter V changed in a more daring and warlike F) which nobody within Lesseps circle had heard before the publishing of Le Mystère Des Cathedrales in 1926, as Schwaller de Lubitz witnessed.
The MS Ashburham 1166 is surely less sophisticated and erudite than the Caissons of Dampierre. Although some images are really intriguing and unique: for instance the diagram of the Philosophical Egg section is unrepeated in the alchemical iconography, and the Philosophical Hand’s follows unusual parameters and words. They surely need dedicated articles. Carbonelli, not only has the watercolors photographed, but he also translates the 52 latin aphorisms and publishes them, dividing the schemes into the philosophical and the technical parts. His translations will be the subject of a coming article; for the moment let us set out in the controversy for the author attribution, which is not secondary and which, in my opinion, could lead to unusual views. In fact Carbonelli dedicated some three pages to it. From Sulle Fonti Storiche della Chimica e della Alchimia in Italia: