The MS Ashburnham 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 representing a dying man shot with an arrow and used as soil by a tree growing up from his genital area. Connected to the school of another Ioannes, the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, are perhaps less arbitrarily the elegant watercolor drawings. The collection of the 33 images photographed in 1924 by Carbonelli’s brother is here reproduced at the article’s bottom.
Among Alchemy researchers, the manuscript is known as Codex Laurentianus and was often cited by Carbonelli. But this leads to a mistake in the code we are examining with other manuscripts kept in Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana. So I prefer to call it Ashburnham 1166, as historians do, from the name of his last owner, Bertram Ashburnham, whose massive collection of manuscripts is now entirely conserved in Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Firenze. The MS Ashburnham 1166 is available for online consultation, but without title and author and from laypersons’ logic keywords. 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 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 Ashburnham will be turning in his grave). As said in the incipit, the facsimile is protected by copyright. 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. The price is outrageously high for an amateur or an independent researcher. Some 900 euros for 30 paper sheets are out of budget for most of us. Below are the three kinds of concession images from the publisher.
I think the last chance for the Ashburnham 1166 to gain a wider audience is to be recognized by an authoritative art critic as an undoubted watercolor by the painter Giovanni Bellini. In this case, its captivity would be as absurd as keeping a Raffaello Sanzio watercolors collection hidden. But I’m not optimistic about it; I think we have as many hopes to see the entire Ashburnham 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 inflated price for the facsimile, I then should keep it for my private use, while we know the personal 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. If discovered now, the same would have happened to Cabala Mineralis or Splendor Solis collections: they would remain hidden, and hardly anyone would ever see them.
Nevertheless, we should thank fate for the Codex Laurentianus Asch. 1166 to still exist. As the reader will see, the upper margin of the pages was damaged by fire to the 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 exact position of the burns, as if the whole folded manuscript has been put close to a candle, or a lantern. That’s my impression, primarily the result of examining the kind concession thumbnails of Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana below.
The damages from burning are not the only cause of the difficulty reading the already succinct written part. As Carbonelli often complains about and tells us, the struggle doesn’t lie only in the ruined handwriting 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 Ashburnham 1166 out of its shadowy shelter on some Laurenziana’s pluteus was unquestionably Carbonelli’s decision to make it one of the two cornerstones (the other being Codex 74 of Pavia Library) of his catalog 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 astonishingly meticulous research carried out by a passionate will, daringly supported by the Istituto Nazionale Medico Farmacologico, which in 1925 published the book. Moreover, the manuscript’s notes and images are not simply listed but commented on 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.
In Carbonelli’s book title, the word Chimica precedes Alchimia, which could make 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 the 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 1920s, the pioneer era of the alchemical renaissance. In the same mid-1920, 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 his work has no trace of chemistry, iatrochemistry, or pharmacology history, 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 plunged deeply into his research to retire from all his public positions in 1918.
The theatre in which Carbonelli sets his script is that of the Italian manuscripts’ elegant art. He cannot help but start 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 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 1920s. 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 the 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 Ashburnham 1166 is less sophisticated and erudite than the Caissons of Dampierre. Although some images are intriguing and unique: for instance, the diagram of the Philosophical Egg section is unrepeated in the alchemical iconography, and the Philosophical Hand 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. Carbonelli dedicated some three pages to it. From Sulle Fonti Storiche della Chimica e della Alchimia in Italia:
It follows a thorough examination of hints heading to the correct dating in the manuscript. This proves to be around or after 1311, Arnau de Vilanova’s death year, the less ancient among the authors cited in the code. After comes deep scrutiny of fourteenth-fifteenth century alchemical authors named Giovanni, Johann, Jean, Juan, and John. In conclusion, according to Carbonelli: “… anyway all should be deleted, but Giovanni Andrea the Venetian, for the origin, whom nothing is knew, Jean de Rupescissa, for the insistence on Quinta Essentia, and Johannes Teschmensis philosophus, for his writing in verses. Anyway, I believe the text is a very late medley taking from many authors and putting all under the name Ioannes.”
Page 48: “The code is Italian for the paleography and elegance of the ink and colors drawings. The text presents numerous writing errors later corrected by another hand. For this code, I copied out the latin text, as the translation was not easy because of the burning and the very incorrect writing, although it underwent a later correction.”
We know how things developed: modern historians had the urgency to put a known name beside the gorgeous drawings and chose Johannes von Teschen-Ticinensis, because of his writing in verse—neglecting the fact that in the Ashb. 1166 the author names himself as Ioannes and not Johannes, and that the last form was traditionally reserved for no Italian speaking. And almost, Johannes von Teschen-Ticinensis’s other works weren’t potpourris from other authors’ works.
At this link, you can see the authentic three pages Carbonelli dedicates to the mysterious author of Codice Laurenziano con figure allegoriche.
However, I remain in my belief that it is in the artistic part that we must seek the mysterious author Ioannes, as it is this part to have given a precise date to the Ashburnham 1166, that’s to say 1460-1475. Additionally, the art critics underline the unquestionable pictorial precision and harmony. He who drew and painted those images was a great painter. A painter with a hand so skilled that it was impossible in the Italian Renaissance age not to have then pursued an artistic career, given the prestige and the economic revenue that a great painter could achieve. It would be enough to observe the Venetian altarpieces of the same period, to realize that very few were the hands of the same level. The names of the Bellini family, Jacopo, the father, and Gentile and Giovanni, the sons, were put forward. So art critics agreed to attribute the watercolors to Bellini’s school. Probably a young apprentice who managed to take also the pictorial features of his master Giovanni Bellini. As we know, pictorial features are as personal as handwriting. Thus, this boy, or older and anonymous worker, drew and watercolored in a way not inferior to his master and then suddenly disappeared without carrying out a career worthy of his talent.
I have worked in ancient art dealing in Venice and spent much time with old painting experts and restorers. I remember that quite all of them relied on the rendering of hands to evaluate a painter with certainty. They told me: ” nothing is more difficult in painting than to give life to a human hand”. Let’s take a look at the hand-drawn in Ashburnham 1166. It radiates perfection. Not only, but it is a showing off of pictorial capacity. That painter was not inferior to Giovanni Bellini.