Caterina Sforza’s Experiments with Alchemy

Lecture by Meredith K. Ray. Given at New York University’s Florence campus on February 3, 2015.

Caterina Sforza (1463-1509), regent of Imola and Forlì and progenitrix of the Medici Grand Ducal dynasty, had a keen interest in scientific experiment. She collected over four hundred alchemical, medicinal, and cosmetic recipes, and corresponded with other alchemical adepts about materials and laboratory techniques. Her example reflects a more general fascination with secrets that enthralled courts throughout early modern Europe, giving rise to a lively market for such information. It also offers an opportunity to explore some of the ways in which women—and men—engaged with scientific culture on the cusp of the Scientific Revolution in pursuit of health, beauty, wealth, and power. Not only is Caterina Sforza’s experimental activity emblematic of the wider panorama of women’s involvement in early modern scientific culture, but it also situates her at the origins of a Medici interest in alchemy and experiment that stretched well into the seventeenth century.

Meredith K. Ray is associate professor of Italian at the University of Delaware and the author of Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Her first book, Writing Gender in Women’s Letter Collections of the Italian Renaissance (Toronto, 2009), was awarded an American Association of Italian Studies (AAIS) book prize. She has received grants and fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Renaissance Society of America, and the American Association of University Women.

Johannes Kepler and Alchemy.

The application of analytical chemistry to the exploration of the World Cultural Heritage represents a major challenge in that most protocols and strategies are invasive and require micro-sampling. The technology here described relates to the capture of metals on these specimens. It is based on the use of plastic films (ethylene vinyl acetate, EVA) impregnated with different metal chelators (sodium 2,3-dimercapto-1-propanesulfonate, DMPS, meso-2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid, DMSA and ethylene diamino tetra acetic acid, EDTA, as calcium salt), for harvesting from surfaces of different supports potential traces of metals therein deposited. The EVA film technology has been used to explore the pages of a manuscript written by Kepler concerning the movements of the moon and catalogued under the title “Hipparchus”, a manuscript he was working on for 15 years, today at the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences (St. Petersburg branch). The EVA-based chelating diskettes were able to capture very significant amounts of different metals, namely: Au, Ag, Hg, As, Pb, suggesting that Kepler might have started practicing alchemy, a science he had learned from his colleague Tycho Brahe.


More information:

Alchemie. Die Suche nach dem Weltgeheimnis. Una exposición bien hecha, de verdad.

Estos días he tenido la ocasión de reencontrarme en Múnich con Heinrich Wunderlich, del Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, en la cuidad de Halle. Lo conocí hace unos meses con motivo de una exposición, que me fascinó y sobre la que quiero comentar algo. Leer más “Alchemie. Die Suche nach dem Weltgeheimnis. Una exposición bien hecha, de verdad.”