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.

Alchemy on the Cutting Edge: Theoretical Innovations and the Pursuit of Transmutation

Free lecture featuring Lawrence M. Principe, Drew Professor of the Humanities, Department of the History of Science and Technology, John Hopkins University.

It is widely believed that chemistry and alchemy parted company around the end of the 17th century. Chemistry became a modern science, alchemy withered away as a false pursuit. The historical reality is, however, very different. The separation of transmutational pursuits from “acceptable” chemistry was complex, having little to do with scientific developments. Recent archival discoveries show that prominent chemists continued to pursue transmutation until at least the 1760s. Even in the 19th century, new chemical ideas sparked more than one reconciliation between alchemy and chemistry. This lecture explores the resilience of transmutational aspirations and their adaptability to new chemical theories.

AlchemEast proyect.

Mateo Martelli is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Project “Alchemy in the Making: From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE -1000 AD)” – Acronimo: AlchemEast. It is devoted to the study of alchemical theory and practice as it appeared and developed in distinct, albeit contiguous (both chronologically and geographically) areas: Graeco-Roman Egypt, Byzantium, and the Near East, from ancient Babylonian times to the early Islamic period. This project combines innovative textual investigations with experimental replications of ancient alchemical procedures. It uses sets of historically and philologically informed laboratory replications in order to reconstruct the actual practice of ancient alchemists, and it studies the texts and literary forms in which this practice was conceptualized and transmitted. It proposes new models for textual criticism in order to capture the fluidity of the transmission of ancient alchemical writings. Leer más “AlchemEast proyect.”