Renaissance alchemical manuscript showing a distillatory furnace, combining Paracelsian and Kabbalistic traditions

[Alchemical manuscript]. Alchemical manuscript on vellum containing a series of complex symbols, diagrams and cipher text.

[Northern Italy, not before 1560s].

4to (159 x 218 mm). Latin and Italian manuscript on vellum. 16 leaves, the first part containing notarial records of land ownership paginated 1-15; the second half with 14 pages of symbols, diagrams and cipher text, in red ink. Stored in custom-made morocco-backed clamshell case.


An unusual and sophisticated alchemical manuscript showing a range of influences from Paracelsus to the Kabbalah.

Beginning in the middle of the single gathering, the manuscript contains a series of complex symbols and diagrams with cipher text, encoding alchemical processes. The illustrations start off with a symbol incorporating four watchtowers, a Star of David, and alchemical glyphs; later images include various furnaces, stills, and other apparatus, a seven stage ascent beginning with a flask and culminating in a throne (probably representing chemical processes), a fountain (similar to the opening image of the Rosarium Philosophorum), an alchemical rebis, a tree growing on a tomb with seven mountains in the background, a fruit bearing tree growing from a male figure impaled on a sword, a bird (apparently an owl) with an alembic on its head, and a distillatory furnace, many of the images partly composed of lines of cipher characters and incorporating various glyphs, also with diagrams of geometrical speculation, tables with Hebrew letters (perhaps showing permutations of solar and lunar qualities), and related material (ff. 9-15v).

Paracelsian influence is in evidence in the manuscript's list of the three essential ingredients of the Philosophers' Stone (Mercury, Sulphur, Salt), while the geometric representations of these tria prima resemble those found in the works of the Belgian alchemist Gerard Dorn (1530-84). Jewish elements include the use of Hebrew characters and the appearance of a Menorah in the rebis figure. The accompanying text is entirely in a cipher which resembles that of the Aiq Bekr or Kabbalah of the Nine Chambers. This manuscript reveals an alchemist whose work combines in a unique way many features found in contemporary practitioners such as, in England, John Dee.

Prefixed to the alchemical section is a series of notarial records including land transactions and a will, dating from 1537 to 1561 (providing the terminus post quem for the succeeding part) and localisable to northern Italy, specifically the Veneto (there is mention of a church of "Sancti Floriani de Rippa", or Riva, and of Venice itself).

Some staining, smudging to a few images and tears to outermost leaves.

Provenance: Sotheby's, 26 November 2008, lot 7.

Stock Code: BN#57816 Tags: , , ,