[Update: My post scratches the surface, but there’s a much more thorough and detailed exploration of Bragadini’s earlier career here, for anyone interested.]
Like magic, astrology, and other endeavours now found in the “occult” section (it’s in the back, just follow the patchouli scent), alchemy can be hard for non-occultists to take seriously. On the other hand, early modern alchemy has been a hot scholarly topic for so long now that calling it a “hot topic” is silly; it’s an established field. More than that, its study has helped to crystallize (get it?) major new approaches to the history of science, technology, and ideas. I think here, for example, of Pamela Smith’s 2004 book The Body of the Artisan. Smith reimagines the Scientific Revolution (still often seen as a matter of telescopes and equations) in terms of the physical work and, well, bodies, of artisans — people who manipulated bits of nature with their own hands. If alchemists handled materials in interesting ways, then so too did a host of other men and women, from sculptors to scullery maids. Conversely, if the new science was about how to do stuff to stuff, then alchemists — who did a lot of that sort of thing, and claimed to do even more — were obvious figures for early modern scientific thinkers to ponder.
And in fact several popped-collar (puffed ruff?) philosophers of science did so. For Francis Bacon, for instance, alchemists were half-right but mostly wrong. Unlike the scholastic philosophers of the day, he thought, they discovered real things about nature, by doing things to specific bits of it. But they proceeded without a clear programme or goals, taking shot after shot in the dark. In a word, they had no method. (Method, of course, was a Baconian specialty.) By seventeenth-century standards this was kind; separating alchemy’s procedures from its rhetoric at least suggested that it might have something to teach. More commonly, however, views of alchemy — and especially of the idea of transmuting base metals like lead into noble ones like gold — wavered between two positions: if it worked, it might be demonic magic; if it didn’t, it was probably an all-too-human scam. (Or both at once: a demonic trick played upon the alchemist him- or herself. Views on alchemy here echoed some of the more advanced explanations of witchcraft.) The alchemist was a paradoxical character, powerful yet precariously dependent, flashy yet secretive; on the whole, not the most promising marriage material.Consider the great alchemist Marco Antonio Bragadini (c.1545-1591; alias Bragadino, alias Mamugna, alias Mamugnano), whose ill-starred career was reported, as it lurched towards the final curtain, in the “newsletters” of the Fugger banking house of Augsburg. (These Fuggerzeitungen are fantastic sources to use in the classroom, incidentally, though the published selections in English translation are out of print. The originals are available in digitized form online.) Even in the scraps that remain, Bragadini’s is a tangled story. A Cypriot by birth, he claimed to be the bastard son of a Venetian nobleman, one Bragadini, who had been killed in the Ottoman siege of Famagusta in 1571. He also, of course, claimed to turn lead into gold. By the time he came to the Fugger network’s attention in 1589, in flight from the Roman Inquisition, he’d served, prospered at, and then hastily departed a slew of Italian courts, including those of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Pope Gregory XIII, “who held him in great esteem.” Having blown his fortune, and perhaps some of Gregory’s, “in riotous living,” Bragadini joined the Capuchin order. He then fled. He toured France, where he “served several princes incognito“, and showed off his gold-making skills across Lombardy before fear of the Inquisition drove him on. (This, despite his own roving bodyguard of “fifteen archers.”) So when the Venetian ambassador asked the new Pope, Sixtus V, to let the case against Bragadini drop, it’s understandable that Sixtus — not an otherwise sympathetic character — expressed surprise. “Though [Bragadini’s] art might be found to be successful,” he observed, “yet it could only accrue unto him by the help of Satan.”
Ensconced in Venice from October 1589, Bragadini quickly drew attention to himself: “This man… holds banquet daily for five hundred people and lives in princely style in the Palazzo Dandolo on the Giudecca. He literally throws gold about in shovelfuls.” More productively, he promised to supply the Republic with as much gold as it needed in exchange for its continued protection against his numerous and powerful enemies. He demonstrated his gold-making technique to the Council of Ten in December, and even let them examine his materials independently — notably including the secret ingredient used in transmutation, an unidentified “liquid” that produced gold when mixed with quicksilver. He had, he repeatedly insisted, “no other wish but to serve his country.” But he had one further condition: under no circumstances would he part with the recipe for the liquid itself. At the same time, he expressed mocking surprise “at the ignorance of the world, in not discovering this art before, considering the little that is requisite for this achievement.” Was he that smart, or was everyone else just that stupid? One might think this a dangerous question for an alchemist to provoke, and so it proved.
The six-odd weeks from early December 1589 through mid-January 1590 seem in retrospect to have been Bragadini’s happiest days. He went from strength to strength in his dual career of celebrity-alchemist. Early in December, the Council of Ten certified his claim to produce gold. “The most noble personages” call him by the title Illustrissimo, the Fuggers’ correspondent wrote breathlessly; “The Duke speaks to him in the second person.” (In a texting age, one can imagine the string of emojis: Money Mouth Face, Pile of Poo, Gold Bars, Cat Face with Tears of Joy.) Waited on by day and guarded by “armed barges” by night, it’s a wonder Bragadini had any time to make gold. Yet by mid-December he was supposedly “making five thousand sequins per month”, with a projected goal of “fifteen or sixteen millions more”, all for the Republic. Such public-spirited productivity did not prevent — in fact was perhaps best evidenced by — the alchemist’s continued penchant for “pomp”, including a lavish banquet for the French ambassador and large cash gifts (paid in real ducats, not projected sequins) to friends.
But by the first days of January 1590, doubts about Bragadini’s promises were beginning to find voice. “It is said of our Mamugnano”, the correspondent now reported, “that his craft… does suffice for small quantities, but fails to produce larger ones.” There was “no doubt” that he had produced a couple of pounds of gold; but speculation was rife about what would happen when his two small jars of special liquid ran out. A couple of weeks later Bragadini himself expressed frustration with the weight of the gold he made — not a good sign. By the end of the month, the general consensus was that Bragadini could only transmute a pound of quicksilver at a time, and that “his allegations to produce a number of millions have been a great fraud, in which he caused people to believe.” Perhaps the most telling sign that his luck had turned was that “he has cut down his expenses, also reduced his banqueting, and is seen about with a smaller suite than formerly.” (No word on the archers, but one hopes that they stuck around.) The party was over, and with it the mystique that had sustained Mamugnano’s position.By February, theories purporting to unmask the alchemist as a fraud — or worse — were circulating far beyond Venice. A Fugger writer in Strasbourg mentioned “information… that the alchemist of Venice has been instigated by the Grand Vizier” of the Ottoman Empire “to pass himself off as an alchemist and an artist” in order to enter Venice, presumably as a spy. Meanwhile, Bragadini reportedly preserved his budget by gambling, for which he had, not surprisingly, considerable talent. Yet before April was out he’d departed Venice for good, and in May his rooms were temporarily sealed at the demand of his undoubtedly many and frustrated creditors. That same month, he was reported to have finally secured papal absolution — but only by paying a large fine and, more picturesquely, joining the Order of the Knights of Malta. (If the Church didn’t exactly believe his story, perhaps it believed his 5,000 crowns.) This too didn’t last, and a revival as court alchemist, this time to the Duke of Bavaria — a run that included all the familiar elements: evading the pope, promising vast amounts of gold, playing for time — ended abruptly in Munich, in late April 1591. The great alchemist Bragadini, having exhausted the patience of all Europe, and with no more religious orders to join, was publicly beheaded.
It is interesting to ask what Mamugnano/Bragadini’s story tells us, and in particular which of our (and our predecessors’) assumptions it does and doesn’t confirm. Clearly, his rise and fall gave a lot of ammunition to those who saw alchemists as fraudsters, leeching off the public for their own benefit. And yet neither his initial credibility nor his ultimate loss of credit lie quite where we might expect. Take the core of his promise: the conversion of base metals into bullion. While he made a point of allowing others to test his skill here, he was also disarmingly, even perversely candid about his desire to keep the magic liquid a secret. Moreover, he passed the tests, to everyone’s satisfaction. At no point, from beginning to end, was the real possibility and indeed the accomplished fact of transmutation called in question — merely the scale on which it could be done. (The pope, of course, also raised questions about how it was done, but not whether it was.) So even from his harshest critics’ perspective, Bragadini’s fraud was not, despite what we might think, his claim to make gold. It was, rather, his promise to do so quickly and on a massive scale. In this sense, he was no greater a scam artist, in qualitative terms, than any other contractor whose projects miss deadlines and overrun budgets. What enabled him to keep going, on the other hand, was precisely the quality that we might expect to raise red flags now: banquets and bling. Throwing “shovelfuls” of gold around was an endorsement. Then again, in the age of Trump, perhaps this is not so far removed from our experience.
So maybe alchemy itself was not the problem; maybe alchemists — especially the big talkers — were. And in fact humbler alchemists than Bragadini, as they talked up the endless difficulties (technical, intellectual, astrological, spiritual, and above all financial) that plagued their work, routinely denounced the host of charlatans, mountebanks, and swindlers — false alchemists, like the tremendous Bragadini — that gave it a bad name. So how was one to judge which parts of alchemy were useful, and in which contexts? How could one separate the art from the artist? Bacon’s strictures implied one answer, detaching alchemical procedures and observations from their far-fetched philosophical framework. The case of Gabriel Plattes (c.1600-1644), which I’ll talk about next time, suggests another.
. All quotations are from Victor von Klarwill (ed.) (trans. Pauline de Chary), The Fugger News-Letters (John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1924), 140-50.