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Biringuccio, Vannoccio

Biringuccio, Vannoccio

(b. Siena, Italy, 20 October 1480; d. Rome [?], Italy, ca. 1539)

metallurgy.

The son of Lucrezia and Paolo Biringuccio, the latter an architect and public servant, Biringuccio traveled as a young man throughout Italy and Germany, inspecting metallurgical operations. After running an iron mine and forge at Boccheggiano for Pandolfo Petrucci, he was appointed to a post with the arsenal at Siena and in 1513 directed the mint. In 1516, after the fall of the Petrucci family, he was exiled by the Republic of Siena on a charge of having debased the coinage. Biringuccio returned with the Petruccis in 1523, and was again exiled in 1526. Thereafter he served the Venetian and Florentine republics, and cast cannon and built fortifications for the Este and Farnese families. In 1531, with political peace, he returned once more to Siena, this time in honor, as senator and, succeeding Baldassare Peruzzi, as architect and director of building construction at the Duomo. He later moved to Rome. In 1538 Biringuccio was appointed head of the papal foundry and director of papal munitions, but he died soon after, probably in Rome and certainly before 30 April 1540.

Biringuccio’s reputation derives from a single work, his Pirotechnia, published posthumously in 1540. The work is divided into ten books, which deal with (1) metallic ores; (2) the “semiminerals” (including mercury, sulfur, alum, arsenic, vitriol, several pigments, gems, and glass); (3) assaying and preparing ores for smelting; (4) the parting of gold and silver, both with nitric acid and with antimony sulfide or sulfur; (5) alloys of gold, silver, copper, lead, and tin; (6) the art of casting large statues and guns; (7) furnaces and methods of melting metals; (8) the making of small castings; (9) miscellaneous pyrotechnical operations (including alchemy; the distillation of acids, alcohol, and other substances; the working of a mint “both honestly and with profit” the goldsmith, silversmith, and ironsmith; the pewterer; wire-drawing; mirror-making; pottery; and bricks); and (10) the making of saltpeter, gunpowder, and fireworks for warfare and celebration. Virtually all of Biringuccio’s descriptions are original. He is important in art history for his description of the peculiarly Renaissance arts of casting medallions, statues, statuettes, and bells. His account of typecasting, given in considerable detail, is the earliest known. The Pirotechnia contains eighty-three woodcuts, the most useful being those depicting furnaces for distillation, bellows mechanisms, and devices for boring cannon and drawing wire.

As the first comprehensive account of the fire-using arts to be printed, the Pirotechnia is a prime source on many practical aspects of inorganic chemistry. Biringuccio emphasizes the adaptation of minerals and metals to use—their alloying, working, and especially the art of casting, of which he writes in great detail. In this area he is far better than the two other sixteenth-century authors with whom he is inevitably compared, Georgius Agricola and Lazarus Ercker. Although Agricola excels on mining and smelting, his famed sections on glass, steel, and the purification of salts by crystallization are in fact taken nearly verbatim from the Pirotechnia.

Biringuccio’s approach is in strong conflict with that of the alchemists, whose work he evaluates in eleven pages of almost modern criticism, distinguishing their practical achievements from their theoretical motivations. His interest in theoretical questions is limited to the repetition of an essentially Aristotelian view of the origins of metallic ores and the nature of metals, with a rather forced extension to account for the observed increase in weight of lead when it is turned to litharge.

Biringuccio has been called one of the principal exponents of the experimental method, for he states that “It is necessary to find the true method by doing it again and again, continually varying the procedure and then stopping at the best” and “I have no knowledge other than what I have seen with my own eyes.” He gives quantitative information wherever appropriate. He was certain that the failure of an operation was due to ignorance or carelessness, not to either ill luck or occult influences: Fortune could be made to favor the foundryman by paying careful attention to details. Biringuccio’s method, however, is not that of the scientist, for none of his operations is planned to test theory or even reflects the conscious application of it. He represents the strain of practical chemistry that had to develop and to be merged with philosophy before it could become science. Yet the enjoyment of the diverse properties of matter and the careful recording of a large number of substances and types of reactions that had been established by various craftsmen were just as necessary as the works of the philosophers, and in some sense were nearer the truth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Biringuccio’s only work was De la pirotechnia. Libri. X. dove ampiamente si tratta non solo di ogni sorte & diuersita di miniere, ma anchora quanto si ricerca intorno à la prattica di quelle cose di quel che siappartience a l’arte de la fusione ouer gitto de metalli come d’ogni altra cosa simile à questa (Venice, 1540; repr. 1550, 1558, 1559; Bologna, 1678). Books I and II only were reprinted with an important introduction by A. Mieli (Bari, 1914). There is a French translation by Jacques Vincent (Paris, 1556; repr. 1572, 1627); a German translation by Otto Johannsen (Brunswick, 1925); and an English translation by C. S. Smith and M. T. Gnudi (New York, 1942; repr. 1943, 1959; Cambridge, Mass., 1966).

II. Secondary Literature. Icilio Guareschi, Enciclopedia di chimica, XX (Turin, 1903–1904), supplemento annuale, 419 ff.; Aldo Mieli, “Vannoccio Biringuccio e il metodo sperimentale,” in Isis, 2 (1914), 90–99; and “Vannoccio Biringuccio,” in Gli scienziati italiani dall’inizio del medio evo ai nostri giorni, I (Rome, 1921), pt. I; Otto Johannsen, “Vannoccio Biringuccio,” in Günther Bugge, ed., Das Buch der grossen Chemiker, I (Berlin, 1929), 70–84; M. T. Gnudi and C. S. Smith, Of Typecasting in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven, 1941). See also the introductions to the 1914 Italian edition and to the German and English translations listed above.

C. S. Smith

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Vannoccio Biringuccio

Vannoccio Biringuccio

The Italian mining engineer and metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-1539) is famous for his important book, De la pirotechnica.

Vannoccio Biringuccio was born in Siena, where he became embroiled in politics because of his friendship for the ruling Petrucci family. Probably because of his patron, Pandolfo Petrucci, he was able to travel during his early years through Italy and Germany and to begin to assemble the material which was to be the encyclopedia Pirotechnica (or Pirotechnia). Upon his return to Siena, Pandolfo made him director of the mines in nearby Boccheggiano.

After Pandolfo died in 1512, Biringuccio supported his son Borghese Petrucci and was named to a post in the Armory of the Siena Commune. In 1515 Biringuccio and the head of the mint, Francesco Castori, were accused of debasing the currency with the approval of Borghese. A popular uprising forced Borghese and his followers, including Biringuccio, to flee the city. Having failed to appear in 1516 to face the charges against him, Biringuccio was declared a rebel and exiled. During this period he traveled around Italy. In 1517 he made his way to Sicily.

Pope Clement VII intervened in the Siena crisis in 1523, and thanks to him, the Petrucci family was restored to power in the person of Fabio, a younger brother of Borghese. Biringuccio was also returned to favor, his property restored, and his position in the armory regained. In 1524 he was given a monopoly in the whole Siena dominion on the manufacture of saltpeter.

In 1526, while Biringuccio was on a mission in Florence, the Sienese people again rose up and this time banished the Petrucci forever. Biringuccio was classified as a rebel, and all of his property was again taken away. Later he took part in an assault upon Siena, but the whole effort was unsuccessful.

Between 1526 and 1529 Biringuccio made a second trip to Germany. When peace returned to Siena in 1530, he returned there. He held office as a city senator and in 1535 became architect and director of building construction of the Cathedral. Meanwhile, between 1531 and 1535, he was engaged in making arms and fortresses under contract to persons outside Siena.

In 1536 Biringuccio was invited to Rome but delayed going. He finally went when he became the director of both the papal foundry and papal munitions in 1538. It is probable that he died while in Rome, and though the exact date of his death is unknown, it occurred before April 30, 1539, for on that date a list appeared of his debts to his heirs.

The Pirotechnica was not printed until 1540, and in the next 138 years there were nine editions. In his masterwork Biringuccio explains the techniques for mining ores and extracting metals from them. Being less concerned with quoting authorities than with firsthand observations and operations, he tends to ignore the question of why metals behave as they do and to content himself with descriptions of what happens: "I have no knowledge other than that gained through my own eyes."

Further Reading

The Pirotechnica of Vannuccio Biringuccio (trans. 1942) has an excellent biographical introduction by Martha Teach Gnudi. Biringuccio is discussed by a contemporary, Georgius Agricola, in De re metallica (1555; trans. 1912) and in the useful introduction and appendices to that work by the translators, Herbert C. Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover. Biringuccio's importance is also analyzed in James Gordon Parr, Man, Metals and Modern Magic (1958). □

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Biringuccio, Vannocio

Vannocio Biringuccio (vän-nô´chō bērēn-gōōt´chō), 1480–c.1539, Italian metallurgist. He is best known for his practical manual of metallurgy, De la pirotechnia (1540, tr. 1942). As a young man Biringuccio learned about metallurgy through visits to forges and foundries. He directed an iron mine and forge near Siena and was master of its arsenal and mint. Exiled twice because of changing regimes, he served in Venice and Florence as a caster of cannon and as a fortifications engineer. He was later called to Rome to head the papal foundry.

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