Vannoccio Biringuccio

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Biringuccio, Vannoccio

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


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.


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

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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Vannoccio Biringuccio


Italian Metallurgist

Although he had a tempestuous career in which he found himself embroiled in the political intrigue that characterized Renaissance Italy, Vannoccio Biringuccio is known chiefly for a book that appeared only after his death. This was De la pirotechnica, an encyclopedia of metallurgical knowledge focused more on technique and observation than on scientific generalization.

Biringuccio was born in Siena in 1480, and grew up amid the turmoil of the era. During this period Italy, which had not been united under a single government since Roman times—and would not be again until the 1800s—was dominated by powerful families of warlords and tycoons, the most famous of which were the Borgias and the Medici. The first family of Siena were the Petrucci, and from the beginning of his career Biringuccio was associated with them.

Under the patronage of Pandolfo Petrucci, young Biringuccio traveled throughout Italy and Germany, beginning to compile the information that would go into his life's work, the Pirotechnica. Pandolfo later appointed him director of mines in a town near Siena, and following the elder Petrucci's death in 1512, Biringuccio aligned himself with Borghese, Pandolfo's son.

Borghese appointed Biringuccio to a post in the Siena armory, but in 1515 Biringuccio found himself caught up in a controversy that had at its root a rival political faction's antipathy toward the Petrucci. On claims that Borghese had ordered Biringuccio and mint director Francesco Castori to debase the currency by adding base metal to the silver and gold, all three men were forced to leave the city along with their families and many others.

During the period of his exile, which lasted until 1523, Biringuccio traveled around Italy and Sicily. Finally Pope Clement VII became involved in the Siena conflict, and through his efforts the Petrucci family were restored to power under the leadership of Fabio, Borghese's younger brother. Biringuccio, too, was returned to his former position and property, and in 1524 was granted a monopoly over the saltpeter trade, valuable for its uses in making munitions.

Just two years later, however, the Petrucci were again thrown out, this time for good. Biringuccio lost all his property, but was fortunate enough to be in Florence when the crisis broke out in Siena. During his second exile, from 1526 to 1529, he traveled again to Germany; then, with the restoration of peace in Siena in 1530, he returned to his hometown.

During the early 1530s, Biringuccio held a number of key posts in Siena, and in 1538 was appointed director of the papal foundry and the papal munitions in Rome. He did not hold these positions for long, however: in early 1539, he died in Rome at the age of 59.

The following year saw the publication of the Pirotechnica, a book containing a career's worth of knowledge on mining ores and extracting metals from them. Because Biringuccio was a practical metallurgist and not a scientist, the book is little concerned with theory or speculation; nonetheless, it made an invaluable handbook for students of the subject, and went into nine subsequent editions over the next 138 years.


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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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Vannoccio Biringuccio

1480-c. 1539

Italian engineer and metallurgist who produced De la Pirotechnia (1540)—the first comprehensive account of mining practices. Pirotechnia describes mining of metallic ores and semimetals. Also described are furnaces and methods for smelting and alloying, various casting techniques, and the manufacture of canons and gunpowder. Biringuccio's descriptions are based on his experiences running an iron mine and forge for the tyrant of Siene, casting canons for Venice, and heading the papal foundry and arsenal.