Barba, Alvaro Alonso

views updated

Barba, Alvaro Alonso

(b. Lepe, Huelva, Spain, 15 November 1569; d. Potosi[?], Peru [now Bolivia], ca. 1640)


In 1588 Barba was sent by the Church to Peru, where he combined priestly duties with studies of mineral deposits, mining, and especially the treatment of silver ores by amalgamation. He traveled widely in the Peruvian provinces, living in Tarabuco (1590) and Tiahuanaco (1615). In 1617 he moved to Yotala in Los Lipez province, where he perfected his new procedures for treating silver ore. After 1624 Barba served the San Bernardo parish in the famous silver town of Potosí, where he presumably died sometime after 1639. His one book, El arse de los metales (Madrid, 1640), brought him posthumous fame and is the main source of biographical information.

El arte was the first significant treatise on metals to be written in Spanish and is the only seventeenthcentury treatise that was largely original. Barba dedicated it on 15 February 1637 to Juan de Lizarazu, president of the Real Audiencia de la Plata of Peru, who transmitted it to Spain with the approval of the mayor and of the Amalgamators Guild of Potosí. It went through approximately thirty editions in Spanish, English, German, and French. The work reflects Barba’s rich enjoyment of the “qualities and Virtues [of the many] marvellous substances of this New World [which] will afford ample room for philosophic discourses when the bright Minds, now occupied in the tasks of taking out and enjoying the incomparable Riches of this Land, occupy themselves in the study of true Sciences” (Douglass and Mathewson, p.10). He bowed to theory by citing alchemical literature on the origins of earths, minerals, and salts, but he added clear descriptions of them and wrote mainly as an observant, practical man.

Barba excelled in his account of the treatment of silver ores by amalgamation, using processes that he himself had discovered and that were in large measure responsible for the wealth of the province. (Only Biringuccio’s outline of a simple process existed before this.) Barba’s amalgamation was done over heat in copper vessels with mechanical stirring devices, and he strongly emphasized the importance of tests to find the correct kind and amount of additive for each kind of ore to improve collection of the silver by the mercury and to prevent flouring. Barba was one of the first writers to advocate what amounts to a laboratory control of an entire plant process as well as the computation of all costs (including fuel, mercury, additives, depreciation of equipment, and labor) before undertaking an operation. He describes the local pre-Columbian smelting practice, and the use of the reverberatory furnace for smelting considerably before its widespread adoption.


Barba’s only work was El arte de los metales (Madrid, 1640,1680,1729,1768,1770,1811,1852,1932 [photo repro. of 1770 ed.]; Córdoba, 1675). There were also Spanish-American editions (Lima, 1817, 1842–1843; Santiago, 1877–1878; Norwood, Mass., 1925 [repro. of 1770 ed.]; La Paz, 1939). A partial English translation (Books I and II) was made by Edward Montagu, earl of Sandwich (London, 1670,1674,1738,1739,1740). The complete English translation is by R.E. Douglass and E.P. Mathewson (New York, 1923). French translations are by C. Hautin de Villars (Paris, 1729, 1730) and by Lenglet-Dufresnoy, under the pseudonym Gosford (Paris, 1751; The Hague, 1752). It also appeared in German translation (Hamburg, 1676, 1739; Frankfurt, 1739; Vienna, 1749, 1767; Ephrata, 1763).

The sparse biographical information on Barba has been summarized in Eugenio Maffei and Romón Rua-Figueroa, Apuntes para una hiblioteca española de libros... relatives al conocimiento exploratión de las riquezas minerales, I (Madrid, 1872), 61–65.

C. S. Smith

About this article

Barba, Alvaro Alonso

Updated About content Print Article