Ruscelli, Girolamo (or Alexis of piedmont[?])

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(b. Viterbo, Italy; d. Venice, Italy,ca. 1565)

medicine, technological chemistry.

In the mid–1550’s there appeared numerous editions of a book entitled Secreti and attributed to an “Alessio Piemontese,” otherwise unknown. It was issued first from Italian presses—the earliest edition so far known was published in Venice in 1555—but the Italian text had been translated into French and English by 1558, and by the end of the sixteenth century the work had gone through more than fifty European editions, including Latin and German translations. The author, the presumed Alexis, explained in the preface to his book that in fifty-seven years of travel he had acquired a fund of natural secrets that now, at the age of eighty-four, he had decided to make public for the profit of mankind. The Secreti goes on to enumerate a wide range of empirically discovered recipes, including medicinal compounds, cosmetic preparations, and formulas for the chemical technology of pigments and dyes, metallurgy, and jewelry. No trace of Alexis’ s original version, supposed to have been composed in Latin, has ever been found.

A decade later, in 1567, a collection of similiar Secreti nuovi was published under the name of Girolamo Ruscelli, a minor literary figure who had died shortly before. Ruscelli’ s introduction to thhis work presents quite a different account of the genesis of the Secreti of Alexis Ruscelli explained that some years earlier, living in the Kingdom of Naples, he had belonged to a philosophical academy of perhaps two dozen members. The members had shared a house and laboratory, and had employed assistants (apothecaries, goldsmiths, perfumers) to help them in the experimental study of nature, with the aim of improving the human situation. Not only the Secreti nuovi, asserted Ruselli, but –those earlier ones which I published a few years ago of Donno Alessio Piemomtense… were in truth all collected in the aforesaid Academy and were tried and found out by our successful company.” Which of these two highly circumstantial accounts is the true one is impossible to decide with certainty. But it is worth noting that the Secreti of “Alexis” presents one medicinal decoction as having been communicated to the author “in Bologna in 1543 by Signor Girolamo Ruscelli”, which makes the claims of the Secreti nuovi, ten years later, seem somewhat less gratuitous.

The phenomenal popularity of the original Secreti implies a considerable influence. Lynn Thorndike supposed that it was the original stimulus behind the flood of books of secrets that began at this time. The Secreti nuovi, however, with its extremely interesting and very early plan for a scientific academy apparently was not widely read and is today a rare book.


These two works have been studied with some care in John Ferguson, “The Secrets of Alexis. A Sixteenth-Century Collection of Medical and Technical Receipts” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine,24 (1930), 225–46, which discusses the problem of authorship and gives a bibliography of early editions. Ferguson had seen no editions printed earlier than 1557; J. R. Partington subsequently cited the one of 1555, and claimed once to have seen an earlier edition (Rome, 1540) in a bookseller’s catalogue (History of Chemistry, II [London-New York, 1961], p. 28). More recently, Stanislaw Szpilczyński, “Tajemnice Mistrza Aleksego Pedemontana” in Kwartalnik historii nauki i techniki16 (1971), 27–51, has reviewed the known editions and looked at the work in the context of early experimental science. The contents of the Secreti have received little attention; see B. Boni, “Luto e cimature da fonderia tra i segreti alchemici di Alessio Piemontese,” “in Fonderia italiana, 5 (1956), 3–12 and Jerzy Piaskowski, “Technologia metali w Tajemnicach Aleksego Pedemontana,” in Kwartalnik historii nauki techniki16 (1971), 53–65.

Michael McVaugh