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The Mystery of Alchemy and its Influence on Baroque Glass Explored at The Corning Museum of Glass
Mortar and Pestle, Probably Amsterdam, perhaps 17th century. H. (mortar) 10.3 cm, L. (pestle) 13.1 cm. The Corning Museum of Glass (2006.3.78, gift of The Wunsch Foundation Inc.). Green. Blown.

CORNING, NY.- The impact of alchemy on glass will be explored in Glass of the Alchemists: Lead Crystal-Gold Ruby, 1650–1750, opening at The Corning Museum of Glass on June 27, 2008. The exhibition highlights the newly understood role of these 17th-century “chymists” in laying the foundation for modern material science. Often dismissed during their lifetimes as mere charlatans, their contributions to the creation of colorless lead crystal and gold ruby, two key developments in the history of glass production and artistry, have also previously been overlooked.

Drawn extensively from the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, the most comprehensive collection of glass in the world, the exhibition brings together 117 objects from eight international lenders, with 87 from the Corning Museum ’s collection. The exhibition is curated by Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, curator of European glass, The Corning Museum of Glass, and will be on view in Corning through January 4, 2009.

David Whitehouse, executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass, said: “We’re delighted to present this innovative exhibition that approaches fine 17th- and 18th-century glass vessels in a new way. As well as focusing on masterpieces of glassworking and engraving, it explores innovations in glassmaking—new formulas that created glass with new properties, and therefore new optical and decorative effects.”

“These marvelous innovations have long been viewed as the isolated achievements of individual, talented glassmakers working in the leading glassmaking regions of northern Europe ,” added von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk. “But this exhibition reveals the previously disregarded role of the mysterious scientists, whose experiments to unlock the secrets of nature wielded unexpected and profound results on the history of glassmaking.”

The exhibition will be the centerpiece of a broad roster of programs throughout the summer which will allow visitors to further explore the science, magic, and even wizardry, of the material—from hot glass demonstrations and interactive installations, to presentations that showcase the incredible properties of glass and make-your-own workshops where visitors will be able to create objects in the gold ruby color, ornament-sized wizard hats in fused glass and flameworked magic wands.

Alchemists traveled widely throughout northern Europe , interacting with glassmakers and disseminating their knowledge of material science and glass production. In some cases, they also turned to glassmaking themselves. In doing so, they served as a link between glassmakers in disparate regions of Europe and as far afield as Asia . This connection accounts for the rather unlikely, and nearly simultaneous, appearance of crystal glass in Baroque glassworks across Europe .

Often interpreted as accidents, the innovations of the alchemists were actually deliberate experiments that provided an unexpected foundation for today’s material sciences. Alchemists strived for the explanation of natural phenomena, especially of what they perceived to be the generation and growth of natural resources. Through experiments that simulated natural processes, this early stage of chemistry explored the basic natural sciences and technology of materials (metal, glass, ceramics, and their raw components). The knowledge gained was decisive in the discovery of colorless lead crystal in the 1670s and gold ruby glass a decade later.

In the 1670s and 1680s, Venetian glass reigned over the market, with its voluptuous, highly colored forms and thin-walled vessels. The northern European innovations revealed a shift in interest from glassblowing, showcased exquisitely in the Venetian style, to the material itself, facilitating the creation of vessels with walls thick enough to carve and cut in their decoration. Critical to these advancements were new glass formulas, an improved treatment of raw materials, and innovations in furnace technology. All of these came straight from the laboratories of alchemists. Repeated experiments, coupled with a deep knowledge of material science, allowed the alchemists to both select the right raw materials to produce the new variety of glass and to understand the potential interactions, both desirable and not, of the component elements. Such experimentation could not have happened in a large glassworks factory, where the focus was on production.

Baroque Chymists The exhibition introduces visitors to some of the unconventional scientists involved in these experiments and the resulting legacy of their ideas and travels. Deep curiosity—awe coupled with suspicion—in alchemy reached a climax in the Baroque era. Seen as a potential way to imitate nature, alchemy’s mysterious methods of transforming materials were crucial in the development of new ways of investigating nature during the height of the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. Alchemists were brought to noble courts to live and work in the hopes that they could harness untold riches from their experiments.

Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604–1670, b. Germany , lived Amsterdam ) is considered one of the first, and most influential, chymists. Glauber used a furnace in an Amsterdam glasshouse for some of his experiments, where his innovations were viewed first-hand by the glassmakers. He is credited with inventing a solution of gold that led to the production of gold ruby glass. While he took no active interest in glassmaking, his achievements provided a foundation of influence that spread across northern Europe and into Asia . His formulas were an essential part of the development of glass technology in the Baroque era.

In the early 1670s, two major glassmakers, Johan da Costa and Jor Odacio, emigrated from the Netherlands . Da Costa moved to England and Odacio to Ireland . It is believed that both were familiar with Glauber’s work, which they built upon to ultimately create the formula for lead crystal. This invention witnessed a major setback when the efforts to purify the formulas for clear glass led to the effect of crizzling, which results when glass has been purified to the point of losing the elements that help maintain its stability. Characterized by a delicately crackled surface, crizzled glass is often referred to as “sick glass.” The flaw was overcome by increasing the amount of lead, which heightened the stability of the glass. Da Costa’s formula was patented by George Ravenscroft, owner of the Savoy Glasshouse in England , which produced and sold English lead crystal that eventually found its way to the pioneer settlement of Jamestown in the United States .

On the European continent, an assistant of Glauber, Johann Daniel Crafft (1624–1697), is credited with circulating new techniques and ideas that were central to many Baroque glassmaking developments. A craftsman as well as chymist, he introduced opaque white glass to northern Europe and worked with many influential chymists and craftsmen, helping to spread Glauber’s ideas and techniques far and wide.

Johann Kunckel (1637(?)–1703) worked with Crafft in Dresden , and was the first to actually produce gold ruby vessels, using Glauber’s formulas. To provide a secluded location for his experiments, Kunckel’s patron, the Brandenburg prince Frederick William, donated an island in the Havel River between Berlin and Potsdam , which provided the ideal location for an isolated research laboratory where Kunckel could continue his production of gold ruby glass away from the eyes of imitators. When William died, Kunckel became the target of those who envied his progress and his island laboratory was set afire. Kunckel stayed for the most part in Brandenburg , but turned his interest to other fields of research, such as the extraction of copper from ores.

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