Original paper

Origins of mineralogy: the age of Agricola

Schneer, Cecil J.

European Journal of Mineralogy Volume 7 Number 4 (1995), p. 721 - 734

23 references

published: Aug 1, 1995
manuscript received: Nov 8, 1994

DOI: 10.1127/ejm/7/4/0721

BibTeX file

ArtNo. ESP147050704002, Price: 29.00 €

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Abstract The empirical mineralogy of Agricola, Biringuccio, Conrad Gesner and Bernard Palissy grew out of the tension between an advanced minerals technology and an ancient natural history. The Age of Agricola was also the Age of Copernicus and Martin Luther and of the discovery of rich new deposits of silver in the ancient mining districts of central Europe as well as Mexico and Peru-new wealth that transformed irreversibly the existing social and political order. It was the Age of the Renaissance and the time of the introduction of printing to the West. By 1494, the year of Agricola's birth, mineral resources were being identified, mined, and processed on a near industrial scale, and used in nearly all the ways they are today. The men who created a corpus of 16th century mineralogical literature were physicians, theologians, scholars versed in the learning of the Medieval Aristotelians. They had studied the four sciences of the Quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and harmony. As Renaissance humanists they went back to the classics, the Natural History of Pliny, the Elements of Euclid, the mystical treatises of Hermes Trismegistus. As physicians they turned to Hippocrates and Galen. But they were also practical men, physicians of the Saxon mining towns, speculators in mining shares; Eucharius Rosslin, author of a medical herbal-mineralogy, Paracelsus, the father of chemistry, Riilein von Calwe, whose handbook of mining was the first to describe the geologic structures of mineral deposits. Vannoccio Biringuccio, the author of the Pirotechnia was a metallurgist and foundryman. They knew from their own experience the contradictions between the technology that surrounded them and the classical literature. Most of them knew each other, directly or through correspondence or through their work. They could have held an International Mineralogical Congress at Basel, the geographic and, because of Erasmus, the intellectual center of Europe. Agricola might have gone there with his classmate at Padua, Jerome Cardan, believed to be the link between the geology of Leonardo and the potter, Bernard Palissy; or Frobenius, the publisher and humanist patron of Erasmus, or Jakob Fugger, the banker for the Empire. Agricola's friend and Luther's adjutant, Philip Melanchthon wrote on Aristotle's theory of elements-his work cross-referenced with Cardan's natural histories, as were also the proto-molecular concepts of substance of Augustine Nifo and J.C. Scaliger. Albrecht Diirer's Platonic geometry suggested relationships of substance and form, but hardly crystallography. Diirer painted the explosion of the Ensisheim fireball of 1492; later repeating the image in Melencolia /, an engraving with sophisticated symmetries of form and number.