Italian gemology during the Renaissance: A step toward modern mineralogy
Published:January 01, 2006
Under the pressure of industrial demands following the discovery of South African diamonds, gemology became a science during the late nineteenth century by combining morphological mineralogy with mineral physics and chemistry. However, it underwent an empirical, pre- to semiscientific period during the Renaissance, when market novelties required development in gemological knowledge. Pliny's Naturalis Historia (1469) was the reference treatise on gemstones among scholars, but it was the Italian translation of this work by Landino in 1476 that made gem studies grow. Indeed, while scholarly mineralogy developed through Latin texts, practical arts related to minerals developed through light handbooks in the new European languages. In Italy, the most active trading center at that time, where luxury goods were brought to be set in gold and distributed to all of Europe, most gem traders possibly understood some Latin, but certainly their providers did not, nor their customers. This is why the first original Renaissance book on gems, Speculum lapidum, by Leonardi (1502), did not enjoy popularity until it was translated into Italian by Dolce in 1565. Similarly, Barbosa's accounts of travel to gem-producing India (1516) became known only after Ramusio translated them in 1554. Among gemological contributions in Italian, the most farsighted ones are Mattioli's translation of Dioscorides' De materia medica (1544) and Cellini's Dell'oreficeria (1568). Moreover, three manuscripts did not reach the stage of being printed: Vasolo's Le miracolose virtù delle pietre pretiose (1577), Costanti's Questo è ‘l libro lapidario (1587), and del Riccio's Istoria delle pietre (1597). They survived, however, to help clarify gem interests and activities by the merchant class in the transitional time from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Then, Italy lost its top position in culture and trade, and a Fleming, A.B. de Boot, wrote the treatise that summed up the available knowledge on gems at that time (1609).