Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gold Fever in the Renaissance

The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value.

~Arthur Schopenhauer.

Alchemy is the dream of how to produce gold, but until it became known that gold had a permanent place in the system of the elements, it was not only a dream, it was also a serious belief. Learned men worked on proving this belief, supported by rich princes and aristocrats, who were often alchymists themselves. It was practised in ancient Egypt, in Mesopotamia (Iraque), India, Persia, China, Japan and in medieval Europe up till the 19th century. Alchemy is mostly known for the gold-aspect, but it was not only about gold, it was also about creating an elixir of life, it was about the four elements and the three principles. Up till the 1700s the penalty was death, if someone critized the learning about the elements and the principles.

In the Renaissance, about 300 years ago, a foreigner came to Copenhagen, and he was very well greeted by the Danish king, Frederik III. He was given residence at the castle, equipped with horses and carriage, with four servants and a nobleman for his attendance, with a weekly salary of 100 rigsdaler, which was an amount equal to the highest officials of the kingdom. The cause of this luxurial treatment was not just politeness - king Frederik III expected to get something in return: Gold. He needed money after two Swedish wars and maybe a third to come, and he was sure that this Italian, Francesco Borri, and his art work would deliver a magnificent result.

People in Frederik III's ruling period.

In the 1600s was imagined that gold could be produced via chemistry. Since the early Middle Ages experiments had been done about metal transformation, especially copper and silver. Those two metals were now meant to the base of the gold process, but one thing was missing. Lapis philosophorum (the philosopher's stone). Those three ingredients were the main content of the alchemy-process, the forerunner of modern science. Seriously working, learned men were engaged in it, and rich princes and aristocracy supported their experiments. A big bunch of charlatans lived in their shadows, taking part of the millions, which was the costy price of this golden dream.

Frederik III was not the only Danish king, who was interested in alchemy, but maybe the one, for whom the lesson cost him dearest. His determined speculations were probably the contribution to that others went out on the same dangerous road. One was the nobleman Valdemar Daa, who lost his two castles, Lerkenfeldt and Borreby. The Danish author H.C. Andersen wrote a fairy tale about the alchymist Valdemar Daa and his daughters.

Francesco Borri

The Italian, who came to Denmark , Francesco Borri, was 40 years old, when he began working for the Danish king. His past was colourful, he had to leave his homeland, banned and convicted of heresy, after a failed attempt of changing both the ecclesiastical and secular affairs. After years abroad he came to Holland, where he became a respected alchymist and made himself known by performing an eye operation, which was later revealed as a fraud. In Amsterdam he got aquainted with a Danish learned man, who probably arranged his connection with the royal Danish court.

He began at once to work at the laboratory at Copenhagen's castle, and a speciel oven was built for his experiments. The working conditions were not satisfying however, and a year later were the oven and the work house moved to a general's farm, leased by the king. No one knew about his working methods, but some lists reveal the used ingredients - salpeter, sulphur, wood and copper plates were some of the used materials. In the museum collections at Rosenborg castle is a small silver box with a lump of gold, which is said to belong to the alchemistic pieces produced in Frederik III's time.

Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.


Borris did not stay in Denmark for long. Frederik III died suddenly on 9. February 1670, and the crownprince , now Christian V, was of quite another opinion about alchemy, which Borri was fully aware of. He chose to clear out as quick as possible and went to Constantinople, but on his way south he was caught up by his past. He was taken prisoner in Austria and sent to Rome, where the Papal court of justice awaited him. He died in 1695 after 25 years of imprisonment.

Shortly after Borri's hasty departure Christian V let all traces of his work remove from the buildings, but the house was named "Guldhuset" (the Gold House) for more than 100 years - as a memory about the time, where the alchemy was a serious part of the finansial considerations by the leading men of the country.

But the history about alchemy is extremely comprehensive. This was just a small part about a Renaissance king, who needed gold, because he had been involved in wars and wanted to buy back some land he had lost.


Source: Skalk, archaeological magazine, nr. 6, 1967, Olaf Jørgensen


Wanda..... said...

The want of gold is in every country's history, but not necessarily every man's!

Joan said...

This is so interesting Grethe. Thank you! The stuff of wizards and magicians.. but the beginnings of science. What a world we live in. I enjoyed this post.

Teresa Evangeline said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Your final statement reminds me of our own country's misuse of funds, shall we say. This was very interesting. Thank you for writing about it.

Thyra said...

Thank you Wanda, Joan and Teresa!
Gold and diamonds have always been the cause of much trouble. Money, money, money. It's strange that people for so many centuries and in so many countries still kept believing that they could produce gold.
Grethe ´)

CherylK said...

I really do enjoy reading your posts, Grethe. It's a learning experience and a very enjoyable one at that! Thank you for taking the time to write these wonderful lessons.

MyMaracas said...

I always learn something interesting when I come here.

Isn't it strange, man's fascination and greed for a soft yellow metal?

Thyra said...

Hej Cheryl and Maracas!
Thank you very much. I think the history about gold is fascinating, this metal beingboth the cause of good and bad. When they find the gold jewelry and other artifacts in excavations, the gold is still perfect after thousands of years
in the soil.
My computer broke completely down last Saturday, ´( But I have now had a new one installed yesterday, (Saturday). That's great! I can see that you all have made lots of great posts!

CherylK said...

How exciting to have a new computer! Now you can write to your heart's content.

Thyra said...

Cheryl, I have to fight for my right place first! There's nothing wrong with the programme, IMHO it's just contrary and "pissing off its territory" - and it's different from "my" old programme in some areas! I had to take a break to get my temper down, but cannot keep away from it anyway!
Grethe ´)