The current exhibition in the BPH, Alchemy on the Amstel, shows a number of works by Basil Valentine, and to some extent traces the influence of the writings that appeared under this wonderfully named adept.
I have noticed that Professor Lawrence Principe in his latest book ‘The Secrets of Alchemy’, University of Chicago Press, 2013, devotes almost a whole chapter to Valentine. In place of presenting yet another textual analysis, Principe instead took to the laboratory and tried to repeat some of the alchemical experiments in Valentine’s texts.
Being not only a historian of science but a teacher of chemistry at John Hopkins University, Principe had access to a good laboratory. He began with a puzzling experiment in Valentine’s classic The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, some copies of which are in the exhibition. This experiment involved removing the poison from antimony to produce a safe medicine. When Principe looked at the written description he thought it “unlikely in the extreme” that the toxicity of antimony could have been removed through this simple process, but unlike others he decided to put it to the test, by repeating the experiment.
The process involved making a glass of antimony by high temperature fusion, then extracting a red liquid using vinegar, and finally producing a red oil, the Sulphur of Antimony. Principe’s attempt to repeat this immediately fell at the first stage when despite his best efforts he could never achieve the “beautiful, yellow, transparent glass”, but only a dirty grey lump. Not giving up, he read the text more carefully and realised that Valentine had specified the use of Hungarian antimony ore, and having obtained some, this time was delighted to see the resulting yellow glass. Apparently this came about because the Hungarian ore contained a significant quantity of quartz.
No doubt, being enthused up by his success, he proceeded to the next stage, grinding the glass to a powder and extracting it with vinegar. Again he met with defeat. The vinegar did not produce a red extract, even after days of dissolving. He examined the text again, and saw that Valentine suggested stirring the roasting Hungarian ore mixture with an iron rod. So he did this and almost magically (well by chemical magic) the vinegar became a strong red. This he evaporated to a gummy residue which when extracted with alcohol gave rise to a sweet tasting oil. Principe realised that the process of stirring the molten antimony ore with an iron rod had resulted in the melt absorbing iron from the stirring rod, and the subsequent part of the process precipitated the antimony and extracted iron acetate, which, indeed, was non toxic.
Principe then repeated some further alchemical experiments. One of the conclusions to his book is that today we should read these alchemical works as coded practical experiments. When these are repeated sensitively then one may find that something that appears nonsensical to the present day chemist may in fact produce real observable results. He takes the view that the purely allegorical interpretation of such alchemical texts as the Twelve keys of Basil Valentine may miss the real chemistry hidden in the text, which requires a diligent and tenacious experimenter to reveal.