The Thing about Alchemy . . . Secrets, Mixtures, and Discerning the Alchemical in the Potter’s Art

Fellow in Focus
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
5:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m. EDT (UTC -4)

How were maiolica and lusterware made in the 16th century? What do the hidden techniques and craftsmanship tell us about the intellectual and social value of these products?


Lustered Armorial plate by Maestro Giorgio, 152P

Lustered Armorial Plate, tin-glazed earthenware with silver luster from the workshop of Giorgio di Pietro Andreoli, 1524.

Digital image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Open Content Program

In Renaissance European courts and court workshops, alchemical production of ceramic objects and glazes were seen as improvements of nature by art. Alchemy, aligned with making useful, curious, and delightful things, inspired elite attention to the mechanical arts and linked the making of lusterware and specific sorts of maiolica like istoriato to alchemical agency.

The thing about alchemy . . . in the applied arts is that it is both material and social. On the one hand, the alchemical object is a product of secrets and mixtures derived from alchemical procedures and recipes; on the other hand, it is a matter of discernment linked to judgments about the object’s rarity, hidden technique, and craftsmanship.  

This Fellow in Focus lecture is free and open to the public. It also serves as the keynote lecture for our virtual Applied Arts of Alchemy scholarly symposium.

Distillations Happy Hour

Join us after the lecture at 6:30 p.m. for a happy hour hosted by Distillations podcast hosts Elisabeth Berry Drago and Alexis Pedrick, featuring presentations by Cain Dissertation Fellow Meagan S. Allen and Allington Postdoctoral Fellow Megan Piorko.

Allen will provide a short history of the art of distillation and its applications to alchemy. She will also demonstrate how rosewater and other distillates can be produced at home. Participants will be encouraged to purchase their own rosewater, which we will then incorporate into an alchemist-approved cocktail.

With your beverage in hand, sit back and enjoy Piorko’s show-and-tell of rare books from the Othmer Library that contain references to distillation. She will explain how 17th-century readers used and reused texts in order to work through practical alchemy, revealing the visual evidence they left behind.

About the Speaker


Bruce Moran headshot

Bruce Moran

Bruce Moran is a cultural historian with a general interest in the history of science and medicine, and focuses his research on combinations of Latinate, humanist traditions, social practices, and artisanal know-how. 

He is the author of many books and articles, including Distilling Knowledge (2005), Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy (2007), and Paracelsus: An Alchemical Life (2019). He is the editor of the Cultural History of Chemistry in the Early Modern Age (forthcoming in 2021) and coeditor of Bridging Traditions: Alchemy, Chemistry, and Paracelsian Practices in the Early Modern Era (2015). 

About Fellow in Focus

The Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus Lecture series gives the Institute’s scholars an opportunity to present their work to a broad audience interested in history, science, and culture. Fellow in Focus lectures are presented by the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry.