Tuesday, 17 November 2020

De la Pirotechnia: A Review by Dr Franklin MM White

 Very few people will have heard of this book but I am grateful to Dr. Franklin White for bringing it to our attention. Franklin is the author of the recently published biography of his father, Frank White, Miner with a Heart of Gold (posting of 21st September).

Franklin writes:

Among the historic works in my bookshelves are translations of two classics in mining and metallurgy: De la Pirotechnia1 by Vannoccio Biringuccio, and Georgius Agricola’s De re Metallica2. Agricola’s iconic work is widely recognized, but Biringuccio’s seminal contribution less so although he was the first to publish a range of knowledge that until then had been transmitted almost exclusively by oral tradition.

De la Pirotechnia published in 1540 in Italian, is considered the first printed book on the processes of ore reduction and the applied metal arts. It predates Agricola’s Latin text De re Metallica by 16 years. Both works were published posthumously, in the year following their deaths.

An English translation of De la Pirotechnia was published in 1942 by The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.  It was written by Cyril Stanley Smith (a senior chemist on the Manhattan Project) and Martha Teach Gnudi (medical historian and translator).

Introduction to the Translation
Translators Smith and Gnudi evince deep respect for Biringuccio’s contributions. In their highly informative introduction, they examine his life, delve into the technical background and its place in metallurgical literature, and examine subsequent editions and translations. They observe that early translations into Latin, French, Spanish and English failed to adequately attribute the author; only one early translation into English (by Richard Eden in 1552), gave full acknowledgement.

As Harvey S Mudd (California Institute of Technology, and a mining engineer) states in his Foreword: 

“… Whether Biringuccio was a man of learning or a scholar according to the standards of his time we do not know, but today we recognize him as a man of science who gave his wisdom to succeeding generations… It can be surmised that … he received his training in the craftsman shops where the industrial arts were taught and flourished alongside the fine arts … Biringuccio was a practical, studious, unromantic figure with no favors to dispense.”

Smith and Gnudi note that Agricola in De re Metallica (1556) offers this measured recognition: 

“… Vannoccio Biringuccio of Sienna, a wise man experienced in many matters, wrote in vernacular Italian on the subject of the melting, separating and alloying of metals … by reading his directions, I have refreshed my memory of those things which I saw in Italy; as for many matters on which I write he did not touch upon them at all, or touched but lightly”. 

Yet, according to Smith and Gnudi: 

“Agricola’s ‘refreshing of his memory’ consisted of copying in extenso, without further acknowledgement, the earlier authors accounts of mercury and sulphur distillation, glass and steel making, and the recovery by crystallization of saltpeter, alum, salt and vitriol together with other less important sections. Agricola usually added a superior illustration and often provided valuable additional details.”

De la Pirotechnia 
In a single volume, De la Pirotechnia documents the technical aspects of mining, assaying, smelting and metal working. It contains ninety-eight chapters organized within ten “books”, supported by eighty-four wood-cut illustrations, and four appendices: clearly a work of major scholarship. 

Typical wood-cut illustration

As Biringuccio succinctly states (as translated): 

… in which are fully treated not only every kind and sort of mineral but also all that is necessary for the practice of those things belonging to the arts of smelting or casting metals and all related subjects. 

De la Pirotechnia provides insight into Biringuccio’s scientific objectivity and skepticism. He can be viewed as a forerunner to what we now consider the scientific approach. According to Smith:

“Few sixteenth-century works are so utterly devoid of superstition. Biringuccio recognizes that ill-luck is nothing but ignorance or carelessness and says that the founder can assure fortunes favoring him by careful attention to details. He laughs at those who use the divining rod and scorns the pseudo-magic of the alchemists … Though he ridicules their general approach, he concedes that practical alchemists have produced a number of useful things … 

Biringuccio’s approach is largely experimental … The state of chemical knowledge at the time permitted no other sound approach ... he does not follow the alchemists in their blind acceptance of theory which leads them to discard experimental evidence if it does not conform …”

"It was men like Biringuccio, the practical metalworkers, dyers, pottery makers, alum boilers and kindred artisans, who accumulated the basic facts for a chemical science during the period when learned men of church and university were engaged in lengthy but barren theological disputation. The artisans were the true scientists of this period, and if they lacked the flash of genius to produce a consistent theoretical framework, it must be remembered that even genius could do nothing without a reservoir of established fact…”

Life of Biringuccio
As portrayed by Gnudi, Biringuccio led an extraordinary life. He was born in Siena in 1480. His father, an architect, was superintendent of streets for the city, under the patronage of Pandolpho Petrucci (1452-1512), lord of the Republic of Siena, which consisted of Siena and surrounding Tuscany. 

In his early years, he travelled widely in Italy and Germany to pursue knowledge of mining and metals. On returning to Siena, he was tasked by Petrucci to direct the nearby iron mines. Following Pandolpho’s death, Petrucci family patronage continued under the auspices of son Borghese, who appointed him to the Siena Armory. In 1515, a popular uprising forced Borghese and his followers to flee Siena. Biringuccio and Francesco Castori, head of the mint, were accused of having debased the coinage alloy with the consent of Borghese. When he failed to appear in 1516 to answer these charges Biringuccio was exiled as “a traitor”. He travelled about Italy, including Rome and Naples, and visited Sicily in 1517.

In 1523 Pope Clement VII caused the reinstatement of Fabio Petrucci, a younger son of Pandolpho; Biringuccio’s sentence was revoked, his property restored, and his Armory position reinstated. In 1524 he was granted a monopoly on the production of saltpeter (potassium nitrate, used in gunpowder). But two years later, the people of Siena rose once more against the Petrucci and expelled them. Biringuccio was again declared rebel and his property confiscated. Between 1526 and 1529 Biringuccio entered the service of Alfonso I d’Este, lord of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, and made a second trip to Germany. In 1529 he cast the enormous culverin (long barreled cannon) for the Florentine Republic. 

When Siena’s political factions made peace in 1530, Biringuccio again returned: in 1531 he held office as a city Senator and in 1535 succeeded the famous Baldassare Peruzzi as architect and director of the Opera del Duomo.  During the years 1531-35 he was employed at times to cast arms and construct fortresses for Pier Luigi Farnese of Parma, Ercole d’Este, and the Venetian Republic.

In 1536 Biringuccio was offered a post in Rome, in the name of Pope Paul III.  Thus, in 1538, he became head of the papal foundry and director of papal munitions. He died in Rome in 1539, the year before his De la Pirotechnia was published in Venice in 1540.

While Biringuccio came from an educated and respected family, and enjoyed the confidence of Siena’s ruling family, he was not considered a true scholar by the norms of this time. A self-made man who learned by viewing and actually doing the work that was his passion, his unusual gift was a desire to document what he had learned. Thereby, he produced the first printed book dealing with the processes of ore reduction and the applied metal arts. That this was written in vernacular Italian led his work to be accorded less prestige than that of contemporaries who wrote in Latin, then considered the language of educated people across all fields. Nonetheless, that he was eventually appointed head of the papal foundry and director of papal munitions, is some measure of how his scientific and management talents were valued and trusted by the establishment of the day; he was competent and could get the job done. These realities conceded, his values would likely fit in better today than many of his peers: he did not blindly accept theory or discard experimental evidence if it did not conform. His belief that “ill-luck is nothing but ignorance or carelessness” and insistence on “careful attention to details” belong comfortably within modern management theory and good practice.  

De la Pirotechnia (English translation) is on the internet; some hard copies are still available. The wisdom of a sixteenth century man of science has come down to us: what can we learn from his story? 

Franklin MM White, Victoria BC, Canada, November 10, 2020

1Biringuccio V. De la Pirotechnia (1540). The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringucci translated from the Italian with an introduction and notes by Cyril Stanley Smith & Martha Teach Gnudi. The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, New York. 1942.
2Agricola G. De re Metallica (1556). In Hoover HC, Hoover LH. Trans London: The Mining Magazine 1912. Republished by Dover Publications. New York. 1950.


  1. I am really amazed at the in-depth study done by Dr.Franklin White and thus giving the essence in such a crisp and short manner. In a way I am really thrilled that this came from the son of that Great Prof.F.T.M.White--who made possible for me to go to U.Q. and carve out whatever I am now in the field of Mineral Engineerin--these were elaborated by me in the Blog you put on 21st Sept.

    In India also, we all wonder on the mystery of making metals/craftsmen ships when one looks at the statues/idols/bells in temples made by metals and alloys.

    So much to learn from this Blog --infact reading this history of "ancient metallurgy" make one wonder how people in those Yester Years could think of making metal.It must have been an ERA of innovative thinking and pectising which subsequently lead to all branches of earth sciences.Let us bow in humility at those names mentioned in the Blog.-- .
    Lesson to learn from my point of view is that "with all these developments in all branches of sciences and technologies" we should be able to achieve much better to take the chain of "exploration to exploitation with due concern to Society and Environment"to a GREATER HEIGHT.
    Dr.White, let me compliment you profusely once again after paying my tributes to our Legendary ,Prof.White--J.K. Centre in U.Q. stands out as a testimony to

  2. Thanks so much for your kind and relevant comments Professor Rao. Valued and very much appreciated. I am so glad you enjoyed the book review. Best wishes.


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