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Gold During the Renaissance

"Metallic gold is used by the alchemists to prepare a liquid that they affirm will restore youth when drunk."
Agricola, De natura fossilium, 1546.

The Renaissance, rebirth, or more strictly speaking the intellectual revival of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was marked by the advent of Humanism, a revolution in art, sculpture, and letters but with relatively little progress in natural science, and during much of the sixteenth century by the Reformation led by the son of a miner, Martin Luther (1483-1546). The Humanists devoted themselves to the study of the language, literature, and antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome, hoping to find in the past a novel form of thought about nature for the future. They considered themselves in rebellion against the scholasticism of medieval times and were preoccupied with man in relation to human society rather than to God. The foundation of the Vatican Library at Rome by Pope Nicholas V was a landmark of the Renaissance, as were also the writings of Alberti, Castiglione, Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, Shakespeare, and Luther in the fields of social and political thought, literature, and religious doctrine. In music, architecture, sculpture, and art it was the period of Orlando di Lasso, Palestrina, Brunelleschi, Raphael, Donatello, Botticelli, Titian, Cellini, Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Holbein, van Eyck, Breughel, and Michelangelo. As one gazes up at Michelangelo's Creation of Man on the ceiling of the vault of the Sistine Chapel of St. Peter's in Rome, one sees in Adam a veritable symbol of awakening Renaissance man marvelling at all about him.

Capitalism, the monetary system whereby talent and ability, not origin and estate, are the qualifying factors for its aristocracy, appeared in its first manifestations during the early Crusades (eleventh and twelfth centuries), grew slowly during later medieval times, and expanded rapidly during the Renaissance with the establishment of banks in Genoa, Florence, Augsberg, Lyon, and Antwerp, all controlled by powerful families. Among these were the Fuggers, initially weavers in Augsburg, of whom one, Jakob Fugger the Rich (1459-1525), banker to the Hapsburgs and the popes, created a financial empire through extensive investment in mining in Austria, Hungary, and Spain, thereby monopolizing the silver, lead, copper, and quicksilver production of Europe. This expansion of capitalism and investment in mining in central Europe, the Tyrol, and Spain stimulated mining and metallurgical technology and the publication of various tracts dealing with these subjects, some of which are described next.

The Humanists contributed little to the progress of natural science because they were on the whole more interested in the relationship of man to man than in that of man to nature and more absorbed in literature than in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Nevertheless, as scientists we owe them a debt of gratitude for accurate translations of many Greek and Roman scientific treatises that were to form the bases for the advance of science in modern times. These treatises were to have a great influence on Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, and Galileo. We also find this influence reaching out to Calbus, Biringuccio, Agricola, and Ercker, the most celebrated of the earth scientists and metallurgists of the Renaissance.

The advanced technology utilized in gold mining and placering, and described by the Renaissance writers, was all developed during the High and Late Middle Ages and are briefly mentioned in the previous chapter. Blasting techniques for breaking rock and ore using black powder seem to have been experimented with in the late years of the Renaissance, but explosives did not find widespread use in mining until modern times.


The invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century was followed during the Renaissance by many small treatises on various technical arts, among which those dealing with mining and metallurgy are of great interest to us in the context of gold. Here belong Bergwerk-und-Probierbziehlein by Calbus of Freiberg, De la Pirotechnia by Biringuccio of Siena, De re metallica by Agricola of Joachimsthal and Chemnitz, and Beschriebung Allerfiirnemisten Mineralischen Ertzt und Berckwercksarten by Ercker of Annaberg. All of these works became standard references immediately on their publication and remained so for more than a century.

In the dialogue of Bergwerk-und Probierbiichlein (written about 1497 by Calbus (Ulrich Riilein von Kalbe), learned doctor and onetime burgomaster of Freiberg in Saxony) the master miner Daniel (probably the first mining geologist) explains to his apprentice Knappius the nature and origin of mineral deposits. In the translation by Sisco and Smith (1949, p. 19) we read:

"It should be realized that for ores to grow or to be born requires an agent to exert an influence, and a passive thing or matter that is qualified to be influenced. In the words of the naturalists, the common maker of ore and all other things that are born is Heaven with its movement, radiance, and influence. The influence of Heaven is diversified by the movement of the firmament and the countermovement of the seven planets. In this way each metallic ore receives an influence from its own particular planet, specifically assigned to it because of the characteristics of the planet and the ore, and also because of their conformity in warmth or frigidity, moisture or dryness. Thus, gold is made by the Sun or his influence, silver by the Moon, tin by Jupiter, copper by Venus, iron by Mars, lead by Saturn, and quicksilver by Mercury. That is why Hermes and other learned men often call the metals by these names, that is, they call gold sun, in Latin sol, and silver moon, in Latin luna....
But the passive thing, or the common matter of all metals, is, according to the opinion of the philosophers, sulfur and quicksilver, which, through the movement and influence of Heaven, must be joined and hardened into a metallic body or an ore. Some think that through the movement and influence of Heaven vapours or fumes (called exhalationes minerales) of sulfur and quicksilver are pulled up from the depth of the earth, which, when ascending through fissures and fractures [which become the veins and stringers] are united by the influence of the planets and are made into ores. But there are others who do not believe that metals are made from quicksilver because metallic ores occur in many locations where no quicksilver is found. They assume, instead of quicksilver, a moist, cold, muddy matter, without any sulfur, that exudes from the earth as if it were its sweat, and think that all metals are made by its commingling with sulfur. But never mind; if you understand and interpret them correctly, both theories are right; that is, ore or metal is made of the moisture of the earth, called matter of the first order, and of vapours and fumes, called matter of the second order, both of which shall here be called quicksilver. Thus, in the mingling or union of quicksilver and sulfur in ore, sulfur acts as the male seed and quicksilver as the female seed in the birth or conception of a child. That is the story of sulfur as a special, qualified maker of ores or metals."

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Rafal Swiecki, geological engineer email contact

This document is in the public domain.

March, 2011