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Mercury in late antique and medical sources: practice and theory

Matteo Martelli (University of Bologna)

Matteo Martelli (PhD Greek Philology, 2007; PhD History of Science, 2012) is professor of History of Science at the University of Bologna. His research focuses on Graeco-Roman and Byzantine science — with particular attention to alchemy and medicine — and its reception in the Syro-Arabic tradition. His publications include The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus (2014) and Collecting Recipes. Byzantine and Jewish Pharmacology in Dialogue (2017; edited with L. Lehmhaus). He is the principal investigator of the ERC project AlchemEast, and he is currently working on a critical edition of the Syriac alchemical books ascribed to Zosimos of Panopolis.

In my talk I will present a survey of different ideas and practices that ancient natural philosophers, physicians, and alchemists developed with reference to mercury (or quicksilver) and its natural ore. By taking into account a wide array of ancient sources – Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides and Galen as well as Zosimus’ alchemical treatises (and their Syriac tradition) and Byzantine medical writings – it will be possible to reconstruct some procedures that were developed to extract and process mercury. These techniques, replicated in modern laboratories, will be discussed in their broader cultural context, with particular attention to ideas about the nature of mercury, its toxicity and its possible medical uses. As we shall see, experts in different ‘arts’ described similar procedures for manipulating mercury and cinnabar. These shared technical skills represent an important fil rouge that will allow us to cross the boundaries separating different fields and detect points of intersection between late antique alchemy and medicine.  

Respondent: David Leith (University of Exeter)

25 February 2021, 16:00 p.m. (UK time)

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