Pharmaceutical Furnace
Italy, ca 1700
Terracotta, glazed
H 87 cm

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The unusual furnace present, with its pointed tower-like shape, complex ornamentation and impressive materiality provokes questioning. In fact, this is neither a common heating stove nor drying kiln, but an extremely rare Athanor, a pharmaceutical device used by alchemists of the Early Modern period. Made of glazed terracotta, it is an object of utility, but its aesthetic appearance, being decorated with mascerons, stars and garlands has far exceeded its practical use. The furnace can be dismantled into three parts, functional elements such as handles and openings have been cleverly integrated into the ornamentation - historical repairs bear witness to its repeated use.
The lowest part was used to hold coal, which could smoulder at low temperatures. The middle part is placed on top, remains of an integrated grid, also made of terracotta, testify to the fact it once held a vessel. Lateral openings allow hot air to escape or substances extracted to be discharged. The upper part, with its pointed top, prevented the untimely cooling of the mixture, which could be kept at temperature for a long time, sometimes referred to as ‚digesting’ or ‚incubating’. This tower-shaped construction, with the pointed lid and egg-shaped vessel inside, is typical of the Athanor and can be seen in many illustrations, for example on the frontispiece for Heinrich Kuhnrad's treatise Warhaft Bericht vom philosophischen Athanor, und dessen Gebrauch und Nutzen (...).

There is disagreement about the correct description and definition of an Athanor, today as with the Early Modern alchemists. What they have in common is that all of them served the purpose of incubating the Philosophical Egg, which was used in attempts to create the Philosopher's Stone as well as other alchemical concoctions. Often the terms Philosophical Furnace, Piger Henricus, Lazy Henry or in German, Fauler Heinrich, are mentioned in this context, referring to stoves that didn’t need constant monitoring as the coals could slide into the coal basin from an attached pipe. Authors like Georg Wilhelm Wegner and others make clear that Athanor is an Arabic word and translates to furnace. His colleague, Christoph Heinrich Kessel, described the Athanor and the Piger Henricus as different stoves in 1749 and reported the following about their use:
The ovens used by the chymists long ago are 1) the so-called Athanor. The predecessors needed this one for long digestions if they wanted to make the lapidem {Philosopher’s Stone}, and one can read about this stove the Libavium and Henr. Condradum, who also wrote about this stove. 2.) The Lazy Henry (Piger Henricus). This furnace is of good service for digesting and distilling, and once it is filled with coals, it will last twelve to fourteen hours, without the need to keep the fire going by stoking it. But the heat that it gives off is not too great (...).

These difficulties in defining even the Athanor, the undisputable centre of the alchemical laboratory for centuries, suggest how varied early modern alchemy was and how complex it is to grasp. Thus, one of the most important findings of the latest research is that early modern alchemy contains an impressively large, variance of ideas, practices and practioners - these large differences are downright typical. It is hence hardly possible to give a clear definition of alchemy, which in the course of time developed into the pharmacy and chemistry we know today. Reports and chemical analyses suggest that the laboratories of Early Modern period also produced drugs. One would therefore be mistaken to think in this context only of the Philosopher's Stone or the transmutation of base metals into gold. What most alchemists have in common, however, is that they feel connected to a higher task, not only to economic production, and are combining theory and practice (Principe, p. 60). Their equipment was initially often borrowed from metalworking workshops and kitchens and further developed to suit their specific needs. In general, the laboratories themselves and the quality of the alchemists' technical equipment were as varied as their professional and social backgrounds: depending on the social status and financial means of the alchemists and their patrons, size and quality varied greatly. In the 16th and 17th century European courts often had their own laboratory - sometimes used by princes, kings and emperors themselves. Only few preserved alchemical objects, such as the gilded distilling furnace of Landgrave Moritz of Hesse Kassel, refer to this practice. This splendid furnace shows the high education and interests of the count - as a symbolic showpiece it also testifies to the artistic quality and representational power found in alchemical objects. The Museum of Science in London however owns a comparable piece, which is also made of glazed terracotta, but represents a different type and hence shape of furnace. The coat of arms on its wall clearly points to the fact it was once in the possession of a princely owner. Also, the Museo Storice Nazionale dell'Arte in Rome shows alchemical equipment labelled as Athanor, but it is only distantly related to the present stove. One reason why so few objects have survived may be that they weren’t portable, like the present furnace, or subjected to heavy use. Today, most of these built-in stoves have unfortunately been lost along with their original context. Many museums today therefore make use of replicas. Other sources such as treatises and artistic depictions, also show smaller furnaces within the laboratories, some of which are put on tables. However, as a popular, sometimes socio-critical motif, these depictions are not committed to faithful reproduction. Nevertheless, some of these treatises serve the purpose of illustrating the processes in an alchemical workshop. In addition, the Athanor plays an important role in love symbolism and can hence often be found in emblemata and illustrations.

Ornamentation and ikonography of the present stove also refer to its use: besides garlands, mascarons, eight-pointed stars and lion feet, there are several depictions of the Sirena Bicaudata, a siren with a split tail. Comparable grimacing faces can be seen not only on the already mentioned distilling furnace of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolffenbüttel, but also frequently as mascarons on other pharmaceutical equipment of the Early Modern period. Italian mortars in particular often show comparable depictions. The Sirena Bicaudata in turn refers to fertility, a symbolism typical of alchemy, since the alchemist himself is understood as a creator. The eight-pointed star, the symbol of the goddess Ishtar, which is assigned to the planet Venus, can also be understood as a reference to fertility. The same motif is found, for example, on Terra sigillata tablets from Lemnos, Greece, a fat clay that was considered to have healing properties.
Material, execution and ornamentation lead to the assumption that the present furnace was made in Italy around 1700. Its elaborate ornamentation and aesthetic appearance suggest that it once belonged to a high-ranking alchemist or pharmacist who used it not only for practical but also for representative purposes. As a very rare, high-quality artwork it evokes the origins of today's sciences - an impressive historical testimony of the history of the pharmacy and chemistry we know today.

Published in: Raum für Objekte - Ariane Laue Kunsthandel, Kat.VI - No. 17, Munich 2019