A recipe fit for a king

Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.

By Laurence Totelin

One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening.  He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.

Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper.  He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:

There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.[1]

Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:

Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.[2]

Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:

White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.[3]

Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!


[1] Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.11. A sextula is a sixth of an ounce. An hemina is a half of a sextarius. A sextarius is roughly the equivalent of a British pint.

[2] Galen, On Antidotes 1.1 (14.2 Kühn).

[3] Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Types 1.13 (13.414 Kühn).

Cipriano Piccolpasso’s Recipe for the Transmutation of Matter

By Steve Wharton

Cipriano Piccolpasso, Tav. 20, illustrations associated with the making of ‘lustres’, I Tre Libri Dell’Arte Del Vasajo… (1556-75), Dallo Stabilimento Tipografico, 1857.

Certain recipes can tell us a great deal about the cultural and sometimes the technological contexts within which they were compiled and disseminated. In his mid-sixteenth century Italian treatise, the Three Books of the Art of the Potter.., Cipriano Piccolpasso (1523-79) discussed and illustrated the technology and the manufacturing processes that were central to the making of tin-glazed earthenware pottery.[1] Frequently described as having been produced between the years 1556 and 1558, though revised throughout his lifetime, and as an instruction manual, the manuscript was unpublished until the mid-nineteenth century.[2] Today, it is considered the authentic voice of the sixteenth-century Italian potter. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, Piccolpasso’s descriptions are based on observation of the techniques and processes employed by the potters of Castel Durante, rather than practice. Nevertheless his treatise is consistently and frequently cited in highly technical physical and chemical analyses of Renaissance glaze and related technology.[3] The recipes discussed include those for colour as well as those for ‘ruby’ and ‘gold’ lustres: that is the addition of pristine metallic surfaces to otherwise finished ware. Piccolpasso says of them: ‘…I do not intend to go on further until I have discoursed to you upon gold maiolica, from what I have heard of it from others, not that I have ever made it or even seen it being done. I do know that it is painted over finished wares…’

While Piccolpasso is passing on hearsay, he nevertheless includes a recipe for what he calls Rosso da Maiolica [red maiolica]:

A            B

Red earth                           oz           3             6

Armenian Bole                 oz           1             0

Ferretto of Spain             oz           2             3

Cinnabar                            oz           0             3

to which he adds: ‘…with this last mixture ‘B’, include a calcined silver carlino [a burnt coin]’. In his marginal notes he confirms that ‘…this last mixture “B” is called golden maiolica’.

The inclusion of particularly cinnabar is at first a mystery; it has no function in a recipe such as this. It is only when we know that cinnabar is a compound of mercury and sulphur and that all the ingredients are ground together in a pot of red [i.e. strong] vinegar, one of the ‘sharp waters’ employed by alchemists, that things begin to make a little more sense. During the period, what were described as the ‘arts of fire’, which included the making of pottery, were also used to make not only high status bronze-cast sculpture and gold-cast jewellery, for example, but also to manufacture and prepare more ubiquitous substances such as pigments and other colouring agents for an array of manufacturing techniques. These included easel and fresco painting, tesserae for mosaics, fabric dyes and the decoration of glass and indeed pottery. As has been observed, alchemy, in terms of practical chemistry, was primarily concerned with the making of industrial products by using chemical processes; it was not necessarily concerned with the occult, the mystical or the spiritual.[4]

What Piccolpasso described was and is still known as a ‘transmutation lustre’ [my emphasis] in which a paste based upon raw clay is applied to the surface of a pot. It is a well-known technique: the fifteenth-century Hispano-Moresque potters used a red ochre clay corresponding exactly to that included in this recipe. A silver salt was added, in the form of a calcined carlino, together with a copper compound, known as Ferretto of Spain, to produce ‘gold’ lustre. No gold was ever used and in that sense it is the perception of gold that becomes significant.

The transmutation of base material into gold, however, was central to one of the alchemists’ most important aims, and mercury, sulphur and ‘sharp water’ were all part of the process. In his discussion of this recipe, Piccolpasso may well have been relying on what he knew of the presence of alchemy in all kinds of chemical and physical practice, including the production of gold maiolica. More specifically, he raises the question: to what extent might the potters of north-central Italy, in employing their own art of fire, be considered alchemists? What is more certain is that the philosophy associated with alchemy provides an insight into the ways in which knowledge and what kinds of knowledge were gathered and transmitted during the period. Ultimately, Piccolpasso’s record of what he understood as the recipe for ‘gold’ lustre reflected the endeavours of contemporary scholars and indeed pottery practitioners to cope with the challenges of defining and connecting all the different kinds and parts of knowledge that were circulating at that time.


[1] Piccolpasso, Cipriano, Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio nei quai si tratta non solo la pratica, ma brevemente tutti gli secreti di essa cosa che persino al dè d’oggi è stata sempre tenuta ascosta…ecc., National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London, MSL/1861/7446

[2] Caiani, A., 1857, I Tre Libri dell’Arte del Vasajo, Roma, dallo Stabilimento Tipografico, Via del Corso, num. 387.

[3] See, for example, G. Padeletti, G. M. Ingo et al, ‘First-time Observation of Maestro Giorgio Masterpieces by Means of non-destructive Techniques’, Applied Physics. A, Materials Science & Processing, 0947-8396, Padeletti, 2006, vol. 83 issue, 4, pp. 475-483; B. Brunetti et al., ‘Copper in Glazes of Renaissance Luster Pottery: Nanoparticles, Ions and Local Environment’, Journal of Applied Physics, 93/12, 2003, pp. 10058–63

[4] A. Y. Al-Hassan, Studies in al-Kimya’, 2009, p. 8; see also L. Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, 1998, p. 11.

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