New Exhibition on Alchemy Opens!

“Perfecting Nature: Medicine, Metallurgy and Mysticism, Alchemical Texts from Special Collections,” an exhibition of alchemical books and manuscripts from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which will be on view in the Special Collections Exhibition Gallery on the second floor of Morris Library from Tuesday, August 21, 2012 through Friday, December 14, 2012.

Alchemy is a complex and mysterious art which began in ancient times and continued for thousands of years before being challenged as a legitimate science in the eighteenth century despite the many contributions and scientific facts alchemists established through their experiments. Alchemy was practiced in the Middle East, Asia and all across Europe. Many eminent scientists, religious figures and royalty were practitioners of alchemy, including Isaac Newton, Pope John XXII, and John Dee.

It is well-known that alchemists searched for the Philosopher’s Stone in order to transmute lead into gold and sought to create the elixir of life which has remarkable healing properties, provides longevity and possibly even immortality. Alchemy includes religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as, mysteries and riddles to solve in order to achieve personal transformation. Alchemy is steeped in rich symbolism and alchemical works are accompanied by beautiful woodcuts and engravings.

Alchemists believed that substances, such as metals could be transformed into other substances through laboratory processes.  The virtues of plants and minerals were also observed and studied by alchemists. Many alchemists were blacksmiths or physicians.

Alchemists were both men and women of intelligence, who were seekers of truth –called ‘Adepts’.  Alchemists are considered the ‘Fathers of Laboratory Technique’ and alchemical experiments have greatly contributed to the practice of medicine paving the way towards homeopathy and other remedies.  Practitioners of alchemy performed real experiments and developed a theory of natural philosophy. They sought to conquer nature with natural processes and therefore perfect nature.

On exhibition will be works that highlight alchemy’s history, beliefs and practices.  These texts contain extraordinary woodcuts and engravings of alchemical emblems and symbols. The materials on display are from the Unidel History of Chemistry Collection, a collection within the Special Collections Department at the University of Delaware Library.

In 1968, with support from the Unidel Foundation, the University of Delaware Library acquired a collection of nearly 2,000 primary sources in the history of chemistry. The collection was formed over a thirty-year period by an Italian chemist and contained landmark works of chemical literature, often in many editions, in-depth holdings by less well-known figures, and extensive runs of early chemical journals. It included several manuscripts and incunabula, and many works in alchemy, natural philosophy, pharmacy, and related fields of physics, medicine and the occult sciences.

Since the Unidel History of Chemistry Collection was acquired it has grown as  the University of Delaware Library has continued to strengthen its existing holdings. The great depth of the holdings in science and technology reflects the University of Delaware’s program and research strength in these areas.

The Unidel Chemistry Collection at Special Collections contains a vast amount of seminal alchemical texts.  On display will be works by Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary founder of alchemy as well as famous alchemists Avicenna, Paracelsus, Basil Valentine, Ramon Llull, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Roger Bacon, Robert Fludd and two copies of Mutus Liber or “Mute Book,” a highly influential alchemical work which contains only engravings and is read through the symbols contained in the artwork.

“Perfecting Nature: Medicine, Metallurgy and Mystics, Alchemical Texts from Special Collections” was curated, designed and installed by Laurie Rizzo, assistant librarian in the Special Collections Department, with assistance from Anita Wellner, library assistant in the Manuscripts and Archives Department, on exhibition preparation.

Laurie Rizzo

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