A large network of alchemical agents spread from the tiny, land-locked duchy of Saxe- Gotha-Altenburg outward across Europe. At its centre, Duke Friedrich I (1646–1691) meticulously documented his interactions with many alchemical personalities during the 1670s and 1680s. The story of one such personality illustrates the changing meanings of distant alchemical knowledge both to the inner circle of courtly alchemists and to a larger alchemical republic. Born near Gotha, Johann Otto von Hellwig (1654–1698) built his pan-European career on a youthful stay on Java. To some, this indicated his access to exotic naturalia which might be imported to a centre of collection, such as Gotha. For others, Hellwig could access a wisdom hidden abroad since ancient Egypt, which should be disseminated among widely dispersed adepts. These viewpoints indicate different functions for distant knowledge, as well as differing desired trajectories for this knowledge.
Many studies of early modern natural history focus upon observational, empirical techniques. Early moderns also contended with entities which could no longer be observed because they no longer existed. Although it is often assumed that extinction only emerged as a concept in the eighteenth century, the concept of natural loss appeared, often unproblematically, in areas outside natural philosophy. A survey of discussions of the extinct plant silphion across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shows that the possibility of natural loss was well aired. Paper technologies for collecting extinct nature ran parallel to investigations of newly found nature, and thus can place the latter in a new light. Although ideas of natural mutability often drew on ideas of historical or political change rather than philosophical concepts of natural constancy, techniques developed for extinct nature, such as the list of lost things, remained influential for the research agendas of naturalists.
A new, illustrated source, “Drebbel’s Description of his Circulating Oven,” sheds light on the thermostatic oven of Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633), a Dutch alchemist, engineer, and philosopher active in Holland, Zeeland, London and Prague. The “Description” survives in two German copies. It describes two new inventions, a “Judicium” (which we might call a thermometer) and a “Regimen” (which we might call a feedback control mechanism). It thus engages longstanding debates concerning the invention of the thermometer. More fundamentally, it engages the relationship of artisanality and philosophy. The “Description” highlights the entangled origins of both instruments, which emerged through combined concerns of alchemy, engineering, philosophy, and natural magic. In the early seventeenth century, the term “thermometer” indicated an object with a more expansive role than it later would. The later emergence of a distinct scientific instrument industry, separating previously entangled roles, has colored subsequent views of such instruments and their makers.
Since Walter Houghton’s influential 1942 article, the English virtuoso has played a large role in the early modern histories of art, of science, and of relationships between them. This emphasis has obscured alternatives, such as the “lover.” This essay challenges the historiographical predominance of the Royal Society virtuoso through a brief survey of the relative uses of virtuoso and “lover” (also liefhebber, Liebhaber and amator) in England in the first half of the seventeenth century. It then offers the counterpoint of the socially and disciplinarily inclusive concept of philomathia developed by Jena Professor Erhard Weigel (1625–1699) in his school of “Art and Virtue” and his proposed College of Art Advisors, a model which raises challenging questions for the Restoration virtuoso.