Vannoccio Biringuccio

The Italian mining engineer and metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-1539) is famous for his important book, De la pirotechnica.

Vannoccio Biringuccio was born in Siena, where he became embroiled in politics because of his friendship for the ruling Petrucci family. Probably because of his patron, Pandolfo Petrucci, he was able to travel during his early years through Italy and Germany and to begin to assemble the material which was to be the encyclopedia Pirotechnica (or Pirotechnia). Upon his return to Siena, Pandolfo made him director of the mines in nearby Boccheggiano.

After Pandolfo died in 1512, Biringuccio supported his son Borghese Petrucci and was named to a post in the Armory of the Siena Commune. In 1515 Biringuccio and the head of the mint, Francesco Castori, were accused of debasing the currency with the approval of Borghese. A popular uprising forced Borghese and his followers, including Biringuccio, to flee the city. Having failed to appear in 1516 to face the charges against him, Biringuccio was declared a rebel and exiled. During this period he traveled around Italy. In 1517 he made his way to Sicily.

Pope Clement VII intervened in the Siena crisis in 1523, and thanks to him, the Petrucci family was restored to power in the person of Fabio, a younger brother of Borghese. Biringuccio was also returned to favor, his property restored, and his position in the armory regained. In 1524 he was given a monopoly in the whole Siena dominion on the manufacture of saltpeter.

In 1526, while Biringuccio was on a mission in Florence, the Sienese people again rose up and this time banished the Petrucci forever. Biringuccio was classified as a rebel, and all of his property was again taken away. Later he took part in an assault upon Siena, but the whole effort was unsuccessful.

Between 1526 and 1529 Biringuccio made a second trip to Germany. When peace returned to Siena in 1530, he returned there. He held office as a city senator and in 1535 became architect and director of building construction of the Cathedral. Meanwhile, between 1531 and 1535, he was engaged in making arms and fortresses under contract to persons outside Siena.

In 1536 Biringuccio was invited to Rome but delayed going. He finally went when he became the director of both the papal foundry and papal munitions in 1538. It is probable that he died while in Rome, and though the exact date of his death is unknown, it occurred before April 30, 1539, for on that date a list appeared of his debts to his heirs.

The Pirotechnica was not printed until 1540, and in the next 138 years there were nine editions. In his masterwork Biringuccio explains the techniques for mining ores and extracting metals from them. Being less concerned with quoting authorities than with firsthand observations and operations, he tends to ignore the question of why metals behave as they do and to content himself with descriptions of what happens: "I have no knowledge other than that gained through my own eyes."

Further Reading on Vannoccio Biringuccio

The Pirotechnica of Vannuccio Biringuccio (trans. 1942) has an excellent biographical introduction by Martha Teach Gnudi. Biringuccio is discussed by a contemporary, Georgius Agricola, in De re metallica (1555; trans. 1912) and in the useful introduction and appendices to that work by the translators, Herbert C. Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover. Biringuccio's importance is also analyzed in James Gordon Parr, Man, Metals and Modern Magic (1958).

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