How Did Lithuanians Make Gold and Silver

Alchemy is not chemistry. Alchemy is a mother or even a progenitress of chemistry. There are several versions of etymology of the term offering different explanations of the relationship between the Arabic words al-kimiyah, al-kimiyà or al-khimiyah and various words in Ancient Greek, Arabic and Chinese. In Arabic, alchemy stands for “the philosophical stone.” What is it and how can it be used?

A search for happiness in the test tube

Alchemy is an ancient precursor of several contemporary sciences, including astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, physics and medicine. Alchemy takes its roots in the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. At that time, alchemy was a kind of universal worldview which integrated philosophy and religion, practical experience and mystical knowledge. In the 11th century, as the works of the Arab scientists spread across the Christian Europe, the long-lasting boom of alchemy got underway here. Throughout the times, humans were interested in two key things: the easy way of getting rich and the secret of staying young forever. Alchemists tried to find answers to both of these exciting questions. While solving the dilemma of getting rich, they looked for methods of turning ordinary metals to gold and silver. In order to stop the time, they were busy inventing a cure for all ailments.

During the Renaissance, all the different social classes were interested in alchemic experiments and practised them, from rulers to wealthy city dwellers (the rising bourgeoisie). Basic education was required in order to perform even the simplest experiments, therefore alchemy was popular among learned people, such as rulers, aristocrats, wealthy nobles, priests, monks and university professors. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493/94–1541), known as Paracelsus, was a famous alchemist of the Early Modern times. The Swiss-born physician, philosopher and theologian wrote a huge number of works of whom just several were published while he was still alive. In his young years, he apparently travelled around Europe and stopped in Vilnius in around 1520 where he propagated his ideas and organized a dispute with local physicians. The second half of the 16th century saw the genuine triumph of Paracelsus, especially after the first collection of his works was published in 1589–1591.

The mysterious alchemist of the GDL

Lithuanians were interested in alchemic experiments too. Teodor Lacki (1554–1610), a little-known nobleman from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, got involved in a curious story. His father and grandfather were noblemen in Muscovy who fled to the GDL in 1534. Teodor was a full-fledged citizen of the GDL and had land possessions here. As a well-off nobleman, he was Lithuanian in terms of his self-awareness, although he did not speak Lithuanian, just like many of his counterparts at the time. He spent several years in Italy in his early adulthood, where he got married to Isabella, a daughter of the Italian count Pietro Bonarelli, whom he brought to the GDL. He was famous for his great physical strength and a swift-handed operation of different weapons. His achievements during the Livonian War (1600–1609) were particularly outstanding as he was an aide to Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, the Grand Hetman of the GDL.

Turning “Venus” into the purest “Moon”

While in Italy, Teodor Lacki got in touch with the Polish alchemist Michał Sędziwój (1566–1636), although details of their acquaintance are unknown. They carried out several alchemical experiments which Sędziwój described in his work “Operations of the Philosophical Stone,” published only after the Second World War. Here is a quote referring to Teodor Lacki and the fifth operation:

“We obtained no results and afterwards we performed the operation together with mister Teodor Lacki in Rome, the operation he had learned from a Franciscan monk who gave him one ounce of ready-to-use material and taught him how to multiply it but did not show him the correct sequence of the operation. The operation the monk had revealed was the following: he told him to take one ounce of seven-times-sublimed Mercury [i. e. mercury chloride], four ounces of Moon lime [i. e. silver chloride] and to grind it together on a stone and then to sublime it in a glass on low fire as many times as required until Mercury [mercury] stops subliming and remains deposited on the bottom together with Moon lime [silver chloride]. After reaching this, the monk told him to add a one more ounce of sublimed Mercury [mercury chloride] and to fix it just like the first one. And this should be repeated infinitely. This is something that mister Lacki had performed earlier in Bologna when he multiplied the ounce he had received from that monk and turned Venus [i. e. copper] into purest Moon [silver]. But when Boncompagni wanted to use [that operation] in Rome and when he needed to start the work from the beginning, he could not do anything, because he was unable to produce genuine Moon lime [silver chloride]. I consider that operation rightful, because it is absolutely valid according to the true teaching and instructions of philosophers; and I would sell that silver myself and Boncompagni gave mister Lacki many thousands [of money] after seeing the projection of that material on Venus [i. e. copper]; but since mister Lacki did not know how to start [the operation] because the monk had not revealed it, there is no use of that operation yet.”

Hence, we see that Teodor Lacki had learned how to turn copper into silver from the Franciscan monk in Bologna before performing the experiment with Sędziwój in Rome. The monk was far from silly, though, and has not revealed all of his secrets; he only gave Teodor a little of ready-to-use material but did not teach him how to prepare it. Lacki failed to produce “Moon lime,” i.e. silver chloride, on his own, when he tried thus dooming the entire “operation.” And who was Boncompagni who took part in the experiment in Rome? Well, that was Giacomo Boncompagni (1548–1612), the unlawful son of the Pope Gregory XIII, who became famous as a patron of scientists and artists. Although we do not know the exact date of the experiments, historians think they took place around 1586 to 1590.

Literature: D. Antanavičius, Lietuvio bajoro „Dešimtmetis Livonijos karas“ (1610 m.) ir jo autorius, Vilnius, 2006, p. 75–80, 174–197.

Darius Antanavičius