Al-Kimya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy

Detail from a miniature from Ibn Butlan's Risalat da`wat al-atibba. Courtesy of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem.

Detail from a miniature from Ibn Butlan's Risalat da`wat al-atibba. Courtesy of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem.

The Legacy of Arabic Alchemy

Today no one doubts that Latin alchemy is mainly based on Arabic heritage. Before the first infiltrations of Arabic alchemical texts, the Latin West knew only a few translations of Greek books of recipes, largely out of context. The history of the influence of Arabic alchemy in the West faces some major problems directly connected with its sources: not all the Latin translations from Arabic are cataloged or identified, their handwritten tradition is scarcely known, and translators’ names are rarely specified.

Translations of complete Arabic alchemical treatises started to appear with regularity in the first half of the 12th century. Robert of Chester, Hugo of Santalla, Arnold of Villanove, Albert the Great, Gerard of Cremona, and Raymond of Marseille dedicated their efforts to the translation of Arabic alchemical treatises by Jabir, Al-Razi, and other known or anonymous Arabic alchemists. By the first decades of the 13th century, Arabic-language alchemical knowledge seems to have been completely absorbed by Latin authors who started to produce original works on alchemy strongly influenced by what they could read in previous translations. Alchemical passages in the works of Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, Michael Scot, and Hermann of Caryntia testify to the degree of assimilation of Arabic-language alchemical doctrines in the West. It was only in the Renaissance that Latin authors, in search of closer contacts with the ancients, started to recreate a line of tradition that reached back directly to the Greeks, skipping over the Islamic world altogether.

Gabriele Ferrario recently obtained a Ph.D. in Oriental studies at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. He is currently Frances A. Yates Fellow at the Warburg Institute (London) and has been awarded a Neville Fellowship at CHF for early 2008.