MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections
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De re metallica libri XII
by Georgius Agricola
De re metallica, a treatise by Agricola (1490-1555) on mining and smelting, is a seminal, lavishly illustrated book considered by many to be the foundation upon which the science of metallurgy has been built. First published (posthumously) in 1556, the book is remarkable as one of the earliest works of natural science to be based on careful observation, as opposed to speculation. Born Georg Bauer, the man later known as Agricola studied medicine and became physician and apothecary in a prominent mining district in central Europe. His interest in occupational mining diseases led to frequent visits to mines and painstaking observation of mining practices. He first summarized his knowledge of mining and metallurgy in 1530 in Bermannus sive de re metallica dialogus. Near the end of his life he expanded this shorter work into De re metallica libri XII and worked closely with a talented illustrator for three years to devise a harmonious and useful marriage of pictures and words. The result was a series of 292 remarkably detailed and animated woodcuts by Blasius Weffring, showing cutaway views of equipment and procedures explained in the text.
Weffring’s woodcuts served to illustrate seven editions of the book published between 1556 and 1657, two of which (1561 and 1621) are among the many rare books available in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, a department of the MIT Libraries.