87371 - History of Ancient Science (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Gender equality

Academic Year 2022/2023

Learning outcomes

Through the study of primary sources as well as of the main exegetical schools developed by modern interpreters, students will be provided with the intellectual tools necessary to: critically read and interpret scientific works, practices and theories from Antiquity; become aware of the historical and philological mechanisms that guided their transmission and promoted their influence over the centuries.

Course contents

Ancient Alchemy: Theories and Practices

The course traces the development of the alchemical science from the Graeco-Egyptian origins up to its early reception in the Arabic world. We will focus on both the theoretical and the practical components of alchemy: primary sources will be read, and modern replications of ancient alchemical recipes will be discussed during the classes. The most influential alchemical theories will be analyzed in their relationship with the Platonic, Aristotelian and neo-Pythagorean traditions. Finally, the last classes will provide of survey of the main modern interpretations that modern exegetes, proposed of alchemy (e.g., esoteric or psychological reading).

The course consists of 15 classes dealing with:

The definition(s) of alchemy (1 classe)

Graeco-Egyptian alchemy (3 classes)

Zosimus of Panopolis and late-antique Hermeticism (3 classes)

Alchemy and philosophy (3 classes)

Early Islamic alchemy (3 classes)

Modern schools of interpretation (2 classes)



(1) Matteo Martelli, L’alchimista antico. Dall’Egitto greco-romano a Bisanzio, Milano: Editrice Bibliografica, 2019 (available on Virtuale).

(2) Lawrence Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, chap. 2:"Development. Arabic al-Kīmiyā'", pp. 27-50 and chap. 4: "Definitions, Revivals and Reinterpretations", pp. 83-106 (available on Virtuale).

(3) (Selection of primary sources read in class (available on Virtuale)

(6) One paper from the following list (all available on Virtuale):

  • C. Viano, "Corpi e metalli: le «Meteore» del Timeo", in C. Natali, S. Maso (a cura di), Plato Physicus. Cosmologia e antropologia nel Timeo, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2003, pp. 207-223.
  • C. Viano, "Mixis and Diagnōsis:Aristotle and the Chemistry of the Sublunary World", Ambix 62.3 (2015): 203-214.
  • O. Dufault, "Transmutation Theory in the Greek alchemical Corpus", Ambix 62.3 (2015): 215-244
  • F. Lopes da Silveira, "In the Melting Pot: Cultural Mixture and the Presentation of Alchemical Knowledge in the Letter from Isis to Horus", Ambix 69.1 (2022): 49-64
  • M. Martelli, "Properties and Classification of Mercury between Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Alchemy", A.I.O.N. 36 (2014): 17-4

Further readings will be suggested during the classes.

Students who could not attend the classes are expected to read the following selection of ancient alchemical texts:

Michela Pereira (a cura di), Alchimia. I testi della tradizione occidentale, Milano: Mondadori/Meridiani, 2006, chapters 3-4, pp. 42-92 (chap. 3-4)

Teaching methods

Traditional lectures about the topics of the course;

Relevant passages of both alchemical and philosophical ancient sources will be read and commented on during the classes.

Students will be encouraged to deliver short presentations on particular topics (either individually or in groups)

Assessment methods

The exam consists in an oral interview during which the methodological and critical skills acquired by the student will be evaluated . The student will be invited to discuss the texts covered during the course and to contextualise them in their historical epoch. The achievement of a systematic knowlege of the issues addressed during the classes and a critical approach to the sources combined with precision of language will be assessed with marks of excellence (28-30). Mechanical and / or mnemonic knowledge of the texts combined with scholastic exposé will be assessed by good marking (23-27); training gaps and superficial contextualization and knoledge of the texts will be assessed with sufficient markings (18-22). Lacks of any of the above requirements will lead to a negative marking.

Teaching tools

Use of ppt slides, photocopies and multimedia educational tools.

Office hours

See the website of Matteo Martelli