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Prologue of “A History of Mineralogy”

The beginning will always be remembered for every story lived with passion.
My first contact with mineralogy took place in 1967, at the age of ten, during a Sunday trip out of town, a typical pastime of the brief Italian economic “boom”. On that occasion, my father’s Fiat Seicento and my mother’s initiative had taken me to the inaccessible and evocative hinterland of the Ligurian Apennines and, more precisely, to the surroundings of a town in the province of Genoa with the emblematic name of Uscio (Door).
The notoriety of the place is still due to the abundance of quarries and mines from which slate is extracted, the black and resistant schist rock, used in construction, but above all famous and precious for the wonderful and unparalleled blackboards, which ennoble the school classrooms. and universities around the world. The slate was my “door” of entry, or, as we would say today, the metaphorical “stargate” in the mineralogical universe.
While I was removing the smooth slides of blackboard from the rocky wall and I was realizing the natural origin of the object on which my elementary schoolboy eyes focused every morning, I felt a pleasant emotion: the same one that suddenly captures anyone who is making a discovery, regardless of whether it is a place, a person, or, as in my case, the origin of a stone.
Back home, I immediately verified with joy that the chalk left the expected white marks that could be erased with the fingers. As a logical consequence, I wondered what slate and gypsum really were and why they behaved in such a unique way. The answer was provided to me by Adriana Trevis, the dear and unforgettable family friend who, in the dual role of doctor in chemistry and teacher of natural sciences, thus introduced me to mineralogy. In order to tangibly demonstrate the difference between rocks (such as slate) and minerals, he gave me what would become the … “Prince” of my personal segment of the Mineral Kingdom. “Prince” in the double sense of noble representative of the mineralogical dynasty and the starting point of my mineralogical passion. It is a small hyaline quartz aggregate, elected, from that unforgettable moment, to the historic “Number One” of my collection.
Slate, gypsum and quartz: these three “minerals” marked my initiation into mineralogy and started my personal history as a mineralogist, a page in the vast and fascinating encyclopedia of the history of mineralogy, to which all mineralogists of all ages and latitudes have contributed and of which they are an integral part.
Much more than the other sciences, mineralogy has the peculiarity of being varied and interdisciplinary, thanks to the breadth and disparity of the contribution, the cultural and social level of mineralogists: great scientists and simple collectors, great engineers and humble miners, learned philosophers and enthusiasts self-taught, wealthy aristocrats and modest craftsmen, far-sighted entrepreneurs and introverted naturalists, transcendent theologians and lay materialists. Regardless of economic, social and cultural differences, I believe that the first sensation of a budding mineralogist in front of a mineral is the result of charm, curiosity and interest. Precisely this intertwining of feelings struck my mind as a kid in the presence of the “Prince”, the little hyaline quartz aggregate received as a gift from Adriana. The same state of mind accompanied me throughout the time I dedicated to mineralogy and which still animates me in an attempt to tell a story.

In addition to the “Prince”, the metaphorical first stone and the consequent initiation into mineralogy resulted in the request to my parents for the “little chemist”, a gift chosen for my eleventh birthday. The pseudo-toy, in addition to having the great responsibility (meritorious or guilty?) Of having generated most of the existing chemists in the last half century, also has the ambiguous characteristic of making the boundary between fun and frustration intangible and unpredictable.
In fact, after reproducing a series of hilarious chemical miracles – from writing with sympathetic ink to the transformation of water into wine, to almost reproduce the stigmata … – the first big disappointment punctually arrived. Believing that I had applied to the letter the instructions of the much coveted crystallization experiment, described in the infamous booklet, I spent days and days in vain at the bedside of a watch glass, containing a brilliant blue solution of copper sulphate, anxiously waiting to see it settle and growing the expected crystallines of the aforesaid salt. Too bad I made the tragic mistake of not making an over-saturated salt solution. Unfortunately, the use of an insufficient amount of copper sulphate in the preparation of the hot solution would never have allowed to obtain its over-saturation and consequently the coveted crystallization of the blue salt. The unconscious will to sip that chemical substance, which I considered precious and rare, had caused excessive parsimony and the consequent failure of the test.
Recalling the episode, I think of the many pseudo-scientists, which my career as a chemist still runs into, who consciously put only economic speculation before any quality of the final product and work for companies that are complicit in the misleading sale of “non-overwhelming solutions. saturated with copper sulphate “which, as such, will never crystallize.

Collecting the first stones and carefully observing their characteristics, I realized that each sample, even of the same mineralogical species, has the property of being a unique and unrepeatable expression of the multifaceted creativity of nature.
I thought of the “Prince” and I felt satisfaction for the confirmation of my suppositions; I think that, from this point of view, minerals are analogous to human beings. Sometimes even close relatives, but always unique and unrepeatable through their infinite characters and details, independent individuals, but grouped into families and groups by composition and structure. The bittersweet difference lies in the fact that the external morphology and internal structure of human beings, unlike minerals, are not always consistent with each other and the right angle almost never measures the expected ninety degrees.

< Panta rei >, stated the philosopher Heraclitus, that is “everything flows, everything changes, nothing remains unchanging”. Even the mineral world is subject to continuous transformations and aging, precisely in analogy with human beings: it describes a temporal trajectory that escapes our intellect and gives the sensation of following a semi-straight line, of which only the point of origin can be grasped (albeit distant) and never the point of arrival. In the convulsive and accelerated dimension of human existence, where everything is consumed so quickly that it even appears devoid of lasting rules, the choice to collect and study minerals reflects the serene awareness that the inorganic part of nature shows its solidity over time and he is oblivious to the biological and humoral changes related to his organic part. Unlike civilizations that have followed one another over the centuries, animal species that become extinct, entire forests that disappear, the quartz sample, collected forty years ago, is very likely to remain almost unchanged over the course of geological eras: from hand to hand until it is lost, but it will always remain the indelible testimony of itself in any moment in which it returns to appear in someone’s hands. This tangible slice of solid natural eternity comforts me and I like it, if only because it humbly contrasts with the arrogant intrusiveness of the ethereal supernatural eternity, which often dominates me, surrounding me with emptiness. I believe that only a rational materialism predisposes the mind to serenely accept a genuine spiritualism.

The passionate growth for mineralogy has not translated into the simple numerical increase of samples and species, but has also developed along the wide spectrum that this wonderful science is able to offer, varying from the naturalistic to the scientific dimension, from the appearance collector to historian. In keeping with the interdisciplinary definition of mineralogist, the history of mineralogy that I am narrating does not only report the discoveries of mineralogists “by profession”, but also the experiences of the so-called mineralogists “by passion”.
I sincerely hope I was not the only neophyte mineralogist to spend entire afternoons on the beach collecting hundreds of colored glass pebbles, rounded by the sea, believing them, in total good faith, to be natural crystals. Certainly less common is having them exchanged – always in total and mutual good faith – with my friend Nicola, in exchange for well crystallized alpine quartz. Both, Nicola and I, have become chemists, perhaps precisely to never again fall into such grotesque misunderstandings. As for me, I did even more: in order to wash away the shame of that unforgivable original sin, I took various mineralogical examinations and graduated in chemistry from the Institute of Mineralogy of the University of Turin.
The construction of the personal mineralogical culture has begun and continues today with the rhythm and stubbornness required by the assembly of a mosaic, obtained by adding tile after tile, looking for joint after joint, with patience and determination: the pieces of this gigantic mosaic are the experiences , field research, visits to museums, visits to libraries, participation in mineralogical exhibitions and collecting contacts around the world.
The passion that accompanied every mineralogical activity carried out in the university period did not diminish during the doctoral period at the then “Georisorse and Territory Institute” of the Polytechnic of Turin, under the authoritative guidance of Professor Elio Matteucci. From him I learned the rigor of the scientific method, applied to microscopic analyzes, diffractometric determinations and the complex technique of plasma spectroscopy, which allowed the luxury of simultaneously identifying all the chemical elements contained in a lithological sample.
The passion for mineralogy put me in contact with people who are completely different from each other, both by culture and by social extraction, but united by the same mental approach, resulting from the mixture of enthusiasm, scientific curiosity and even artistic sensitivity towards the loved ” stones “.
An emblematic figure of the variegated world of mineralogists is that of the unforgettable friend Antonio Muntoni: after thirty years spent in the hard Sardinian mines of the Arburese filling his lungs with galena and blenda powder, Antonio began to dedicate his retirement days to search for beautiful samples, this time to fill your eyes. He pursued and achieved, albeit for a short time, the pleasure of looking at minerals at last for what they are and not for what they are forced to be: fascinating crystals to admire and study; not cold materials to grind and melt. In Antonio, the professionalism of the expert miner and the acumen of the self-taught were perfectly integrated with the genuine curiosity of those fascinated by the mysteries of the crystalline structure and struck by the beauty of its multiple expressions.
I went to meet Professor Elio Matteucci in the great hall of the Polytechnic of Turin, on a cold day in the Piedmontese winter; I met Antonio in a torrid Sardinian summer in the shadow of the only holm oak of Giovanni Bonu’s mining dumps. The first offered me, with a simple handshake, the PhD and the tempting prospect of splitting my mind on cold formulas; the second offered me carob and Sardinian pecorino cheese for lunch, a hammer and a friendly invitation to break hot stones with him: both have indelibly marked my mineralogical passion and my life; both are part of the history of mineralogy.

To the memory of Adriana, Antonio and Elio, I dedicate “A History of Mineralogy”.
To the image of each of them I metaphorically approach the most significant characteristic of the three “minerals”, which first marked my passion for mineralogy: chalk is a symbol of the precious and exhaustive teaching received from Adriana, slate represents the Antonio’s pragmatism and tenacity, quartz is the image of Elio’s scientific and crystalline rigor.

It is my deep conviction that the history of mineralogy is made up of the set of stories of all mineralogists who, in the sequence of times and places, have approached minerals in the most disparate ways and with the most diverse cultures, offering a range of contributions as vast as the interests and insights aroused by this exciting science. The mineralogists cited from time to time constitute the reference points, necessary milestones to outline a very long and often tortuous path, which crosses and permeates all civilizations that have appeared on Earth, accompanying human beings throughout their entire evolution. If it is true that history is made by men, it is equally true that the history of mineralogy must be considered the work of mineralogists, meaning, with the broadest meaning of the term, all those who have interacted with the mineral world.
We now try to give a hint of their works and their discoveries, contextualized in the span of time that, from the appearance of the human being on Earth, until the beginning of the Third Millennium, in an attempt to show that their relationship with mineralogy it is the simple spearhead of the pleasant and necessary bond that has always united man with minerals.

[taken from “A History of Mineralogy”, Massimo Umberto Tomalino (2011)]
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