Fool’s Gold

The other day, I came across the name of Giambattista Angello, described as a Venetian alchemist in London. Always keen to follow the path of the legendary all-purpose cure, theriaca, around Europe, I pursued him, though I was slightly puzzled by the spelling of his surname, with two ells. But then I found him as John Baptista Lambye, and the light dawned: Angello is a mis- (or alternate) spelling of ‘agnello’, ‘lamb’. And he appears not to have been a treacle-pedlar, but more on the inorganic side of alchemy – and, by accident or design, the instigator of what must have been one of the most expensive wild-goose-chases of all time.

It’s a complicated story, told most succinctly by the great and good Sir Clements Markham (1830–1916) in chapter 10 of his posthumously published The Lands of Silence (1921). The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher (edited by Richard Collinson and published by the Hakluyt Society in 1867) gives the text published by Richard Hakluyt in 1589, and handily adds the State Papers relevant to the story.

It is not clear when Agnello arrived in London, or indeed why he left Venice – it is speculated that he may have had Protestant leanings, which may have been the reason why Jean de Ferrières (1520–86), Vidame [a rare French aristocratic title] of Chartres and a leading Huguenot, then in exile in Holborn, wrote to Sir William Cecil in November 1569, recommending him as ‘a man of honesty and industry’.

Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

Agnello may already have had some reputation in England, as his book, Espositione sopra vn libro intitolato Apocalypsis spiritus secreti [Explanation of a book entitled ‘Revelation of the Secret Spirit’] (1566), the second Italian book to be published in England, had preceded him.

Agnello seems to have addressed a proposal to Queen Elizabeth on solving the problem of the shortage of low-value coins by making them out of lead, but nothing came of this. However, in 1577, he was one of four chemists/alchemists/assayers asked to give an opinion on the mysterious black stone brought back from the Arctic by Richard Frobisher (1535–94) and given to his business partner Michael Lok (1532­–1620, great-uncle through many degrees of the philosopher John Locke, and a much-travelled London merchant).

Martin Frobisher, locked and loaded, by Cornelis Ketel. (Credit: the Bodelian Library, Oxford)

Frobisher’s planned first voyage in search of the north-west passage to Cathay had been opposed by the Muscovy Company, of which Lok was a member, as potentially infringing its own privileges, but – according to Markham – the Privy Council responded by tell the ‘Muscovites’ either to undertake the voyage themselves or allow Frobisher to go ahead.

The seal of the Muscovy Company, founded in 1555.

In the mean time, Lok had become an enthusiast, and went into partnership with Frobisher to raise shares for the venture. When the accumulated £875 was not enough, Lok became personal guarantor for the balance of the funds needed.

Kalicho, an Inuk captured by Frobisher on his first voyage and brought back to London, where he died soon after, probably of a disease to which he had no immunity. This drawing was later in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. (Credit: the British Museum)

The details of the voyage, gripping though they are, need not, as they say, detain us here. On the return of Frobisher and his surviving crew in October 1576, Lok was presented with a small lump of black ore, which had been found on the shore of Hall’s Island, off Baffin Island (both these names, however, were not applied until the next century), and was believed to be sea coal:

The gentlewoman in question (later versions of the plot have her casting it mockingly on to the fire) may have been Lok’s own second wife, Margery Perient, widow of another Italian exile in London, Cesare Aldemare (a graduate of the university of Padua, and physician to both Mary I and Elizabeth I), and thus mother of the M.P. and Master of the Rolls, Sir Julius Caesar (1557–1636), whose godmother was the Queen.

The golden residue excited interest, and Lok took the stone to three experts, including the William Williams, Assay Master of the Tower of London, who said it was iron sulphide or iron pyrites. Not disheartened, in January 1577, Lok applied to Agnello (called Aquello by Markham).

Iron pyrites, or fool’s gold. I used to have a piece in my mineral collection …

According to Lok’s later deposition (with modernised spelling): ‘In the beginning of January I delivered a small piece thereof to John Baptista Agnello, not telling what nor from whence, but prayed him to prove what metal was therein. And within three days I came to him for answer. He showed me a very little powder of gold, saying it came thereout, and willed me to give him another piece to make a better proof. I did so, and within three days again he showed me more powder of gold. I told him I would not believe it without better proof. He asked another piece to make a better proof, saying that he would make anatomy thereof. I gave it him saying that I marvelled much of his doings sith I had given pieces to other 3 to make proof who could find no such thing there. He answered me, Bisogna sapere adulare la natura’. [‘It is necessary to know how to flatter nature.’]

What is interesting is that not only did Agnello convince the all-to-willing-to-be convinced Lok, but that he apparently convinced himself, offering to buy any ore brought back by subsequent expeditions at £30 a ton. Word leaked out – possibly through Agnello himself (though this might be merely stereotyping him as a gossiping Italian) – and the upshot was that although Sir Francis Walsingham remained sceptical, the court tumbled over itself to invest in Frobisher and Lok’s new Cathay Company, the Queen herself contributing £1,000 and a ship, the Aid.

It is alleged that Queen Elizabeth herself waved farewell to Frobisher from a window of Greenwich Palace …

 Needless to say, it ended badly: Frobisher could not find any more of the ore on Hall’s Island, and the 158 tons he mined on Baffin Island turned out, after a great deal of investigation (in which Agnello was allowed to play no part) to be worthless, as did the much greater amounts brought back from a third voyage (the valueless rubble was eventually used for road-surfacing). Frobisher turned on Lok, who was effectively bankrupted, and spent time in every then-existing debtors’ prison in London, eventually being released in 1581. (Fascinatingly, Frobisher’s excavations were recalled by Inuit oral tradition in the nineteenth century.)

An illustration from C.F. Hall‘s book.

Ten years later, Lok became consul of the Levant Company in Aleppo, but that too ended badly: he was dismissed before the end of his four-year contract, and left for Venice, from where he tried to claim compensation. This long-range litigation badly hampered the Levant Company’s trade, and in 1601 they settled the affair with an offer of £300.

The arms of the Levant Company.

A bizarre historical footnote to Lok’s rather unsuccessful, though incident-packed, life is that, according to the ODNB, those who believe that the earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays also believe that Lok was the model for Shylock … I couldn’t possibly comment.

Frobisher managed to bounce back after a few years, in spite of losing the Queen’s investment, totalled at £4,000 including the ship. (Walshingham had eventually invested £800, against his better judgement; and there were massive expenses for the building of foundries to smelt the alleged gold and to pay metal-workers.) Frobisher later, of course, became a hero of the Armada, and died of gangrene after being wounded in hand-to-hand combat outside a Spanish fortress in 1594.

An adulatory print of Frobisher after his death. (Credit: National Maritime Museum)

What happened to Agnello appears to be quite unknown. He should have stuck to treacle.


This entry was posted in Biography, Exploration, History, Italy, Natural history, Printing and Publishing, Venice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Fool’s Gold

  1. Pingback: The Good Intentions of Lady Mico | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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