Zacaire, Denis (b. 1510)
This French alchemist is chiefly remembered for his book,
Opuscule Tres-Excellent de la Philosophie naturelle des Metaux (published
1567). This includes a preface written by Zacaire in his
lifetime, giving some account of his life.
As a young man Zacaire studied at Bordeaux under an alchemist
and subsequently at Toulouse, intending to become a
lawyer. He soon became more interested in alchemy than in
legal affairs. In 1535, on his father’s death, he came into possession
of some money. He thereupon decided to try and multiply
it by artificial means. Associating himself with an abbé who
was considered a great adept in gold-making, Zacaire had soon
disposed of the bulk of his patrimony, but far from the charlatan’s
futile experiments disillusioning him, they encouraged
In 1539, he went to Paris, where he made the acquaintance
of many renowned alchemists. From one of them, he learned
the precious secret, and thereupon he hastened to the court of
Antoine d’Albert, the king of Navarre, offering to make gold
if the requisite materials were supplied.
The king was deeply interested and promised a reward of
no less than four thousand crowns in the event of the researches
proving fruitful, but unfortunately Zacaire’s vaunted skill failed
him, and he retired discomfited to Toulouse. Here he became
friendly with a certain priest, who advised him strongly to renounce
his quest and study natural science instead. Zacaire
went off to Paris once more, intending to act in accordance with
his counsel. But after a little while, he was deep in the study of
alchemy again, running experiments and studying closely the
writings of Raymond Lully and Arnold de Villanova.
According to his own account, on Easter day of 1550, he succeeded
in converting a large quantity of quicksilver into gold.
Then, some time after this alleged triumph, he left France to
travel in Switzerland and lived for a while at Lausanne. Later
on he wandered to Germany, and there he died.
There is a story that he married before setting out to travel
through Germany, but on reaching Cologne, he was murdered
in his sleep by his servant, who escaped with his wife and his
store of transmuting powder. The story of Zacaire’s life was told
in verse by De Delle, court poet of Emperor Rudolph II
(1552–1622), who took a great interest in alchemy, chemistry,
and astrology.
Zacaire’s Opuscule was published originally at Antwerp and
repeatedly reprinted. It won the honor of being translated into
Davis, T. L. ‘‘The Autobiography of Denis Zacaire An Account
of an Alchemist’s Life in the Sixteenth Century.’’ Isis 8,
2 (1926).