Once treasured items of an early 19th century home, barometers now provide a glimpse into technology of the past. Wheel barometers were invented in 1663 by English scientist Robert Hooke, and contained floating mercury. Barometers help predict the weather by measuring air pressure — balancing the weight of the air against the weight of the floating mercury. Low air pressure means troubled weather, while high pressure means fair weather.
In the early days of barometers they were considered the height of technology and only seen in the homes of the wealthy. These beautiful early pieces were hand-crafted by the “makers of philosophical instruments,” as they referred to themselves in advertisements. Gradually the technology became available to the broader public and many middle class families owned barometers. These devices were popular in fishing ports where weather prediction was of special importance.
The banjo design of the barometer, like the one at Hammond-Harwood House, was introduced by Italian glassblowers. The Martinelli family was famous for making barometers in London. The first Martinelli was Lewis (or Luigi) Martinelli, born in 1766, near Como, Italy. He likely came from a family that made barometers, thermometers, mirrors, and frames. Lewis immigrated to London in the early 19th century and worked there until his death in 1845. His extended family continued on the barometer-making trade for almost 100 years in London, under numerous names and at several addresses.
This particular piece was made by Alfred Martinelli, who worked at various locations between 1825 and his death in 1851. We can date this piece to his earliest shop at 36 Charlotte Street in Blackfriars London, where he worked from 1825-1835, because the address is clearly marked on the piece. His later works reflect other addresses. After he died in 1851, his wife Elizabeth took over the shop until 1853 and signed her works E. Martinelli. They were working in an area known as Leather Lane which was the the center of London’s Italian community since the 1700s, and would remain so until the mid-20th century. Leather Lane links the main roads of High Holborn and Clerkenwell Road. Clerkenwell is London’s original Little Italy, starting in the early 18th century, and later Holborn became known for the large number of Italians and Anglo-Italians living there.
Mercury barometers were in vogue until the early 20th century when the aneroid barometer made the pieces obsolete, as the aneroid ones were smaller and cheaper to produce. The handcrafted mercury ones now are relics of the past that provide insight into early technology and the craftsmen who made them. This particular piece was donated by Ethel Miller, sister of noted American antiques scholar Edgar G. Miller, and it is thought to have come from his private collection.
London, England, c. 1825-1835
Maker: Alfred Martinelli (Active 1825-1851)
F43 Donated by Ethel Miller in memory of her brother Edgar Miller in 1941
By Rachel Lovett Curator & Assistant Director