Valentina Pugliano

Renaissance Pharmacy and the Language of Truth

Barbieri,_Paolo_Antonio_-_The_Spice_Shop_-_1637 copy 2

Paolo antonio Barbieri, The Spice Shop. Oil on canvas, 1637. Pinacoteca Comunale di Spoleto, Italy.

But we also know not to take the probatum est claim always at face value. Some practitioners lied about their experiences and results. Others were simply content to rely on the experimental feats of third parties, be they acquaintances or famous doctors, who vouchsafed for a certain preparation and its effects. The latter approach is equally recurrent among Italian apothecaries. It was a modus operandi rooted in the long tradition and strict regulations of their art, which allowed for recipes to be tweaked but rarely substantially altered. Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, I would argue, it received further support from the new faithfulness to texts and textual scholarship that humanism nurtured among all categories of medical practitioners on the peninsula.

In this paper I will explore this tension in the workshop practice of Renaissance Italian apothecaries more closely. To what extent did testing actually take place in the workshop of the average pharmacy? What was a ‘drug trial’ for the average apothecary? And how was testing evaluated in relation to other modes of validating opinions, supposed facts, and operative choices in the workshop?

My impression is that in Renaissance pharmacy the emphasis shifted from how remedies were made to what went in them. As a result, although testing occurred, it was as often and as easily supplanted by a ‘rhetoric of truth’ that equated the use of correct, that is ‘true’ ingredients with the effectiveness of the recipe. In part this develoment was related to a move away from the so-called medieval pharmacology of degrees. But the greatest push in this direction came from the period’s botanical renaissance, which sent apothecaries and physicians scouting for plants and flowers in the fields and poring over the descriptions of materia medica in Dioscorides and Pliny. Among these artisans emerged a fixation about identifying genuine and incorrect ingredients, which went beyond the problem of fraudolent substitutions that had always been rife among drug makers. I will explore how this language of sincerity and falsehood was fashioned to define materials and substances and became paramount when dealing with complex compounds that relied on rare imports from the eastern Mediterranean and India, like theriac. I will ask how this language of truth circulated between natural history and pharmaceutical practice; how it came to replace experimentation; and how it may be connected productively to a wider discussion in the early modern period between art and nature, artificial and organic, and the discourse of fakes and forgeries.

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