Thursday, 6 June 2013

Medici anti-poison oil

Leaving Florence in May 1601 on a secret mission to warn James VI of Scotland of a plot against his life, Henry Wotton carried with him a casket of antidotes from Grand Duke Ferdinand. This included Medici anti-poison oil.

Making direct connections between recipes and objects is often problematic--but in this case the possibilities can be documented. From at least July 1588, the ducal Fonderia was systematically producing such caskets, in walnut or ebony, containing Medici remedies together with printed ricette (prescriptions) giving directions for their use. These caskets were divided into compartments for eight, ten, eighteen or twenty-four medicines.  They were diplomatic gifts--part of the wider exchange of medicines, recipes, ingredients, equipment and skilled practitioners that flowed between courts and coursed through formal and informal channels.

Established by Cosimo I and first situated inside Palazzo Vecchio, the fonderie were laboratories--for the production of alchemical medicines (distilled oils, liquors, elixirs, refined salts, potable gold), distilled waters and perfumes and for conducting research into the full range of practical alchemy-- from metallurgy to pharmacology.  

Ambassadorial reports provide vivid testimony of the direct involvement of Cosimo and Francesco de' Medici in this experimental work. Hercole Cortile reported in July 1576 that the reclusive and melancholic Francesco spent "much of his day in making remedies against the plague, especially oils. And the other day, at the Casino (his city retreat and the relocated site of the Fonderia), he led me into a camerino (small room) with many basins full of live scorpions. He told me there were around seventy thousand, which he fed on "a certain herb". Ercole witnessed the Grand Duke spectacularly plunge scorpions "without them stinging him" into  a glass boccia (flask) containing one hundred-year oil. Cortile was then told that this oil needed to be left in direct sunlight for fifty days. Four months earlier, the Venetian ambassador Andrea Gussoni reported Francesco telling him that "wishing to experiment (fare esperienza) [this oil] on condemned prisoners by giving them poison to drink", he had completely cured them.  

Cosimo himself recommended that Ferrante Gonzaga experiment an untested batch of Medici anti-poison oil on "someone condemned to death". Such grisly controlled trials followed the classical example of King Mithridates and received further sanction in Pietro Andrea Mattioli's influential Commentaries on Dioscorides; a text closely studied by Cosimo, whose heavily annotated copy of the 1544 first edition survives. Mattioli described how his master, the surgeon Gregorio Caravita, had tried out a new poison antidote on two condemned "Corsican assassins" before the Medici Pope Clement VII in 1524.  Both men were given napellum (wolfsbane); only Gianfrancesco received the antidote. He recovered after three days; Ambrogio was watched dying in extreme suffering. Like the later experimentation of poisons on slaves recorded by Della Porta, here "passion for experimental research interwove with a cruel game, an uninhibited divertissement" (Lina Bolzoni).  In August 1563, Cosimo sent his cousin Jacopo d'Appiano, Prince of Piombino, the recipe for "olio di caravita".  

Production and experimentation drew heavily on the services of expert distillers. One key figure was Niccolo Sisti. Twenty-one thousand scorpions were delivered in five consignments to Sisti in July 1580. Alongside distilling medicines, Sisti is best-known for undertaking experiments at the Casino for Francesco into new forms of porcelain and glassmaking. In 1591, under Grand Duke Ferdinand, Niccolo took over the management of the Fonderia. Eleven years later in the same employment, he was documented paying Gabriello d'Antonio da San Ripoli from the countryside outside Pistoia for 25 pounds of scorpions to make "anti-poison oil".

In Renaissance Secrets, the recipe given for Medici anti-poison oil comes from the Florentine apothecary Stefano Rosselli--he claims it to be Cosimo's own formula. This formula does correspond to another for the same oil in a 1556 manuscript collection of recipes supposedly written "by the Duke's hand or in his presence". A key variant in this later recipe (c.1589) is that two ingredients were replaced--hepatic aloes by the higher quality and rarer Socotra aloes and white dittany by Cretan dittany--seemingly because Mattioli had noted that the "true" Cretan dittany advocated and used by Dioscorides had been rediscovered and was now available in Venice . These changes reflect Rosselli's active participation within the community of naturalists and in the lucrative trade in medicinal simples; he established a botanical garden at his villa; he had samples of true costo and Peruvian balsam on display in his museum in his pharmacy; he corresponded with Ulisse Aldrovandi in Bologna, Pietro Antonio Michiel in Venice and Tadeáš Hájek in Prague. Importantly, Rosselli acquired recipes directly from experts within the Fonderia --from Pietro Bertola, Paolo Banchelli, Sebastiano Manzone and Niccolo Sisti. The son of his business partner, Jacopo Dori, was also Sisti's apprentice. Rosselli also copied down a recipe supplied by Bernardo Buontalenti for the poison antidote Mattioli tested for his employer, Archduke Ferdinand, King of Hungary, said to be from Cosimo. He also states that he and Baccio Baldini (Cosimo's physician) tested this powder by order of Duke Francesco (like Mattioli) on a condemned prisoner (using arsenic). However, Rosselli did also improve Medici recipes--he deliberately altered the formula of Cosimo's oil against plague and petechie (petechial typhus), creating his own version, because the sick were offended by its foul smell. 


  1. Cosimo de' Medici is also reported as experimenting a poison antidote, using wolfsbane, on two condemned prisoners on 3 July 1567 (Francesco d'Andrea da Casanova and Lazzero d'Andrea). See Massimo Conti, Delitti e castighi: itinerari nella Firenze dei crimini e della giustizia tra il XIII e il XVIII secolo, Bologna (2008), p.51 (quoting Archivio Storico Italiano, 1901)

  2. Six doctors were directed by Cosimo on 26 September 1566 to test his poison antidote on a prisoner in the Bargello. Jacopo Gemignani di Monsagrato was given 2 drams of arsenic. See Alfonso Corradi, Degli esperimenti tossicologici in anima nobili nel Cinquecento (Milan, 1886 and Alessandro Pastore, Il veleno Veleno. Credenze, crimini, saperi nell'Italia moderna (Bologna, 2010)