Renaissance Pharmacy, Testing, and the Language of Truth

Renaissance Pharmacy, Testing, and the Language of Truth

Valentina Pugliano (University of Cambridge)

Probatum est. It has been tried, tested, and on average proven to work. This pithy sentence has come to encapsulate the view that modern historians have of artisanal practice in the medieval and early modern period. It is one of inquisitiveness and flexible learning, of testing matter and testing hypotheses by working through matter. Drug making is often considered a case in point. The Florentine apothecary Stefano Rosselli affixed the phrase to several of the recipes filling the three volumes of secrets that he compiled and illustrated between the 1570s and 1590s. Like many experimenters around him, through practice and annotation Rosselli built personal histories of success and failure around certain ingredient combinations and procedures. Occasionally, as the inventories testify, he followed the exploratory step of testing with the decision to offer the product in his pharmacy at the sign of San Francesco in Florence.

But we also know not always to take the probatum est claim at face value. Some practitioners lied about their experiences and results. Others were simply content to rely on the experimental feats of third parties, whether acquaintances or famous doctors, who vouchsafed for a certain preparation and its effects. The latter approach is equally recurrent among Italian apothecaries. It was 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 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 project I 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 contention is that rather than testing, tweaking reigned supreme. Wholly novel remedies instead were often frowned upon, and apothecaries relied on an established classical and medieval canon of remedies. Their efforts went into amending small details in existing recipes, updating old pharmaceutical knowledge while at the same time making it their own.

I argue also that in Renaissance pharmacy the emphasis shifted from how remedies were made to what went into 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 development 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 fraudulent substitutions that had always been rife among drug makers. I 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, such as theriac. I 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.