If ever I were to take up collecting as a serious pastime (as distinct from the random acquisition of books, plants and balls of wool), I think I would go for Italian maiolica pharmacy jars. (The sine qua non, of course, for this new venture, would be a major triumph in the lottery – perhaps I should improve the odds by buying a ticket occasionally.) It’s not that they are always very beautiful, or very well made (though many are): it’s the tangible (and almost smellable) connection with a fascinating aspect of the past.
The ‘classic’ type of the jar is called the albarello (derivation unknown): slender, without handles, and almost cylindrical, but curving in slightly towards the middle, so that rows of jars could be lined up close together but an individual one could be lifted out and securely held by its ‘waist’. It also has a lip splayed outwards, the more easily to secure the string by which a paper or vellum lid was attached. But less refined versions, more stocky and occasionally with handles and/or spouts, were also produced.
Is it correct to cal them ‘pharmacy jars’? Many have a label designating their content fired into the decoration, which seems conclusive. Others have no designation, and indeed an example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has the inscription MARCO BELL[O] (opinions may differ on the accuracy of this adjective), reminiscent of the better known BELLA dishes.
Another one from the Met may be a marriage gift, portraying and naming as it does Tiberio and Lucrezia, both looking rather complacent.
Sometimes the jars could contain preserves or sweetmeats, the sort of goodies which verged on being the medicinal, like lozenges and comfits.
The jar type is not originally Italian but came from Islamic Spain,
the earliest glazed tinware examples being produced in Florence in the fifteenth century.
Florentine pieces are often blue-and-white, like their non-figurative Islamic exemplars, whereas other centres of production, including Venice, Naples, Casteldurante, and especially Faenza (whose ceramic industry gave us the word ‘faience’) soon went for polychrome and figurative. (A fascinating footnote: in 2006, the remains of the short-lived, lost town of Charlesbourg Royal, founded in Canada in 1541 by Jacques Cartier, were rediscovered by archaeologists. A clinching part of the identification was a broken piece of Faenza pottery which could be dated to 1540–50, and had probably belonged to a French officer living in the fort before it was abandoned in 1543.)
along with two spouted jars,
and several examples of the Hispano-Moorish ware the style of which the Italian ceramicists adopted.
Not many individual ceramicists or workshops are known, except in the later period, and indeed the actual place of manufacture cannot always be pinpointed – this is presumably because of a uniformity of the clay composition as well as the decorative style. One named potter (or was he a painter?) is Maestro Mariotto da Gubbio, working at Gubbio or Casteldurante. He was responsible for this rather squat 1541 albarello, which used to contain ‘galliae moschatae, restorative lozenges made from aloe wood, musk, ambergris, gum tragacanth and rose water’, according to the Museum’s online catalogue.
The jar was one of a set made for the monks of the Celestine Order at the monastery of Santo Spirito da Sulmona. (The Celestines were founded in 1244 by the reluctant pope Celestine V, who resisted his election in 1294 and resigned after five months. He died a captive of his successor, Boniface VIII, in 1296, and was canonised in 1313 by his successor plus two, Clement V, he who initiated the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in Avignon – it was all about politics.)
What the jars originally contained is of course one of the most interesting things about them. Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, once owned – in its long history – by ‘Pen’ Browning, and stayed in by his father Robert, the poet, is now the Museum of Eighteenth Century Venice, and among other delights, including the melancholy ‘Pulchinello’ sequence by Giandomenico Tiepolo and Pietro Longhi’s genre paintings (among which are a visit to Clara the Rhinoceros,
and another to the pharmacist),
it houses the interior of an eighteenth-century pharmacy, the Farmacia Ai Do San Marchi (i.e. the pharmacy of the Two St Marks), complete with 183 labelled maiolica jars, and many Murano glass containers. Purchased in 1908 by an antiquarian, the rooms and their contents were donated to the city and installed on the third floor of the museum in 1936. (A pharmacy still exists on the original site, and has a Facebook page.)
Venice was famed across Europe for its own particular panacea, the theriaca, a secret compound which, among other virtues, contained poisons to protect you from poisoning. This picture shows it being prepared:
and this advertisement for ‘Venetian treacle’ from the pharmacy of the ‘Blak Eagle’ in San Salvador
reminds one (a) that ‘treacle’ (meaning a syrup), is a corruption of ‘theriaca’, and that Lewis Carroll’s treacle well had its origin in the curative holy well at Binsey near Oxford; and (b) that there used to be a pharmacy in almost every square in Venice. The one now immortalised in the museum came from Campo San Stin, and in Campo San Stefano until within the few years there was a modern pharmacy in an ancient building outside which you can still see the circles on the flagstones where the huge stone pestles for pounding the theriaca ingredients used to stand. (It is now a jeweller’s shop – surprising that it isn’t masks or so-called Murano glass nick-nacks …)
Part of the challenge of these jars is to work out what they contained: tricky, sometimes, as the labels were frequently abbreviated and the spelling (naturally) inconsistent. ‘S’ stands for ‘Syrup’ (siropo, syrupus), ‘Extract.’ speaks for itself, while ‘U’ is for ‘Unguentum’, as in unguentum defensivum,
made apparently from dragon’s blood (pigment from the Dracaena plant), Armenian bole, rose oil, vinegar and wax, and used for inflammations. ‘Tro’ is trochisci, lozenges, while ‘Lo’ is lohoch, a linctus or thick syrup, deriving from the Arabic ‘laʿiqa’, meaning ‘lick’: the medicine was taken by licking, or scraping with a liquorice stick (same derivation, who knew?) and then melting the stick and the syrup in the mouth.
I owe this information, and a startling recipe for foxes’ lungs, to this article from the Royal College of Physicians’ blog: I was trying to work out what bit of a fox was meant on a spouted Dutch jar (the Fitzwilliam has several of these, decorated with two peacocks of immortality) labelled ‘VVLPIN:’,
and the power of Google brought the answer straight to me. Apparently, the brew of foxes’ lungs ‘cleanses and consolidates ulcers of the breast and lung, and is preferred over other remedies for tuberculosis’. First catch your fox – but this appears to be part of the point: the lungs of a long-winded animal would impart their virtue to the breathless patient. (Horse lungs could also be used, but presumably the horse was too valuable an animal to be repurposed in this way.)
So, hours of fun, first assembling a collection of jars with one’s lottery millions, then arranging them (and rearranging them), and then doing the research to find out the original contents and the extraordinary theories – doctrine of signatures, sympathetic magic – which led to their being compounded in the hope of easing, for a while, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.