Pharmacy, Testing, and the Language of Truth in Renaissance Italy

Pharmacy, Testing, and the Language of Truth in Renaissance Italy

By Valentina Pugliano

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 91.2 (2017)

Illustration of a pharmacy in the Italian Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century.

Abstract: This article examines the role of testing and innovation in sixteenth-century Italian pharmacy. I argue that apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs for efficacy or creating novel products than with reactivating an older Mediterranean pharmacological tradition and studying the materials on which it relied. Their practice was not driven by radical experimentation but by a “culture of tweaking”–of minute operational changes to existing recipes and accommodation of their textual variants–which was rooted in the guild economy fostering incremental over radical innovation and in a humanist reevaluation of past authorities.

Workshop practice was also increasingly driven by a new ideal of staying true to nature fostered by the period’s botanical renaissance. This led to an emphasis on ingredients over processes in the shop, and found clearest expression in the elaboration of a taxonomic “language of truth” that helped apothecaries discern between authentic and inauthentic materia medica and harness their sincerity in lieu of testing effectiveness.

Introduction: Probatum est. It has been tried and proven to work. Adorning countless recipe books and the scattered prose of craftsmen, this pithy sentence has come to encapsulate the view that modern historians hold of artisanal practice in medieval and early modern Europe—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 sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the production and aggressive marketing of multifarious remedies, as health products became a goal in sites as diverse as aristocratic kitchens and monastic infirmaries.

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