Pharmacy, Testing, and the Language of Truth in Renaissance Italy
By Valentina Pugliano
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 91, Number 2, 2017
‘The Zodiac Man’, c. 1488, National Library of Wales, MS 3026C.
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. Some were novel creations, notably chemical remedies. Others were revised versions of old favorites. Most needed to gain the trust of increasingly discerning consumers.
Yet, we also know better than to take the probatum est claim at face value. Some practitioners lied about their experiences and results. Others were content to rely on the feats of third parties, whether acquain-tances or famous doctors, who vouched for a certain preparation and its effects. In this article, I explore this tension around experimentation in workshop practice through the case of Italian institutional pharmacy, a medical context examined so far only fragmentarily. To what extent did drug testing actually take place in the average pharmacy of Renaissance Italy? What purposes did it serve? And how was testing evaluated against other modes of validating opinions and operative choices in the shop?