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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Antica Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala: "Between Scientific Knowledge and Magical Thought"

The "sales room," which has a religious feel to it, as it has been since the 1700s. (Note - we were not allowed to take photos
inside the pharmacy; so the inside pix are not ours.)
Customers in the "sales room," photo probably pre-WWII.
One of Rome's more long-lasting institutions is the Pharmacy of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere. A ground floor, operating pharmacy, looks old enough, but dates "only" from the 1950s. Upstairs, open to very limited tour groups only in the past 10 years, is the pharmacy started by the Carmelite Friars in the second half of the 15th century and operated continuously until 1954 - or 400 years - and until the present if you count the location on the ground floor.

The order - Discalced Carmelites (i frati carmeletani scalzi - or "shoeless" monks) - started the pharmacy to serve their own colleagues.  The fame of their mostly herbal remedies led to the pharmacy being called "The Popes' pharmacy." At the end of the 1600s, the pharmacy was open to all, serving poor Romans at low prices.
Fra Basilio teaching other monks his secrets. Many books, such as the one
shown in the painting, were not confiscated and are still in the Spezieria.

A principal pharmacist, as we might call him, was Fra Basilio della Concezione who, in the 1700s, developed some particular combinations of medicines, such as the "Acqua anti-pestilenziale" - or anti-plague water, that was supposed to fend off diseases for those who came in contact with infected people.

The monks also had their own herb gardens back of the monastery and the church, gardens that stretched up to the Gianicolo.

One could consider some of their treatments the equivalent of today's homeopathic medicine, much of it efficacious.

This is the monk who offered us some herbs and medicine to
smell and touch. The boxes behind him hold the herbs. The
cabinets are from the 18th century.  The doors were painted in
 the 1920s.
Today, only a small part of the monastery garden remains. The pharmacy and the land attached to it was confiscated in the 1880s, shortly after Italy became a unified state in 1870, and the monks - though treated as lay persons - were allowed to (or were told to?) keep working at their trade until, in 1911, they were given back title to the pharmacy and a small plot of land.  At least this is what I think our guide said; I found no confirming information online regarding the pharmacy in this period. Most of the monks' library also was confiscated, as were almost all church libraries post-Italian unification, and turned over to the state's Biblioteca Nazionale (about which we've written previously).


The fascination of the "antica farmacia" is that it preserves a view of medicine over 400 years. Its name is not in fact farmacia or pharmacy, but "Spezieria," or, one might say, "herbalist's." "Spezie" are spices.

The rooms of the antica farmacia include the sales room, an "office" where the herbs and records were kept, a lab where mixtures were boiled and crushed, and an undecorated back room with heavy equipment to pound ingredients. It's enlightening to visit these rooms because all the equipment, jars, herbs and medicines themselves are still in place. We were offered some to smell and touch. As our guide said, the main room is almost religious in atmosphere - no doubt that was intended.
The "office" and  storage area for herbs and records.

Besides the "anti-pestilence water" we were shown a large container marked "Sanguisuga," which I thought (using my literal Italian) had something to do with making sauce out of blood to apply to wounds (think of a steak over a black eye).  Turns out sanguisuga is the term for "leech."

Just last year, a group of 5 scientists form 4 countries analysed more than 200 of the drugs contained in the "main showcase," and reported their conclusions in an article entitled "Tradition and Renovation [Innovation"?] in the Ancient Drugs of the Spezieria of Santa Maria della Scala: Between Scientific Knowledge and Magical Thought" (in the European Journal of Science and Technology - you can read it here).

Some of the large and small jars in the "sales
The researchers used a "multi-analytical approach" (take a look at all their methodologies!) with an initial conclusion that "a lot of the identified substances had both artistic and medicinal uses." The researchers point out that this order of monks originated in Spain and at one time controlled East-West trade. They therefore had access to many more ingredients than just what was in their garden.

The authors of the journal article, calling the pharmacy a "cultural melting pot of Baroque Rome," state:

"This amalgam of knowledge amassed at the Spezieria di Santa Maria della Scala – located halfway between the ancient western Mediterranean and the Middle East (Islamic medicine) and halfway between the Far East (India) and the New World (pre-Hispanic knowledge) – as well as the work of Paracelsus – the bridge between the legacy bequeathed by Hippocrates and Galen and a new pharmaceutical practice whose alchemical base laid the foundations for modern chemistry – encouraged us to propose a first research project in this cultural melting pot of Baroque Rome."
More jars, lit like religious icons (or a modern bar).

For readers interested in the history of medicine, I recommend this readable article.  The piece also has a more detailed history of the Spezieria.

In the meantime, if you're in Rome, keep your eye out for a tour of this locale. I'm not sure I've seen one in English, but if you go with some of your own information, even without English, you'd enjoy the "visit." Our tour was provided by Turismo Culturale Italiana, whose guided tours and visits we've enjoyed in the past, as part of their Spring Trastevere series.

There is limited info in English - mostly on herb therapies - available on the church's Web site if you scroll down. Address:  Piazza della Scala. The Web site says  - in English - you can email to arrange a visit: smariadellascalla@ Phone:  065806233.

More photos below.

Sign over entrance to 'sales room': "Neither herbs nor bandages will give you health;
it's God who provides health for all." (apologies to Latinists)
The entrance to the lab, or "Liquorificio" where distillation
of liquors and perfumes took place.

Way in back; looks like a heavy-duty crushing machine to me.

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