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  • Dawn Cumming

Spicing things up Italian Renaissance style!

This morning I have been mixing up a little bit of Renaissance Stardust (recipe courtesy of Gillian Riley from her wonderful book: A Feast for the Eyes The National Gallery Cookbook). I intend to use the stardust sprinkled over some roast chicken together with orange juice and rosewater (Renaissance Chicken) a recipe also from Gillian’s book.

I have a great interest in historical cooking and a real passion for the history of medicine and cosmetics. Usually I am brewing up herbal potions in my little space I call my Spezieria or apothecary. Pharmacies in Renaissance Italy were variously called apoteche, spezierie or aromatarii.

During the Renaissance the Apothecary Shop sold a variety of products including herbs, medicine, spices, candles, sweetmeats and syrups. It was also where artists would purchase their pigments. It is known that the Apothecary shop was as much a social gathering place as somewhere to buy products such as those above. People would meet here to chat, gossip, share information and sometimes even gamble. Whenever I have had to queue at our local pharmacy I am always amazed at the amount of chatter that goes on amongst those who have come to collect prescriptions. I could well believe that if you were able to buy the assortment of items available in the Renaissance Apothecary shop and you had to wait for your remedy to be weighed out and ground up, there would be scope for a real assortment of discussion.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Castello di Issogne in the Val d’Aosta with its absolutely incredible fresco cycle painted c.1500, which depicts places of sale including a tavern, pie shop, vegetable market, drapers and an apothecary shop. The fresco of the apothecary shop (see above) is useful since it shows an array of items that would have been typically on display in such places: labelled jars, pestle and mortar, scales, herbs, small wax objects in the form of a leg, foot, hand and a horse and an assortment of containers for medicaments.

I think I would have felt truly quite at home in the Renaissance Apothecary shop, I can just imagine the smells, the sound of the grinding of pigments and herbs (see fresco with the little chap dressed in ragged clothes and wearing only one shoe straddled on a low stool) who is engaged in doing exactly this. I can just hear the incessant chatter surrounding the efficacy of weird and wonderful remedies. I would have loved it!

It is well known that medieval monks grew medicinal plants in their monastic gardens but fewer people are aware of the important role that nuns and convents played in the commercialisation of medicines during the Renaissance period. I am however, pleased to say that this subject has been greatly addressed by scholars in recent years. The San Vincenzo d’Annalena convent in Florence which was founded by the subject of my book Annalena Malatesta was amongst those convents which became renown for its sale of medicines from the beginning of the sixteenth century.

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