09 March 2009

“The Cure”

Behold the Testa d’Oro (golden head)! This serious character stares down on the entry to Rialto Bridge, San Marco side. Today there’s a junky souvenir shop below him. But if you look very closely, you can still see the etched traces of the 250-year-old sign: THERIACA ANDROMACHI. That shop’s original purpose was the production and sale of theriaca (or triaca), Venice’s mystery-shrouded, Orient-inspired, cure-all potion.

The recipe for this panacea originated in the apothecary of the secretive Greek Andromaco, and came to Venice by way of Arabs. It called for no less than sixty ingredients, a primary one being dried viper meat. They were pounded and mixed in heavy mortars, sometimes in full public view. (The stone pavement in front of a chemist's shop in Campo Santo Stefano, originally the site of a historic farmacia called “The Old Cedar,” still bears the round indentations of theriaca mortars.) There was even a special song to accompany the rhythmic blows of the makers’ pestles, and a special costume for the fellows who delivered the miracle drug around town.

Venetians relied on theriaca to relieve stomach and bowel ailments, toothache, headache, and fever, heal scorpion stings, dog and viper bites, and plague buboes, prevent contraction of the plague and other contagious diseases, ease the pain of childbirth, restore sight and improve hearing, and even drive out evil spirits. (Somebody get Merck headquarters on the phone!)

Pharmacy was, and still is, a very dignified profession in these parts. To understand how seriously Venice took the preparation of theriaca and other medicines, and how much the farmacista (pharmacist) was honored in the culture, think of this: farmacisti, even though of common birth, were permitted to cross social lines and even marry Venetian noblewomen. Not a bad career choice for a smart, ambitious fellow!

I’ve heard that Farmacia Ponci Santa Fosca (which is so beautifully preserved that it looks like a movie set) still has a few drams of theriaca on the premises. The pharmacist there could not be persuaded to show it to me, though. Indeed, I got the impression he hates it when people come in asking stupid questions.