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The Senses of the Apothecary in Early Modern Italy

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

Lunette of the Apothecary shop in a fresco at the castle of Issogne, 15th century, Valle d’Aosta.

The making of remedies today, especially industrial pharmaceuticals, relies very little the human senses, or at least this is how we imagine it. Industrial pharmaceutical recipes, we believe, are and should be impersonal and completely based on impartial measurements and detached formulas. Most of us believe that detaching the science and technology of medicine and pharmacy from everything that is subjective – let alone bodily –leads to progress. Things, we know, have not always been like they are today. How did early modern apothecaries understand their craft and knowledge? How did apothecaries relate to the substances they handled? How important was theory in the process of making remedies, and how important were experience and the senses?

One of the most insightful answers on how early modern apothecaries understood their craft comes to us from Filippo Pastarino, a sixteenth-century, well-established apothecary active in Italy, in the city of Bologna. In 1575, Pastarino published ‘A Reasoning of Pastarino on the Art of Apothecary’ (Ragionamento di Pastarino sull’arte della speciaria).[1] In this short booklet he sought to present apothecaries to his fellow citizen in an effort to reestablish their social role within the city, at a time when they felt their position was threatened. Apothecaries Pastarino claimed were first and foremost artisans with a strong religious vocation. They were experts in materia medica (all the substances apt to make remedies) who acted as merciful caregivers.  I have discussed at length the identity of early modern apothecaries in the article Craft, Money and Mercy, an apothecary’s selfportrait in sixteenth-century Bologna.[2] Here, we can delve in this work to answer to the question of how was apothecaries’ expertise achieved and enacted daily, according to themselves.

A good Apothecary knows about substances (substantie), so to say, by their taste, smell, and color not only with his intellect, but with his whole person: smelling, tasting, and touching he can perceive solidity, liquidity, density, lightness, roughness, softness, and such other qualities of touch. Also bitterness, sweetness, ripeness, acidity, sharpness, salinity, the heaviness and other flavors, which I here omit to mention, and bad flavors, such as rancid, burnt, putrid.[3] Apparently, to Pastarino touch, smell, and taste came before sight. He knew substances through ‘his whole person.’ Similarly, when a judge questioned another Bolognese apothecary about how he was able to recognize a good compound, the apothecary’s answer left no room for theory: “A good Theriac [the most prestigious compound in the early modern period and beyond] can be recognized by its smell, color, taste, and its by body or consistency.” The consistency of substances was substantial to apothecaries.

Apothecaries relied on all five senses in their relationship to matter. Daily, apothecaries manipulated hundreds of substances with dozens of different procedures, which could go wrong producing unwanted, and unpleasant, outcomes. The scope of the physical sensations described in these two passages evokes in us a range of physical experiences that go beyond today’s everyday experience of cooking or taking care of a house. But we can imagine that even today artists and artisans who produce artifacts from natural substances (like lute makers or ceramists, but also cooks) must have a deeply embodied sensibility for materials. Apothecaries drew from their daily and constant relationship with matter; they “knew” through their bodies and their senses. But, what about their intellect and theoretical knowledge?

Traditionally, early modern society valued theory and knowledge above practical expertise. Artisanal knowledge, or the mechanical arts, was essential for the functioning and well-being of the society but it had less prestige than the liberal arts. Pastarino was quite original in claiming an opposite balance between mind and body knowledge: “The sum of perfection in an Apothecary, besides knowledge, is vast experience, the mistress of all the arts that can be learnt and that can be put into practice. This is (in my opinion) the best, and most reliable method we can learn […] I say that experience […] is the true method of an apothecary; however, to their perfection, they also have knowledge”. [4] In Pastarino’s treatise, the value and importance given to bodily artisanal expertise stands out as a statement overturning the consolidated conception of knowledge (scientia) being seen as superior to experientia, at least in regard to the apothecary art.

Pastarino was certainly original in his views, but he was not alone. Historian of science Pamela Smith has shown that many early modern artisans shared a bodily awareness of their own art.[5] From the fifteenth century onward, artisans expressed such awareness and expertise not only in their writings, which were both technical and autobiographical, but also in paintings, drawings, statues, jewels, furniture, swords, and guns.[6] Artisanal practice did not merely consist of applying formulas and automatic gestures, but required a high degree of reflection and thinking. Like Pastarino, many other artisans blended the knowledge coming from theory and the expertise coming from embodied knowledge. They knew that a complete knowledge came only combining mind and body: “Those who see usual things only with the eyes of the intellect, those who cannot understand and accomplish them with their corporal hands, appear to live in darkness and misery”.[7] In a way, this view seems opposite to the modern idea that perfect knowledge should be voided of all subjectivity. And yet, sometimes this artisanal view seems to have the seeds of a wisdom which could help us (and the planet) progress even more.


After several years as editor of history textbooks, Barbara went back to historical research. She is now a doctoral candidate in the History of Science and Medicine Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on the medicines culture and market in early modern Italy and beyond, using theriac—the most famous drug in the Western world up to the nineteenth century—as a case study.

[1] Filippo Pastarino, Ragionamento di Pastarino sopra l’arte della speciaria (Bologna: Giovanni Rossi, 1575).

[2] Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  ‘Craft, money and mercy: an apothecary’s self-portrait in sixteenth-century Bologna,’ Annals of Science, 74:2 (2017), 91-107.

[3] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 20.

[4] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 16.

[5] Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan. Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 95.

[6] Smith, The Body of the Artisan, 7.

[7] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 8.

Making and Consuming Perfume in Eighteenth-Century England

Dr William Tullett asks why manuscript recipes for perfumes were on the decline in the eighteenth century, and investigates the role of the senses in perfume making.

A survey of the vast collection in the Wellcome library suggests that the presence of perfumery in manuscript recipe books slowly declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why did this happen? One answer could be that perfumery and pharmacy were slowly separating during the eighteenth century. Previously, perfume, pies, and prescriptions were promiscuously mixed because the boundaries between ‘food’, ‘cosmetics’, and ‘medicines’ were blurred in the 1600s: for instance, odours were thought to contain medical powers. Eighteenth-century physicians were increasingly sceptical about this possibility. Fumigations (to purify the air of houses) and pomanders (balls of perfume to protect against plague) were less common in recipe books by 1750. Perhaps perfume no longer fitted within the holistic tradition of ‘kitchen-physic’. Yet, despite the concerns of the medical profession, perfumes continued to be advertised and used for their medicinal benefits. Fainting dandies at the opera could still reach for the eau de cologne when all the extended vowels and overwhelming music got too much.

‘Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth.’ by William Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Another explanation is the increasing availability of ready-made perfumery, printed recipe books, and an emerging sense of commercial, fashion-oriented, consumer behaviour. Whilst print could easily be incorporated into manuscript recipe books, the proliferation of ready-made perfumery certainly had an impact. Insurance records on Locating London’s Past list over 300 perfumers in London between 1777 and 1786. The influence of the market is detectable in the introductions to print recipe books. For example, Simon Barbe’s The French Perfumer (English translation, London, 1696) lists biblical and noble patrons of perfume to inspire  home-brewed perfumery. Charles Lillie’s The British Perfumer (London, 1740s but published 1822) is introduced as a tool for negotiating the commercial market in perfumery: it would help prevent ‘purchasers of perfumes’ from ‘being impose[d] upon… beyond a fair, moderate, and reasonable profit’. Lillie’s book also contains some choice words on domestic perfumery. He attacked those who used ‘scraps of old women’s receipts’ and ‘gleamings from table-talk’. Above all it is fellow perfumers, working for profit in a luxury marketplace, to whom Lillie addresses his recipes.

Lillie’s recipe book has lots to say on how perfumers used their senses to assay the quality of ingredients. The inability to describe odours with precision (except through an emotional vocabulary or by reference to other materials) or remember them easily meant that touch, sight, and taste were thus the chief ways of testing ingredients. Examining ambergris, for example, Lillie noted that the worst was black or dark brown, heavy, hard to break, and had little smell. The best ambergris on the other hand was grey, easy to break and light in weight. If the ambergris had been adulterated with white sand, then Lillie suggested the use of a looking glass to check. Another test involved pricking the material with a hot needle to see if the ‘genuine odour will be given out’. However, Lillie added that ‘best way… to detect such frauds is always for the perfumer to keep by him a small piece of genuine ambergris; and… he should compare their smells by this experiment’. Without the original object smell was never a certain judge.

Where external appearances were similar, as with cassia lignum and cinnamon bark, taste could be used: cinnamon was ‘sharp and biting’ to the taste whereas cassia was ‘sweet and mawkish’. The less salty genoa soap was to the taste, the better quality it was. Touch was mobilised too: clove bark was best when at its most friable, whilst poor quality rice powder, used to make hair powder, was ‘moistened with water to give it a soft and silky feel’. Lillie’s recipe book demonstrates that sensory marks of quality were central for the perfumer because, in an era of economic specialisation, they increasingly relied on druggists, chemists, apothecaries, and grocers for their ingredients. The vanilla-scented gum benjamin (benzoin) was to be had from wax chandlers who used it to perfume sealing wax; druggists were a source for civet, although they adulterated it with honey; and even oils and essences, where the production of commercial quantities required large stills, were to be obtained from chemists ‘who actually distil it themselves’.

‘Glass bottle for eau de cologne, Paris, France, 1780-1850’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.

But what about the senses of consumers who bought, rather than made, perfumes? For the small number of individuals who were still making their own perfumery, the perfumer’s shop was important for buying essences and oils ready-made. Mary Forster’s handwritten recipes for soft and hard pomatum, made from hogs’ lard to dress the hair or soften skin, list a range of waters, oils, or essences that could be bought from perfumers and added, depending on preference; these included rose, geranium, and jasmine. Lillie’s book suggests that perfumers were no longer the reliable source of such a wide variety of raw ingredients. Instead they produced ready-made items, some of which – especially waters, essences, and oils – could be used straight away in scent bottles and handkerchiefs or taken home to be used in other recipes. But consumers buying ready-made hair-powder, pomatum, or liquid scents would be far less aware of the colour, texture, weight, and other sensory qualities of the original materials. Perfume advertising also focussed less on particular ingredients and more on the feelings and places the perfumes evoked: in the 1770s Richard Warren’s trade cards evoked biblical frankincense and the odoriferous gales of the east, whilst in 1801, Hester Thrail Piozzia marvelled at the perfumer’s ability to compress ‘India’s fragrance… into a Guinea phial of Odour of Roses’.[1]

What does this tell us about the senses? It might suggest a move closer to a more ‘monolfactory’ (to coin a term) way of smelling, without any sense of a material’s other sensory properties. A loose analogy would be acousmatic listening – where one can hear something but not see the source of the sound (as on the radio). This way of smelling would, during the nineteenth-century, become part of the culture of perfumery we know today – clear, spray-on, liquids that are abstract, aimed at evoking feeling, and carry fewer of the multisensory connotations of the original ingredients. Eighteenth-century recipe books help us trace some of the origins of this slow sensory shift.


William Tullett is a Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Research, London. William has just completed his first book, A Social Sense: Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, and is currently working on a new project on sound and urban change in the period between 1660 and 1840. He has published articles on early modern perfume, smell in eighteenth-century pleasure gardens and smell’s role in racial stereotypes.


[1] Oswald G. Knapp (ed.), The Intimate Letters of Hester Thrale Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (London, 1914), p. 229.

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).


Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.