Monday, May 17, 2010

Hidden Treasures - La Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala

The sales room of the Farmacia di S. Maria della Scala - basically unchanged since the 1700s and finally closed as a business in 1954.

It was once the centre of community life in Trastevere – a place where people went to find cures for what ailed them, to get medical advise, to make appointments to see the doctors in the area or just to compare aches and pains. After almost 400 years of serving as the local pharmacy for Rione VIII the Spezieria di S. Maria della Scala closed its doors in 1954.
A poster from 1895 advertising the benefits and availability of the Farmacia's famous Aqua Antipestilenziale (a great disinfectant) and Aqua di Melissa (just the thing to calm hysteria).

When the church was built in the 1590s on the orders of Clement VIII a convent was constructed adjacent to it to accommodate eighty friars of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. As was required by the rules of the Order the monastery included a pharmacy for the growing of herbs for medicinal purposes. At first it was for the use of the brothers only but eventually, as with most farmacia, it became open to the public. In the 1700s as well as serving the Rione it became the Papal pharmacy. The sole task of the friars other than prayer was to cultivate plants, study their medicinal purposes and treat the sick. Their research and knowledge lead to the creation of a school, for both the religious and laity. A painting in the pharmacy shows Saint Basil of the Conception teaching a group of disciples – perhaps he is showing them how to make the farmacia's renowned products: l’acqua antipestinenziale and l’acqua antiisterica di S. Maria della Scala. Or their famous l'acqua di Melissa, the perfect cure for hysteria, which is still available for sale.

The Farmacia has only recently been reopened to the public by appointment only as a historical site, the good brothers now leave pharmaceuticals to others. As I mentioned the day we went there had been some confusion but finally a rather sweet chubby bespectacled young monk let us in and gave us a tour of the sales room, office and laboratories. Unfortunately photographs were not allowed so the photos here are scans of postcards, posters and borrowings from an article in Observatorio Romano.
Except for the addition of a few new fangled contraptions like the telephone, the sales room has not changed much since the 1700. A portrait of Saint Teresa of Avila, the founder of the order, looks over a room decorated with trompe d'oiel, gleaming wooden cabinets and the paraphernalia of the trade

One of the most famous products of the old Farmacia was an snake venom antidote known as Theriaca and said to be the creation of Andromache the doctor of Nero. It was manufactured up until the middle of the 1900s and was a blend of 57 different essences including the flesh of a male viper – which had to have lived far enough away from the sea to have had no contact with salt. "I viperai" were men who captured and milked the snakes for their venom as well as obtaining the viper flesh for the brothers – its a profession that has gone out of fashion in the last little while. There is still a sample of the concoction kept in a large stone pot (in the picture right) strategically placed in front of a window according to the instructions in the original recipe. The decor has remained largely unchanged since the 1800s – some decorations date back to the 1700s – with all the old scales, mortars, pestles, glass jars of herbal essences and equipment of the trade in their proper place. There are a few new fangled items such as a crank telephone but really little had changed in two centuries. One item that caught my attention was a serious of eye-high drawers with a doctors name on each one. Patients would come into the Pharmacy and leave their name and a description of their problem for their doctor, who would pick them up, perhaps dropping into see the person if it was felt necessary or often just leaving a prescription for their aliment.

The portraits of worthy royal patrons adorn the insides of the storage cabinets including Vittorio Emanuele I and Maria Theresa of Austria, to commemorate their visit in 1802. Another pair of doors depicts Umberto I, Prince of Piedmont and the Duchess Helen of Aosta, regular clients of the pharmacy.

The storage room was particularly fascinating with its wall of cupboards, the doors painted with miniatures of the famous apothecaries and men of medicine throughout history. But more charmingly the insides bear portraits of various members of Italian royalty who endowed hospitals or patronized the Farmacia. When the Papacy was crushed the task of running hospitals became the responsibility of the state. Though it is perhaps unfair to question the charity of the ladies of the House of Savoy, their work amongst the poor and sick were necessary if the people were to accept the idea of an Italian Royal family.

Going into the laboratories could be mistaken for a trip into a papal torture chamber – cauldrons, presses, centrifuges, bottlers and all manner of strange instruments including a machine for shaping pills. Even the young monk was a bit pressed to explain the use of some of the more complicated or esoteric contraptions – after all the pharmacy has ceased operation long before he was born and many of the old methods of treatment have faded from use.

Over the door of the entrance is a motto extolling the monks to treat the whole person that comes to them with ailments – treat the body but never forget to also treat the soul. Perhaps one of the old methods that could do with revival today.

17 maggio - San Pasquale Baylón Yubero

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

Wow! Makes Shoppers Drug Mart look like an ugly step-sister!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and so beautifully decorated!

Jacques said...

In Venice, there is a pharmacy that looks strikingly similar, and it is still functioning. Near the Strada Nova (towards the Santa Fosca area, I think). I'm guessing it is similarly dated, and I think I have seen somewhere that it is the oldest in Venice.

The historical part is closed off to the public I think, but it is the room next to where you but aspirin and suppositories and Italian pharmacy stuff.

I've only been there once or twice, when it was the "farmacia di turno" and I had to hoof it over there to get tachipirina or something urgent for the kids or the MiL. But just like the pictures.


oh my!...that is just so beautiful..

Blake said...

So good to have another posting. As always extremely interesting and informative with the pictures and charming explanation. Am I picky? - no; but I have always enjoyed using "an" before a word starting with the letter "h" as in "... an historical site.". It is usually only used before a vowel. I wish I could write as well as you do. Uncle Pervy.

Willym said...

And of course Uncle Pervy is right - that will teach me to us an American Spell version of spell check.