The Engel Pharmacy

We are starting a new year researching a significant lot of objects from the Engel pharmacy in Iași. Bought by the history museum in Cluj in 1982 and dated to the 19th and 20th centuries, they form a considerable lot (we usually do not have so many artifacts from a single pharmacy), that is atypical (the collection in Cluj mainly focuses on Transylvania and Banat), and special (through the inclusion of numerous financial documents). Our study reveals the history of the ”At the Crown” pharmacy and of the Engel family, but also opens towards research topics such as the history of drug trade, early marketing in Romania, economical and commercial history, even contraception and promotional gift making. In fact, it provides a very specialized perspective on the modernization of Romania.

Pharmacy and contemporary glass art

Another old pharmacy in Venice is currently one of the location of the Berengo Collection, hosting contemporary glass art exhibitions. The sign of the apothecary shop is preserved inside the oficina, a painted and gilded wooden sculpture of Christ the Savior (probably the name of the shop and the oldest historical artifact in the location). The original furniture has also been kept in the main room to the street, with decorative reliefs inscribed ”Mitridato” and ”Teriaca” (the names of two related recipes of a famous antidote and cure-all produced in Venice), the dispensing table and some of the drug containers. Though the combination of the old pharmacy and the glass art creations is impressive, the patrimony goods are in need of conservation and research.

”Ai do San Marchi” Pharmacy

The ”Two saints Mark” Pharmacy (the funny name probably started from the fact that the patron saint of Venice was painted on each side of the shop’s sign) is entirely preserved inside the Ca Rezzonico Museum. The pharmacy functioned in Campo San Stin between the 16th and the 19th century, but in 1908 the window of the last owner sold everything to a French collector. Still, as the latter was unable to take the goods out of Italy, he donated the entire furniture, containers and laboratory tools to the municipality of Venice. The three reconstructed rooms (the oficina, the small laboratory, and the back room) are complete, with all pieces of furniture, Venetian drug jars made of majolica, Murano glass retorts and containers, even the doors to the outside, with small glass panels, and the painted sign mentioned above. This is an impressive reconstruction and the most complete 18th-century pharmacy preserved from Venice. We thank Dr. Daniele D’Anza, of the Ca’ Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento veneziano, for the special guided tour.

Pharmacy and perfume

The museum in the Palazzo Mocenigo, in Venice, dedicated to the history of the 18th century, includes two rooms dedicated to the history of perfume. The topic is of great interest to our project, as the same ingredients and technologies were often employed in the making of perfume and of medicines – especially the strong fragrances of animal origin, such as musk, ambergris, civet, and castoreum, but also some of the vegetal ones, like long pepper and anise. The entire museum is fascinating for the richness of its patrimony and for the reconstruction of a period when Venice was the hub of European trade in luxury goods (including spices and exotic goods).


The cabinets of curiosities, in which the emperors, kings and noblemen of Europe gathered, for study (and display) the most novel and strange natural specimens and the most interesting man-made artifacts, often included items also used in the preparation of drugs. Such Wunderkammern, fashionable especially between the 16th and the 18th centuries, houses bezoars, narwal horns (believed to be unicorn horns), sawfish rostrums and vegetal and mineral specimets from exotic territories thought for due to their healing properties. The GIANCARLO LIGABUE musej of natural history from Venice includes the reconstruction of such a cabinet of curiosities, as well as displays focusing on the artifacts of Venetian explorers who contributed to the research and systematization of the natural world. We were also impressed by the very modern and interactive curatorial principles at work in this museum.

The pharmacy at the Ercole d’Oro

There are so many old pharmacies in Venice, that some have remained in situ, turned into contemporary shops (especially those of the perfume company The Merchant of Venice). One of the most spectacular such locations is the Ercole d’Oro pharmacy near the church of Santa Fosca, in the district of Cannaregio, with 17th-18th-century furniture and artifacts. We have admired the painted ceiling, the exquisite furniture with reliefs and sculptures, the drawers with apothecary inscriptions, the pottery jars, as well as an interesting depiction of drug-making, on a wooden plaque commemorating the renovation of the 18th century.

The treacle of the Testa d’Oro

A gilded human dead and the faded inscription THERIACA ANDROMACHI can be seen on the spot of the old Testa d’Oro pharmacy in Venice, near the Rialto Bridge. This ancient pharmacy was famous for making the best treacle in Venice, so much so that the authorities allowed them to prepare the drug three times a year, instead of just once like all other apothecary shops. Theriaca (also known as Confectio Andromacha or Electuarium Anodynum cum opio) was a famous drug used as panacea, antidote for snake bites and poison, and last resort drug for patients in terminal stages. The recipe was first devised by the ancient Greeks, completed by emperor Nero’s personal physician, Andromachus, and perfected by the Venetians during the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Theriaca contained some 40 to 60 ingredients, its preparation lasted up to 12 years, and was thus extremely expensive. It contained, among others, opium and viper flesh. In Transylvania it was used until the nineteenth century and was brought in by Italian merchants.

Pietro Longhi’s “Pharmacist”

Pietro Longhi is known for his series of paintings depicting the daily life of the Venetian aristocracy in the middle of the 18th century. These genre paintings follow the high-class men and especially women of the Serenissima while they drink chocolate in the morning, while they go about their business, visiting the barber, the pharmacist, merchant stalls, or taking part in the Carnival. This light and far from formal style made Longhi famous during his time and his enlightened attention to detail make his works a significant visual source of the era. We were interested to see his painting entitled “The Pharmacist” on display at the Galleria dell’Academia in Venice. We have analyzed in detail the interior of the pharmacy (the drug jars made of pottery and glass, the drug boxes, the retorts, but also the furniture, the painting, and the plant in a pot), and especially the depicted characters. Baroque pharmacies were not only places where medicine was produced and dispensed, but also places for medical consults and the administration of remedies, meeting places for discussions, debates of the news, and the inspection of exotic goods. We also noted upon the high social standing of the pharmacist, as he is seconded by an assistant and an apprentice. Another of Pietro Longhi’s paintings, “The Alchemists”, on display at the Ca’ Rezzonico, is also relevant for our research as it shows the laboratory equipment that was also used in the era’s pharmacies.

The ”Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy

The Venetian hospital Scuola Grande di San Marco also includes a museum of pathological anatomy that bears the name of Andrea Vesalio, a famous Flemish anatomist who moved to the Serenissima during the 16th century. The autopsies and dissections performed at the hospital over time fulfilled a pedagogical function and the pathology museum was established with the same purpose. Visitors with steady nerves can investigate the ”products” of various human pathologies, organs preserved in formaldehyde, skeleton parts, even an example of human taxidermy, but also ledgers and old microscopes.

The pharmacy of the Scuola Grande di San Marco

The ancient civilian hospital of Venice, Scuola Grande di San Marco, was also endowed with a pharmacy. The latter is currently on display in a separate room, with a decorated portal, flanked by reliefs depicting healing scenes, in what was once a side chapel. The following items have been preserved from this pharmacy: several pieces of furniture, a number of drug containers, made of different materials, two portraits (Linnaeus, the father of biological classification and Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry), as well as several mortars and scales. One must note the large quantity of materia medica, of both mineral and vegetal origin, still preserved in the containers.