Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Florentine Renaissance apothecary

Susan Brunn Puett
Chapel Hill, NC, USA
J. David Puett
Athens, GA / Chapel Hill, NC

Image of Copies of two pages from the 1597 edition of the Ricettario fiorentino di nuovo illustrato.
Fig. 1: Copies of two pages from the 1597 edition of the Ricettario fiorentino di nuovo illustrato. Left panel: Frontispiece. Right panel: Page 72 showing saffron (zafferano) as one of the included ingredients. From the Swiss electronic library of the ETH-Bibliothek Zurich.

The contemporary pharmacy conjures an image of a store replete with medicines, medical paraphernalia, and at least one professionally trained pharmacist to offer advice and fill medical prescriptions. Earlier European pharmacies (apothecaries), beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the Renaissance and post-Renaissance, were the primary venue for patients seeking medicinals and also for artists procuring pigments. Indeed, Florentine artists were initially organized into a sub-group within the Guild of Doctors, Apothecaries, and Grocers, established in 12931 and one of the seven major Guilds (Arti Maggiori), thus documenting the close interaction between apothecaries, medicine, and art.

The history of pharmacies is long, with every culture developing a pharmacopeia that used as ingredients one or more herbal plants, animal parts, and inorganic components in an attempt to cure specific and non-specific illnesses. In time this knowledge was shared with neighboring communities and in certain geographical areas became widely disseminated. Physicians and apothecaries in Renaissance Florence benefited either directly or indirectly from the input of many cultures, notably Rome, Greece, the Middle East, Egypt, and probably India. Beginning in the Middle Ages Florentine apothecaries could be found as stand-alone shops, in hospitals, and in monastic orders. One common practice was for apothecaries to pay a salary to physicians for seeing patients in their shops, with the resulting prescriptions being filled by the attending pharmacist (apothecary).2 In 1558 some 46 apothecaries were registered in Florence.3 This article focuses on the role of those Renaissance Florentine apothecaries that were mainly housed in monastic and independent shops, serving the dual purpose of dispensing not only medicinals, but pigments and materials for pigment preparation.

In the monastic setting, both nuns and friars in many of the orders were trained to prepare and dispense medicinals, mainly herbal, most of the plants being grown in gardens belonging to the mother church. An example of an apothecary that evolved to become an outlet for both medicinals and pigments was the speziera at the Dominican church and convent of Santa Maria Novella. Beginning in the fourteenth century as a small infirmary for the use of the friars living at Santa Maria Novella, the apothecary was later expanded to a spice and drug shop. Although it closed for about twenty years in the late sixteenth century, it reopened in 1612 under the direction of Fra’ Angiolo Marchissi. An herbal specialist was hired to prepare medicines for the friars and also for the greater Florentine community. In time artists began to frequent the apothecary in order to obtain pigments, particularly those difficult to prepare in their own studios.

Today the site of the original apothecary houses the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, selling soaps, perfumes, and lotions. One can visit the monastic herbal preparation rooms that contain apparati from the 1600s, including mortars and pestles, pharmaceutical jars, glass vessels, mixing bowls, ovens, and distillation equipment (Figure 2). Currently there is an experimental garden next to a small area originally used by the friars for cultivating their herbs, as was common practice. The former chapel and frescoed sacristy now serve as the central sales room and library, respectively, of the present day shop.

Another early entry into the field was Santa Caterina da Siena, a convent affiliated with the Dominican church, San Marco, and heavily influenced by the illustrious Dominican Prior, Savonarola. The Order was founded in 1496 and chartered in 1509. Originally the nuns began with a small apothecary in which medications were prepared and provided at little or no cost to the poor. As their reputation grew, they continued to expand into larger quarters and began to dispense not only medications but also pigments.4

The apothecaries had at their disposal pharmacopeias and art-related treatises delineating recipes for medicinals and pigments, respectively. Artists in their individual workshops developed recipes for preparing pigments using organic, mainly plant-based, and inorganic materials, e.g. minerals, byproducts of glass making, and others. A major codification of those preparation techniques was published by the Tuscan painter, Cennino Cennini, near the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth century. His treatise, Il Libro dell’Arte, is a valuable compendium that also contains discussions of artistic techniques.5 After purchasing pigments from apothecaries, artists prepared them with a medium to produce the consistency of paint desired. For both apothecary and artist, knowledge of the ingredients and of the parameters involved in timing and level of grinding were crucial.

As with pigments, a standardization of medicinal recipes and preparation techniques was necessary to ensure high quality and consistency. In Florence, the first official European pharmacopeia was published by the College of Physicians and the Guild of Apothecaries in 1499 (1498 in the calendar being used at the time). This volume, Ricettario fiorentino (commonly known as the Nuovo riceptario) was compiled by the Physician Master Hyeronimo, a project supported by the Dominican Prior Savonarola. This opus was revised over the years with a widely used version published in 1597, the Ricettario fiorentino di nuovo illustrato (see Figure 1 for frontispiece). Shortly after the publication of the original Ricettario fiorentino, the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova published another Ricettario in 1515, compiled by Hectorre di Lionello di Francesco Baldovinetti, in which numerous contemporary physicians contributed over 1,000 recipes for medicinal purposes. Also, recipes were included from Galen (second century AD), who had at his disposal numerous recipes from Greek and Roman sources, as well as several of the leading Islamic physicians, Avicenna, Rhazes, and Mesue.6

Image of a distillation apparatus located in the museum of Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.
Fig 2: A distillation apparatus located in the museum of Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. Photo by the authors.

In many cases the same or similar techniques of preparation were used for both pigments and medicinals. For example, techniques included grinding (with a mortar and pestle), heating, sifting, straining, distillation, and others. With the exception of simple grinding and mixing, the more sophisticated methods were generally left to apothecaries who were much better prepared, equipped, and trained than artists and physicians in dealing with the myriad ingredients that composed many of the recipes.

In discussing the preparation of several pigments, Cennino often urged artists to seek the expertise that apothecaries provided. For example, when fabricating marine blue, Cennino advised using a druggist’s covered sieve for sifting the pounded lapis lazuli. The resulting powder was then added to a melted combination of pine rosin (obtained from a druggist), gum mastic, and new wax; the parameters, including amounts, technique, and timing, were exacting. The procedure involved straining, mixing, storage for three days interspersed with reworking, and finally adding warm lye to extract the blue, the timing of which determined the grade of blue. In this, the apothecary and the artist had cooperating roles.7 The apothecaries’ proficiency was also recommended by Cennino when preparing vermillion made by alchemy. According to Cennino the process was exceedingly tedious. “I advise you to get some of that [vermillion] which you need at the druggist for your money, so as not to lose time in the many variations of this procedure.”8

As was true with the overlapping techniques, both disciplines also drew upon the same ingredients. One of the many ingredients often used in recipes for pigments as well as medicines was saffron (zafferano), Crocus sativus L. In the case of saffron for yellow pigment preparation, the instructions provided by Cennino were as follows:

You should put it on a linen cloth over a hot stone or brick. Then take half a goblet or glassful of good strong lye. Put the saffron in it; work it up on the slab. This makes a fine color for dyeing linen or cloth. It is good on Parchment . . . and if you want to make the most perfect grass color imaginable, take a little verdigris and some saffron; that is, of the three parts let one be saffron.9

In addition to being used as pigments, the stigmas and petals of saffron have been used in many cultures for medicinal purposes and are present in multiple recipes for Renaissance herbal medicines.  For example, in the Ricettario fiorentino, zafferano appears in a list of frequently used herbs (Figure 1 shows a page from the 1597 edition of the Ricettario fiorentino di nuovo illustrato). For medicinal purposes it was recommended for use both externally and internally for problems with the liver. Pains in the liver and spleen could be treated with a poultice (to be placed on the body) that contained saffron and twelve other ingredients.10 For the treatment of blockages, a syrup with saffron and seven other components were mixed with honey, making the concoction more palatable to drink.11 An early recipe for mithridatum was used by King Mithridates of Pontus, who also added ingredients in his attempt to concoct an antidote to poison. In later times it became known as theriac and was even given to plague victims in Florence, but only to those patients who could afford the high price. Various recipes were developed, but saffron was generally one of the constituents.12 It is of interest that recent investigations have documented the effectiveness of saffron in medical treatment of depression, cancer, and other disorders.13-16

An inorganic ingredient used in both pigments and medicinals was lead white (biacca di piombo) [2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2]. Lead white was prepared in early times by the alchemists and later adapted by apothecaries. A widely used method was to allow contact between metallic lead and acetic acid vapors in the presence of carbon dioxide, followed by scraping and recovering the white crust that forms. In the Renaissance it was dispensed to artists by apothecaries in lumps or small cakes for later grinding. Again quoting from Cennino, “The more you grind this color, the more perfect it will be.17 It was applied to panels and walls in tempura and used to lighten all colors.

For medicinal purposes lead white was a popular ingredient for treating pains in the womb. A wax poultice was made by heating together rose oil, white wax, and lead white. After cooling, the mixture was placed on the lower abdomen in the hopes of bringing relief.18

From the above discussion it is clear that a close relationship developed between apothecaries, artists, and physicians in Renaissance Florence. Each group contributed to the others, with the apothecary sites serving as a focal point promoting synergy through the three disciplines.


Primary sources

  • Cennini, Cennino d`Andrea. The Craftsman`s HandbookIl Libro dell` Arte”. Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960. [Unabridged and unaltered republication of the Thompson translation originally published by Yale University Press, 1933. (The original publication by Cennini was sometime in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.)]
  • Hyeronimo, Master. Ricettario Fiorentino di Nuovo Illustrato. Florence: Il Collegio di Medici, 1597. [This is a later edition of the compendium first published in1498 (in the present calendar 1499)].

Secondary sources: Books

  • Henderson, John. The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the Body and Healing the Soul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Park, Katharine. Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Siraisi, Nancy G. Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Strocchia, Sharon T. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Secondary sources: Articles

  • Abdullaev, F.I., and J.J. Espinosa-Aguirre. “Biomedical Properties of Saffron and Its Potential in Cancer Therapy and Chemoprevention Trials.” Cancer Detection and Prevention 28.6 (2004): 426-432.
  • Bhargava K, Vijaya. “Medicinal Uses and Pharmacological Properties of Crocus sativus Linn (Saffron).” International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 3.S3 (2011): 22-26.
  • Moshiri, Esmail, Afshin Akhondzadeh Basti, Ahamad-Ali Noorbala, Amir-Hossein Jamshidi, Seyed Hesameddin Abbasi, and Shahin Akhondzadeh . “Crocus sativus L. (Petal) in the Treatment of Mild-to-Moderate Depression: A Double-Blind, Randomized and Placebo-Control Trial.” Phytomedicine 13.9-10 (2006): 607-611.
  • Norton, Stata. “The Pharmacology of Mithridatum: A 2000-Year-Old Remedy.” Molecular Interventions 6.2 (2006): 60-66.
  • Schmidt, Mathias, Georges Betti, and Andreas Hensel. “Saffron in Phytotherapy: Pharmacology and Clinical Uses.” Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 157.13-14 (2007): 315-319.
  • Strocchia, Sharon T. “The Nun Apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: Marketing Medicines in the Convent.” Renaissance Studies 25.5 (2011): 627-647.


  1. Siraisi, Medieval, 18.
  2. Park, Doctors, 29.
  3. Strocchia, Nuns and Nunneries, 13.
  4. Strocchia, “The Nun Apothecaries,” 630.
  5. Cennini, Craftsman’s.
  6. Henderson, Renaissance Hospital, 297-301.
  7. Cennini, Craftsman’s, 37.
  8. Ibid., 24.
  9. Ibid., 29-30.
  10. Henderson, Renaissance Hospital, 326.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Norton, “Pharmacology.”
  13. Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre, “Biomedical.”
  14. Moshiri, Basti, Noorbala, Jamshidi, Abbasi, and Akhondzadeh, “Crocus.”
  15. Schmidt, Betti, and Hensel, “Saffron.”
  16. Bhargava, “Medicinal.”
  17. Cennini, Craftsman’s, 34.
  18. Henderson, Renaissance Hospital, 329.

SUSAN BRUNN PUETT, BA, received degrees in history and education from Duke University. Having taught and served as an addiction counselor, she is now an Independent Scholar who has published in history and poetry. She has co-led Honors students from the University of Georgia to Florence, Italy, with a focus on art and science in the Renaissance. After numerous research trips to Florence, Susan has co-authored a book with J. David Puett, Renaissance Art and Science@Florence, to be published by Truman State University Press.

J. DAVID PUETT has BS and MS degrees in physics and a PhD in biochemistry. He is Regents Professor and Department Head Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He has served on the faculties at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the University of Miami School of Medicine, and the University of Georgia. He has published extensively in science (cancer biology, reproductive biochemistry, and natural products) and is now writing both science and history. His teaching of medical biochemistry and physiology, as well as his interest in natural products, led him to explore the role of apothecaries in Renaissance Florence. With Susan Brunn Puett he has written a book on Renaissance Florence.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 4 – Fall 2014

Fall 2014



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