This colourful, earthenware jar held at the V&A was made in Venice towards the end of the sixteenth century. Its front prominently displays the profile of a bearded man wearing a feathered helmet, depicted against a yellow ground and surrounded by a foliage frame. A white banner below the portrait provides a contrast to the surrounding blue colour, which makes up the background of the whole jar. The banner appears to be held by two men in full armour and has MOSTARDA • F written on it. The back of the jar is decorated with another figure; this one, however, is larger in size, and depicts an older man in three-quarter view.
Another jar, roughly similar in shape and bearing the same inscription, can be found in the museum’s collection. This jar might have also been made in Venice around the same time as the jar described above. However, this one is not as colourful, relying on white, blue and shades of grey. Rather than portraying any human figures, it is instead decorated with a variety of instruments, including a pestle and mortar at the top. The inscription is written in a similar font to the previous object, but the banner occupies a significantly larger amount of space, spanning the circumference of the jar.
This is all well and good, but what are these objects? In what context would a contemporary have encountered them? And what were they supposed to contain? The inscription MOSTARDA • F is definitely a clue to this last question. The word mostarda, translated from Latin, means mustard. The addition of the letter “F” might refer to the Italian word fine for fine, thus possibly relating to finely ground mustard seeds, or fine mustard. In the sixteenth century condiments such as mustard, sugar, or pepper, and other foodstuffs such as fruits and nuts were not only used as nourishment, but also as ingredients in medicines and as remedies by themselves. These jars would have been found in a Renaissance and early modern pharmacy.
The name used then for what we call a ‘pharmacy’ today was speziera in Italian, meaning spice shop, or ‘apothecary’, derived from the Greek word for storehouse. These terms both allude to the fact that a contemporary consumer would have found a variety of goods in the sixteenth-century pharmacy. These include edible goods such as medicines, sauces, sweet biscuits, and marzipan; but also things like artists’ pigment, paper, and ingredients for perfume. The apothecary therefore was not a specialist in the trade of medicines, but a generalist selling a diverse array of goods.
This variety in the materiality of goods can partly be seen in the drug jars. The two jars above, destined to hold a powder or ointment-like substance, are rectangular in their general shape and tapering at the foot and mouth. The short-necked design of the tops of these jars allows for their closure with a piece of paper or parchment and a string. The various substances sold at pharmacies, however, were not only held in ground form, but also as liquids, or preserves – and that variety in the forms of substances is reflected in the broad range of designs of apothecary jars still extant today.
This round jar was designed to hold liquids, as can be guessed from its spout. It carries the inscription A’BUGALOSSA on its foot, for ‘burgloss water’. Burgloss is a cone-shaped plant with tiny flowers, and the added “A” indicates that the substance contained in the jar was a ‘water’. Another jar created to hold burgloss – but in the form of a preserve rather than a water – can be seen in Image 6. It was made at the beginning of the sixteenth century and is decorated with blue foliage, musical instruments, and a muscular torso; and, contrary to all the other pharmacy jars discussed here, has a lid.
All of these objects destined for a pharmacy interior would have made for a very colourful sight, which would have surely enticed potential customers. The two engravings seen below show a sixteenth- and a seventeenth-century pharmacy. Both heavily emphasize the visibility of the jars arranged on shelves behind and around the apothecary himself. The trade in remedies was by no means an easy one, with many medical practitioners competing in the field. Therefore, it must surely have been an advantage to have beautiful tin-glazed earthenware holding the single ingredients.
Furthermore, the Latin inscriptions on the jars would have functioned to signal to the consumer that this was indeed a knowledgeable and trustworthy apothecary. University-trained physicians were reading and writing in Latin, and they also communicated with apothecaries in Latin. Thus the portrayal of the familiarity with this language might have functioned to connect the apothecary with the learned medical sphere – potentially heightening the amount of trust that was placed in them.
The making of remedies was only standardised to a certain extent in the sixteenth century. Pharmacopoeias – Latin texts written by physicians explaining the nature of simples and the composition of remedies – were introduced at varying speeds in Renaissance and early modern Europe. The first Italian example was the Ricettario Fiorentino published in 1499. Soon other regions followed in having their own texts published; however, they could only regulate production to a certain extent, and every region or city had different standards. The instilling of trust through material culture must therefore have played a large role in reassuring the customer that they were sold the correct compositions.
Apart from depicting the layout of the pharmacy interior, the two engravings also show the apothecary at work. Composites appear to have been prepared in the presence of the potential customer, who (if somewhat remedy-savvy) would have been able to verify the ingredients and quantities that were ground, combined, and incorporated in the apothecary’s mortar. This act of witnessing the making process and being able – with the help of the inscriptions on the drug jars – to identify that the right substances were used must have provided the client with a feeling of security that he or she was not being deceived by the apothecary.
When making a comparison between these Italian drug jars and Dutch apothecary jars from the eighteenth century, one sees that they are influenced by the practices of ceramic production of their respective regions. The Italian pieces are maiolica, whereas the northern jars adhere more to the characteristically blue and white delftware. This adherence to the style and technique of each country might have strengthened the aspect of trustworthiness that needed to be provided by the pharmacy practitioner. The familiarity of the outward appearance of the jars provided visual reference points to the possibly less familiar or foreign material culture contained within, and thus anchored them more firmly in a known context, potentially adding to trust.
The study of these apothecary jars reveals some of the complexities the apothecary and his customers were confronted with in the making, selling, and purchasing of remedies. Furthermore, the material culture of the Renaissance and early modern pharmacy enables us to broaden our understanding of what a pharmacy was back then, and in what ways it differs from our contemporary understanding of this space.
 Shaw, James, Welch, Evelyn, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2011), p. 18.
 Shaw, Welch, Making and Marketing Medicine, 2011, p. 19.
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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.