Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Royal Apothecary

Fresco, early 16th century speziale,
Castello di  Issogne, lower Aosta Valley, Italy.
As physician to the Medici royal family, Antonio Neri’s father (Neri Neri) worked closely with the other medical professionals in Florence. Among them was Stefano Rosselli, the royal pharmacist, who owned the Speziale al Giglio in the center of town.  We would readily recognize this shop today; rows of labeled jars lined the walls holding exotic remedies and ingredients from around the world. Freshly made sweets, cakes and other confections sat on the counter to entice customers. 

One of several such shops located around the city, ‘speziali’ dealt with medicines and herbal remedies, but also a wide variety of other needs, from pigments for artists, to the distillation of spirits, to the rental of funerary equipment, to raw materials for alchemists. Each shop had its own specialty to distinguish itself from the others. To some extent, they also competed with private operations run by convents and monasteries. Rosselli’s shop was famous for catering to the Medici family and courtiers, and as such he could command premium prices. But the function of these shops was not all business; they also proved popular meeting places for the local intelligentsia. Poetry, literary and other groups with various interests often congregated in the back rooms of the speziali.

Stefano Rosselli came from a family that was a mixture of artists and pharmacists. His father Romollo, with a degree from the university at Pisa, was a specialist in herbal remedies (simples). His brother Antonio (Fra Anslemo) worked at the pharmacy of San Marco, directly across the street from the Casino where Antonio Neri would later make glass. Their grandfather Bernardo Rosselli was a painter, a favorite of Michelangelo. Stefano’s daughter Fiametta joined the Dominicans as a nun, and became the famous sculptress Suor Caterina Eletta. A distant cousin was Cosimo Rosselli, who returned from Rome with a small fortune, earned painting for the pope. Biographer Giorgio Vasari noted that Cosimo could have lived comfortably on those earnings had the passion for alchemy not overtaken him. 

Stefano proudly maintained a proprietary list of treasured recipes gathered over a lifetime of experience. Some were given to him directly by Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, his son Francesco and daughter Isabella. Between 1589 and 1593 when Rosselli was in his late sixties, he started to compile these into three notebooks, which he eventually passed down to his sons and today have survived the ravages of time. The three books are devoted to medicines, perfumes and confections. Antonio Neri was a teenager in this period, and it is easy to imagine an occasional visit to the Speziale al Giglio for a piece of something sweet, perhaps one of Rosselli’s excellent pistachio calissons.

For a transcription and French translation of the recipes see: Rodrigo de Zayas, Mes Secrets, à Florence au temps des Médicis 1593 (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1996).

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