Spezieria: The Italian Apothecary

After many months of research into the Italian books of secrets I began to wonder, if you weren’t making them yourself, where you might go to buy cosmetics. I wanted to answer a few questions:

  1. What was the name of the shop that would sell cosmetics and other beauty/health supplies?
  2. What items would those shops offer?
  3. Who would frequent the shop?
  4. What types of records from the shopkeepers might be in Italian archives?

spezieria di san giovanni at scorcidiparma

The first link I found was the jars that the apothecaries might use to hold their wares. The term for a jar is alberello. An albarello, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a pottery jar for apothecaries’ ointments and dry drugs … produced in Italy from the 15th through the 18th century in the form known as majolica, or tin-glazed earthenware. Since the jar had to be easy to hold, use, and shelve, its basic form was cylindrical but incurved for grasping and wide-mouthed for access. The albarelli below are about 7 inches (18 centimeters) high. A few have close-set handles, but, because they were not designed to hold liquids, they are generally free of spouts, lips, handles, and outcurved forms. A piece of paper or parchment tied around the rim served as a cover for the jar.”


A quick Google search for images gives you an idea of the varieties of alberelli there were. I would imagine that aside from these very decorative ones, there were also plain ones.

After finding the alberello term I stumbled upon the term spezieria. I had originally looked for farmacia, as they are called in the current and last century… but apparently in the 15th and 16th centuries cities were known for their spezieria. Spezierie (or, spezie) are spices. The speziale, or apothecary, was in charge of processing and mixing herbs and spices to produce unguenti (ointments), tisane (herbal teas), and sciroppi (natural syrup bases). In their simple gardens (Hortus Simplicium) the speziale cultivated herbs for curatives which were labelled simplici (simple) for the straight herbal ones, and compositi (composite) for the ones created via mixing substances.

The Spezieria di San Giovanni in Parma was founded by Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages. It has been documented in the same location since 1201 AD, and today is open as a tourist attraction with it’s historic interior restored. The Speziale al Giglio in Florence, has much the same story, and has been in operation at least since 1464. Once once owned by Tommaso dei Guidi, this apothecary shop is still a major attraction in Florence.

From there I found the diary of Luca Landucci who was a Florentine apothecary who kept an account of the daily occurrences in his city from 1450 until his death in 1516. Then I stumbled upon an archive site where some of the notable apothecaries transaction registers are posted (yes!!!!). I’ve begun assembling the research to make my dream of running a small apothecary shop for living history events possible.

spezieria th-8_pharmacie

So, the answers that I have found so far to my original questions are:

  • What was the name of the shop that would sell cosmetics and other beauty/health supplies?
    • Spezieria (Spezieria di San Giovanni), Farmacia, Aromatario (Aromatario della Luna), or Speziale (Speziale al Giglio)
  • What items would those shops offer?
    • Ointments, oils, pomades, cosmetics, creams, soaps, perfumes, candles, potpourri, specialty foods and candies, liqueurs and syrups, medicinal preparations, herbal tisanes, herbal waters, remedies, pigments. Also, seating with games.
  • Who would frequent the shop?
    • Laborers, fisherman, painters, and housewives to buy prescription drugs, sweets, candles, or to listen to gossip or play chess. For instance, Ghirlandaio is recorded in the register of the Speziale al Giglio.
  • What types of records from the shopkeepers might be in Italian archives?
    • Business registers, diaries (ricordi), and records of sales. For instance, the archive of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence has the records of many apothecary shops of the early Renaissance with names, debts, and payments of clients. They kept these records for legal purposes in case of disputes over credit and payment, and for tax purposes.



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