The terrible Italian plague of the years 1629-31 has been famously described as one of the most tragic epidemics of bubonic plague after the Black Death. This post tells the story of a French doctor working in Bologna – in the special plague hospitals, called lazzaretti, and in the streets – during those terrible years, and it describes how pharmacopeia and pharmaceutical innovation could become intensely debated topics in such times of crisis.
The four lazzaretti founded in Bologna to face the epidemic were organized internally as regular hospitals for the sick, with their hierarchy of physicians, surgeons, assistants, barbers, and nurses. The Cardinal Legate of Bologna, the representative of the papal government ruling on matters of public order, had decreed that two physicians and two barbers must do rounds in the lazzaretti in 15-day shifts. However, the number of barbers and other subordinate health care professionals, including foreign practitioners with no clear university training, was always much higher, because it appears that physicians used to pay the lower ranks to go and serve in their place for fear of death. The chronicle written during the plague by Pietro Moratti stated that “those who did not want to go there out of fear had the obligation to send another in their place, free of costs for the city, except for daily expenses … some paid their substitutes 200 scudi so they themselves did not have to go, and this happened during the peak of the evil, since when the contagion began to be domesticated many people would go for less than 50 scudi, especially apothecaries and barbers: once in a lazzaretto there were found, including the apprentices, 20 barbers, some of them from the city, some of them foreigners.”
Indeed, one foreign practitioner found particular success in a Bolognese lazzaretto. Giovanni Polani called il Francese, born in Brittany, France, a practitioner with no known university training, had worked in the countryside lazzaretto of Castelfranco and before eventually coming to the Bolognese lazzaretto degli Angeli, where he was offered a significant sum of money to substitute two local doctors who had refused to perform their service. Having finished his fifteen-day shift, and still finding himself in perfect health, he stayed in Bologna and became the assistant to another French doctor, Pierre Potier (1581-1643). In the meantime, several other physicians had tried to find excuses not to serve in the lazzaretto, and at that point the Bolognese members of the board of public health, upon realizing that the Angeli lazzaretto had no physician in service, decided to call Polani back. The French practitioner obeyed and served at the lazzaretto for another fifteen days. Importantly, the chronicler Moratti reports that Polani kept his good health thanks to “some kind of powder which he used to prepare as a preventative measure against the plague.” Here is the recipe as described by Moratti and reported in a eighteenth-century manuscript copy of Moratti’s chronicle attributed to a different author:
del quale si servì il Sig. Dottore Gio. Polani detto il Francesino per servizio degl’Infermi nelli Lazaretti, il qual’estratto cagionò effetti stupendi, tenuto da lui in tal tempo secreto
Teriaca buona on. 3
Angelica… ana on. meza
Fiori di solfo
Antimonio Diaforetico… ana on. 6
Le suddette cose s’infondevano in quantità sufficiente di Spirito di Vino, per lo spazio di quattro giorni, e poi si colavano, e s’infondevano in altro Spirito di Vino, l’uno, e l’altro estratto si esalavno in Balneo Mariae, facendone un estratto liquido, il quale si dava al patiente in quantità di due Drame, in Brodi, o Acque Cordiali, ed anche ne medesimi Siropi.
La virtù de detto estratto era di movere sudori puzzolenti, provocare l’urina, e cacciar fuori il veleno pestifero, come l’esperienza benissimo dimostrava.
This recipe, a preventative medicament prepared with fairly expensive ingredients, found its way into the correspondence of Father Orimbelli, the Jesuit “direttore generale” of one of the city’s lazzaretti, and Cardinal Spada, the Legate of Bologna. Father Orimbelli praised it highly and claimed that he had seen its marvelous effects with his own eyes. Now, in times of plague the circulation of literature and practices with regard to pharmacies and therapeutic secrets became frantic. Numerous works, in the form of pamphlets, broadsheets, printed and manuscript booklets, letters, etc. were devoted to advertising and sometimes to pitching the latest remedies. The mass of documents from this period is enormous, and healers of all kinds found a chance to gain the favor of powerful patrons during the plague by experimenting with new remedies. Italian archives are full of recipes, almost all very elaborate, many of them including theriac, both to treat the buboes, the carbuncles, and all the external manifestations of the plague, and to treat its internal essence, mainly though expurgation of its “poison” though sweat, urine, feces, and vomit.
Polani’s recipe became so popular that a Venetian empiric practitioner named Marino began to sell powders and ointments exploiting the Francese brand. Polani appealed to the the board of public health lamenting that such remedies were not at all like his and received full retribution. On October 3, 1620 a sentence read in the Bolognese Senate forbade the empiric to sell his products, and awarded Polani 200 scudi as compensation, also for his services to the city.
This story of experiments and stolen recipes tells us something interesting about how innovation happened in times of plague. The French practitioner Polani, presumably lacking any university training, created successful new recipes in the context of the lazzaretto. Polani built his moral authority by serving there when the local doctors had fled for fear of contagion. And when an empiric seller claimed to replicate this medicament by exploiting his name. At this point Polani made a bold move: he wrote the Senate and gained the copyright for his recipe. This ran completely contrary to expected practices. There is no sign that Polani received an official license from the College of Medicine of Bologna, which was the standard procedure for selling new products. In some cases, the Senate could even force the candidate to test the medicament before the eyes of the medical magistrates. On the contrary, Polani gained his authority on the field. Due to the state of emergency and the immediate threat of the plague, the city’s medical authorities played no part in this process. This experiential authority allowed him to act as as if he had been granted a license and to request that fraudolent products be removed from the streets of Bologna. In the state of crisis, under the plague, political and administrative authority were forced to recognize the authority of experience of an “empiric” foreigner.
 Pietro Moratti, Racconto de gli ordini et provisioni fatte ne’ Lazzaretti di Bologna, e suo Contado in tempo del Contagio dell’Anno 1630. In Bologna, presso Clemente Ferroni MDCXXXI, ad instanza di Bartolomeo Cavalieri, & Cesare Ingegneri, 23.
 Moratti, Racconto, 35-36. Pierre Potier was a very well-known doctor in Italy: see Sheila Barker, “Poussin, Plague, and Early Modern Medicine,” The Art Bulletin 86:4 (2004): 659-689, 662.
 Moratti, Racconto, 123-24; Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio di Bologna, Gozz. 364, Cronaca del Contaggio accaduto in Bologna l’anno MDCXXX, scritta dal P. D. Celestino Poracci, Abbate in quel tempo di S. Stefano di Bologna e fedelmente trasferita l’Anno 1792 per uso del Signor Clemente Fabbri, 162-63.
 Antonio Brighetti, Bologna e la peste del 1630. Con documenti inediti dell’Archivio segreto Vaticano. Bologna: Gaggi 1968, 120.
 Brighetti, Bologna e la peste, 135-48.
 Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Recapiti di sanità, I, n. 5, 2 ottobre 1630.