Giustiniani’s Treasure Chest of Cures
Sir Henry Wellcome, pharmaceutical magnate and founder of what would in modern times become known as GlaxoSmithKline, purchased this Italian medicine chest in 1924. While in Rome, one of his agents scoured the city’s treasures for historical medicinal items and unearthed this archival prize. The chest originated from the storied Italian family of the Giustiniani. The chest was purportedly created for Vincenzo Giustiniani, the last Genoese ruler of the island of Chios in the Aegean. Made in the sixteenth century the well-maintained chest contains 126 bottles and pots for drugs, many still bearing their original labels and contents. The selection of drugs contained in the chest suggests that it dates from the late sixteenth century. This unique medicine cabinet is one of the great treasures of the Wellcome collection.
Due to its central location to numerous early trade routes, Chios was the richest island in the Aegean from the thirteenth century until 1566. The island’s wealth of natural resources centered around the mastic bush which still grows in abundance on the island. During the time of Genoese rule, the gum from this plant found a thriving trade market in Constantinople. By the mid-fourteenth century, members of the Genoese branch of the Giustiniani family assumed control of Chios, managing the island’s trade, finances, and defense, for Genoa maintained control of criminal law and foreign policy. The Giustiniani became so inundated in their rule of the island that by 1560, the original controlling clan had evolved into a social class with all company shareholders bearing the surname of Giustiniani. To maintain the peace and defense of their holdings, tribute was paid to Suleiman the Magnificent who left the Giustiniani to operate at will and maintain control of the island’s wealth.
However, as history has proven repeatedly, absentee representation coupled with minority governance is an invitation to disaster. The island of Chios was captured by the Turks in April 1566. The town of Chios, while not sacked, was bought from Genoa by the Turks at nominal prices. With the Turks in control, most of the Genoese were sent home taking their treasures, including this chest, with them. The sons of Vincenzo landed in Rome. Giuseppe, also known as Vincenzo, became a banker and financier to the Vatican and in time, one of the richest men in Rome. His brother Benedetto became a cardinal, participating in the conclaves of 1592 and 1621. One day I’ll share more on these interesting brothers, but for now back to this fascinating chest.
The fact that the medicine chest endured is itself a small miracle given the low survivability of reagents during that period. Given that the details of the contents and their labels have passed untouched through time opens a rare window to the microcosm of daily life in the sixteenth century, providing an alluring visual aide to the application of medicinal treatment during this page of history.
The image on the underside of the lid is an oil painting of a female figure riding in a chariot through a classical landscape. In her right hand she holds aloft a caduceus, better known as the Staff of Hermes. The chariot is drawn by two large birds, possibly cranes. The lid of the chest is hinged with three drawers in the body of the chest, the top opens to the left and the lower to the right. The top drawer holds fifty bottles including viper oil and Armenian earth.
The center drawer has twelve compartments, holding scales and a pair of nested brass weights. Tucked into one of the cubbies is a marble mortar with an agate pestle, two brushes and two small pewter boxes. Even across the span of centuries, a few pieces of organic matter remain present including three pieces of chalk, four fish ossicles (inner ear bones), and three small pieces of fish bone. Just a moment, fish have ears?
The lower drawer contains seventy-six pewter boxes, and the descriptions of these items is the true tell of the accepted medical treatments of the times. Albeit, the miscellany listed becomes redundant, however, items of interest include:
Aromatic water of the holy thistle
Aromatic water of the stone of the walnut
Hundred year oil (Now, five hundred year oil…)
Oil for worms
Elixir of life
Oil of bishop’s (fresh squeezed?)
A complete listing of the bottle labels is available at this PDF link. Accompanied by a detailed discussion on the various pharmaceutical diatribes of the day. These references have more in-depth information on the influence of the contents of the Giustiniani medicine chest and the accepted medical practices of the sixteenth century–if you are so inclined to explore further.
The chest itself is clearly a luxury item, both large and the finest of craftsmanship. It is a medical treasure worthy of a prince, and there is little doubt why Sir Wellcome added it to his collection. The chest is treasure on many levels, historical, social, medicinal, and the images such a mesmerizing collection can conjure in the imagination of those who dream of time long past is unending.
Thank you for sharing this small page in the history of medicine and those that had the fortunes to afford themselves such pharmaceuticals. Join me on Museum Monday as I take a virtual tour of the Getty and their new virtual collection of the Renaissance. Take a look at their latest Iris blog and share your thoughts when I post on this exceptional museum experience.
John Burnett, M.A., M.Sc., Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine, Science Museum, London SW7 2DD.