Early in the autumn of 1791, while he was still hard at work on the great requiem mass that would form such a large part of his legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill. Convinced that there was no chance of recovery, he
began to speak of death, and asserted that he was setting the Requiem for himself… “I feel definitely,” he continued, “that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea… Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.
Scholars have wrangled now for two full centuries over the circumstances of the great composer’s passing. A handful have concluded that he really was murdered. Most support rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops. Whatever the truth, though, and however he died, Mozart was certainly convinced that there existed a rare poison, one that was colourless, tasteless, odourless, beyond detection – and also so flexibly murderous that a carefully-calculated dose could guarantee a victim’s death a week, a month or even a year after it had been administered.
Nor was the composer alone in this belief. Forgotten though it is today, the mysterious liquid that he feared so much was one of the great whispered secrets of early modern Europe. Aqua Tofana was credited with what amounted to supernatural powers, and blamed for hundreds of agonising deaths. Which is odd, since it is very far from clear that it ever existed – and, if it did, what it was, where it was invented, where first used, and when and how it got its name.
How to destroy a man
The story as it is commonly told is this: Aqua Tofana was the creation of a Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana, who lived and worked in Palermo in the first half of the 17th century. It was a limpid, harmless-looking liquid, a scant four to six drops of which were “sufficient to destroy a man.” Its principal ingredient was arsenic, and, while its use spread throughout much of southern Italy, it was typically administered by women to their husbands, most commonly in order to come into their fortunes – poisons were often known as “inheritance powders” in those days.
The very existence of Aqua Tofana was, thus, a severe challenge to what was then agreed to be the natural order – a world in which men ruled as petty tyrants over their own families, and even the most aristocratic of daughters were chattels to be auctioned off into often loveless marriages. For this reason, generous allowance needs to be made for contemporary misogyny when we think about this tale; one of the few constants in the various portraits of events is the depiction of Tofana and her gang as hags, and their female customers as faithless Jezebels.
Chambers’s Journal, for example, stresses the horror of a strong man reduced to nothing by his wife, and tells us that the poison was a subtle killer:
Administered in wine or tea or some other liquid by the flattering traitress, [it] produced but a scarcely noticeable effect; the husband became a little out of sorts, felt weak and languid, so little indisposed that he would scarcely call in a medical man…. After the second dose of poison, this weakness and languor became more pronounced… The beautiful Medea who expressed so much anxiety for her husband’s indisposition would scarcely be an object of suspicion, and perhaps would prepare her husband’s food, as prescribed by the doctor, with her own fair hands. In this way the third drop would be administered, and would prostrate even the most vigorous man. The doctor would be completely puzzled to see that the apparently simple ailment did not surrender to his drugs, and while he would be still in the dark as to its nature, other doses would be given, until at length death would claim the victim for its own…
To save her fair fame, the wife would demand a post-mortem examination. Result, nothing — except that the woman was able to pose as a slandered innocent, and then it would be remembered that her husband died without either pain, inflammation, fever, or spasms. If, after this, the woman within a year or two formed a now connection, nobody could blame her; for, everything considered, it would be a sore trial for her to continue to bear the name of a man whose relatives had accused her of poisoning him.
The indetectibility of Aqua Tofana, then, was the poison’s greatest asset. “The acutest analysts,” Chambers’s continues, “were utterly unable to testify to its presence in the organs of one of its victims after the most searching post-mortem examination. It was, in fact, the poisoner’s beau-idéal of a poison.” And its slow action had two key benefits: it made the symptoms it produced in its victims resemble those of advancing disease, and – no small matter in deeply religious Italy – it not only gave a dying husband time to put his affairs in order, but also ensured that he was able to repent his sins. Since that in turn was thought to guarantee his entry into heaven, his killer did not even need to feel much guilt over the fate of his eternal soul.
In the course of a career that lasted for more than 50 years (the same accounts generally continue), Tofana and her gang were able to use this poison to dispose of at least 600 victims. Their secret was well-kept for all those years by a widening group of satisfied clients. Indeed, according to the Abbé Gagliani, a worldly-wise gambler and wit who wrote a century or so later, “there was not a lady in Naples who had not some of it lying openly on her toilette among her perfumes. She alone knows the phial, and can distinguish it.”
There are several problems, nonetheless, with these versions of events. One is that there are two wildly different versions of Tofana’s story. The first has her flourishing in Sicily as early as the 1630s; the second has her still alive in prison a century later. She is supposed to have operated in Palermo, in Naples, and in Rome, and is variously said to have been the inventor of the poison that bears her name, or merely its inheritor. Nor is there any certainty when it comes to the ingredients of her elixir. Most accounts agree that Aqua Tofana was based on arsenic. But some state that it also contained toadflax, Spanish Fly, extract of snapdragon, a solution of pennywort known as aqua cymbelaria, and even madmen’s spittle.
The mysteries multiply when we consider the vexed question of when, and how, Tofana met her end. One source says that that she died of natural causes in 1651, another that she found sanctuary in a convent, and lived on there for many years, continuing to make her poison and dispensing it via a network of nuns and clerics. Several assert that she was captured, tortured and executed, though they differ as to whether her death occurred in 1659, or 1709, or 1730. In one especially detailed account, Tofana was dragged bodily from her sanctuary and strangled, after which “her body was thrown at night into the area of the convent from which she had been taken.”
There is a third great puzzle, though – the hardest one of all to credit. For while every account of the Aqua Tofana stresses its unmatched potency, both the strength and certainty of the poison, and its devilish elusiveness, are impossible to replicate today. The elixir was supposed to be one of the “slow-poisons,” much feared in the 17th century, which were so gradual in their operation as to make the victim appear – in the words of Charles Mackay – “as if dying from a decay of nature.” Yet the known potions of that period lacked the qualities ascribed to the Tofana poison; they were less reliable, more readily detected, and produced far more violent symptoms than Aqua Tofana was generally reputed to. All this leaves us with a problem. Might a group of poorly-educated poison-makers have somehow stumbled on a secret formula? Or is it safer to conclude that the tales told of Tofana are at best greatly exaggerated, and perhaps nothing but the product of contemporary hysteria and later tall tale telling?
The two Tofanas
Tracing the varying accounts of both the poison and its makers back to the earliest sources goes a long way to unpicking aspects of the mystery without fully resolving anything – for if there are two quite separate versions of the story, there are also two possible Tofanas. The first (and surely the most reliable) of these accounts is based on Italian archives and was supplied by two 19th century scholars: Alessandro Ademollo (1826-1891), who published the results of his researches in a short booklet entitled I Misteri dell’Acqua Tofana, and Salvatore Salomene-Marino (1847-1916), whose article ‘L’Acqua Tofana’ appeared in the journal Nuove Effemeridi Siciliane. Both these works appeared in 1881, but Ademollo published first, and it is possible that Salomene-Marino’s investigation was prompted by a reading of I Misteri, which he cites in his own paper.
Together, their researches place Tofana firmly in early 17th century Sicily, and explain that she was only one of a group of poisoners and wise women who collectively sold death throughout half of Italy for the best part of 30 years. The second, rival, version of events can be sketched by drawing together material that first appeared in French and German in the first half of the 18th century. These accounts describe a Tofana who was active in the first years of the 18th century, and lived on in a Naples prison as late as 1730.
Perhaps the best place to begin this attempt to recover an historical Giulia Tofana from several hundred years’ worth of rumour, shoddy writing and invention is with Salomene-Marino, a Sicilian antiquarian who discovered – in the Compendio di diversi successi in Palermo dall’anno 1632, written by a contemporary Palermo notary named Baldassare Zamparrone (1581-1648) – the earliest account that seems to have a bearing on this case. This is a description of the execution on 12 July 1633 of a poisoner by the name of Teofania di Adamo. A second source, the diarist Gaetano Alessi‘s Notizie piacevoli e curiose ossia aneddoti…, describes the poison used as “Acqua Tufània.” Salomene-Marino concludes that it was Di Adamo who first created the poison known of Aqua Tofana and that it was named after her. His sources say that she sold it in the Sicilian capital with the assistance of an accomplice, Francesca La Sarda.
According to those same records, Di Adamo’s poison killed its victims in three days, and it seems that she and La Sarda operated successfully for some time before being captured and brought to trial. Sicily was at that time a part of the Spanish empire, and it was the Spanish viceroy, Ferdinando Afán de Ribera, who seems to have taken most of the credit for bringing the pair to justice. His personal involvement in the case, and the peculiarly horrible manner of Di Adamo’s death – by a form of drawing and quartering that was apparently excruciating even by the normal standards of this punishment, according to Salomene-Marino’s sources, or perhaps “closed and bound alive in a canvas sack… [and] thrown from the roofs of the Vicarate [bishop’s palace] in to the street, in the presence of the populace” (the version offered by the 17th century botanist Paolo Boccone, who was born in Palermo in the year that Di Adamo died) – both suggest that the women’s crimes were considered especially revolting.
The next trace of what might or might not have been Aqua Tofana is provided by Ademollo, who places it in Naples in the years 1643-45. It is worth pointing out that this city was also a Spanish possession at the time; indeed it was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Naples was, thus, precisely the sort of place likely to attract refugees from Palermo who were on the run from the Sicilian authorities. Whether that has any bearing on the case or not, the unpublished despatches of Vincenzo de’Medici, the Florentine agent in Naples, record the arrest of a third woman for the crime of poisoning and give some details of the poison’s effects. According to Ademollo, the Naples toxicant worked in exactly the same way as Di Adamo’s poison, and was thus probably also Aqua Tofana. This seems something of a stretch – if the active ingredient in Aqua Tofana was arsenic, then many arsenic-based poisons would have produced similar symptoms – and Medici’s notes, still stored in a Florence archive, do nothing to resolve this problem. Nor do we know the name, the methods, clientele or even fate of the Naples poisoner.
Aqua Tofana, though, has always been most closely associated with Rome, and it is there that we first encounter Giulia Tofana a few years after the Naples poisoning. Salomene-Marino says that she came to the city from Palermo, and does what he can to link her to Teofania di Adamo – it was then the custom in Sicily, he notes, for the children of parents with unusual Christian names to take those names as their surnames, and on that basis he suggests that Tofana was Teofania’s daughter. Salomene-Marino was a noted authority on Sicilian tradition, and may be right about this. It is worth stressing, nonetheless, that this slight connection, which is by no means proven, is the only clear link that can be made between Di Adamo and Tofana, and between the poisonings that took place in the Palermo of the 1630s and those unleashed in Rome two decades later.
Salomene-Marino and Ademollo – the latter basing his work on research in old court records from the Archivio di Stato di Roma, a contemporary chronicle, and the famous diary kept by a Roman gentleman named Giacinto Gigli – write that Tofana arrived in what was then the wealthy capital of the Papal States in the company of a much younger woman, Girolama Spara. The pair had apparently fled Palermo in the wake of an attempted poisoning gone wrong, and quickly resumed their old activities. They recruited several new accomplices – two poison-makers, Giovanna de Grandis and Maria Spinola (nicknamed Grifola), and two saleswomen, or “dispensers,” named Laura Crispolti and Graziosa Farina. At some point, this group obtained a regular supply of arsenic by striking up an acquaintance with a dubious priest, Father Girolamo of Sant’Agnese in Agone, a new church in the centre of Rome. Girolamo’s brother, it appears, was an apothecary and none to scrupulous as to who he sold poisons to.
It was this gang of six who made and sold Aqua Tofana in Rome during the 1650s. So little is known about the women that it is impossible to do more than speculate about their relationships and what brought them together. No clear pattern can be discerned, but Tofana was apparently the leader – De Grandis would eventually confess that she was taught to make poison by her – and the group contained both Sicilians and native Romans. Maria Spinola was from Sicily, though she had been in Rome since 1627, but De Grandis and the two “dispensers,” Crispolti and Farina, were born in the Eternal City, and presumably used their local contacts to bring in business for the group.
Tofana died in about 1651 – probably in her own bed, and apparently unsuspected of any crime – and from then on Spara took over as leader of the gang. She was, Ademollo says, the widow of a Florentine gentleman by the name of Carrozzi, and moved comfortably in aristocratic circles, while De Grandis dealt mostly with less exalted clients. According to one contemporary manuscript, unearthed in a local archive, Spara operated as a kind of “cunning woman” who sold charms and cures to the gentlewomen and nobility of Rome. These activities would not only have introduced her to potential customers, but would also have given her a shrewd idea of which of her clients were happy in their marriages and which unhappy – not to mention which might be desperate enough to seek drastic remedies, and be able to keep a secret.
We have only a handful of clues as to how the members of the gang went about their business. Spara and her confederates, both Italian historians say, took the arsenic supplied by Father Girolamo and disguised it, first by turning it into a liquid and then by bottling it in glass jars that identified it as “Manna of St Nicholas” – a miraculous healing oil that supposedly sweated from the saint’s bones in far-off Bari. Liquids purporting to have been collected at the saint’s tomb were commonly available at this time, often in elaborately decorated bottles, and the manna’s celebrated sanctity, and its reputation as a cure-all, rendered it unlikely that any “holy bottle” would attract suspicion or be subjected to minute inspection. We also know (at least, Ademollo tells us) that while Spara’s chief motive was money, she sometimes did supply her poison free to poor women in desperate situations, out of pity or because she was angered by the abuse their wretched husbands meted out to them.
The effects that Aqua Tofana supposedly had on its victims are summarised in a warning notice to the public that was issued in Rome late in the 1650s, when fear of the poison was at its height. According to this document, the chief symptoms were agonising pains in the stomach and the throat, vomiting, extreme thirst and dysentery. All these are highly suggestive of arsenic poisoning, although Ademollo cites contemporary accounts suggesting that the poison made by Spara and her associates also contained antimony and lead. An entry in Gigli’s diary mentions a fourth possible ingredient, solimato – that is, corrosive sublimate, a highly toxic contemporary treatment for venereal disease more usually known today as mercuric chloride.
Ademollo lists several suspected victims of Aqua Tofana, but there is room here to examine only a single case in detail. This is the death of Francesco Cesi, who was the Duke of Ceri and certainly the richest and most powerful of all those caught up in the poisoning scandal. The scion of a highly distinguished family (his father had been a noted scientist and an intimate of Galileo, and he himself was nephew to the future Pope Innocent XI), Cesi died suddenly and unexpectedly in June 1657. Suspicion eventually fell on his even better-connected young wife, Maria Aldobrandini, a member of one of Rome’s most powerful and influential noble clans.
The facts, insofar as they can now be ascertained, are certainly suggestive. The Duke was, firstly, at least 30 years older than his wife; he seems to have been born around 1608 and first married in 1626. Aldobrandini, who was his second wife, was only 13 years old when they wed in 1648, and thus still no more than 22 when the Duke died (“young and beautiful, courted by many,” her beauty only slightly dimmed by smallpox scars, according to a contemporary survey of the ladies of Rome). This lends at least some plausibility to Ademollo’s account, even though his information was drawn from information given by Giovanna de Grandis while she was facing by the likelihood of execution, with all that that implies for its reliability.
According to De Grandis’s testimony, the Duchess had fallen hopelessly in love with another suitor: a handsome count (and incorrigible rake) by the name of Francesco Maria Santinelli (1627-97). Santinelli showered her with love poetry, which Ademollo points out can be used to date the start of their relationship to the months before the Duke of Ceri died. Aldobrandini’s infatuation gave her a pressing reason to rid herself of a husband who was – Ademollo says – in any case already ailing.
The Duchess’s first contact with Spara’s gang came via the shady priest Father Girolamo. De Grandis’s testimony states that the priest came to see her in search of a poison that could be trusted to do its work inconspicuously; Aldobrandini was fearful of administering anything that might make her husband vomit so copiously that he suspected her. De Grandis, who had a healthy respect for the power of the Roman nobility, was not keen to become entangled with her, but the Father Girolamo calmed her fears. He pointed out that Aqua Tofana was a gentle poison that did not cause much vomiting, and added that, in any case, the Duke’s food passed through so many hands that there was little danger of any suspicion falling on them.
De Grandis agreed to supply a bottle of her poison, which seems to have been disguised, as usual, as “Manna of St Nicholas.” The priest, in turn, passed it on to a trusted female servant of the Duchess, and within a day or two the Duke was dead (one version of the story, of unknown reliability, suggests that the whole bottle was tipped into his food in error). There seem to have been no immediate suspicions that poison was involved, and there was no autopsy, even though the cause of death was scarcely clear. But the body was placed in an open casket in the basilica of Santa Maria supra Minerva, and when De Grandis went to see it there, she realised immediately that the Duke had met his death by poison.
If Maria Aldobrandini was guilty of her husband’s murder, her actions did her little good; Federico Gualdi notes that her own family locked her up in order to prevent her rushing into a scandalous and unequal second marriage with her lover Santinelli. But she at least escaped suspicion of having anything to do with the Duke’s swift death – until, that is, Spara’s gang was rounded up the following year.
How the group’s murderous activities came to light is far from clear. Several popular accounts suggest that Spara and her associates became dangerously overconfident and greedy, allowing their clients to commit so many murders in so short a time that the spate of deaths was obvious to everybody. According to David Stuart, for example,
it had come to the notice of Pope Alexander VII that great numbers of women, young and old, were confessing to their priests that they had poisoned their husbands with the new slow poisons. Even in the streets, it was popularly believed that young widows were unusually abundant.
An similar sequence of events can be found in book five of the Vita di Alessandro VII, a lengthy contemporary biography, published posthumously, by Pietro Sforza-Pallavicini. Pallavicini, who was one of the Alexander’s cardinals, writes that the first hint of scandal emerged from the confessional; one of Spara’s clients admitted to her priest that she had plotted to kill her husband. A hurried consultation resulted in an offer of immunity, and the entire story soon spilled out. This account deserves careful consideration. Not only was Pallavicini a senior member of the city’s government; Ademollo adds that he was also personally involved in the interrogations of the members of Spara’s group, and as such was in the perfect position to set down a reliable summary of the gang’s downfall.
There is, nonetheless, yet a third version of the unveiling of the poisoners. Roman chronicles and court records suggest that the gang was exposed not by the activities of Spara’s aristocratic contacts, but by the low class clients whom she left to Giovanna de Grandis. De Grandis, in this telling, was the weak link in Spara’s operation; she had come to the attention of the authorities and been detained on no fewer than three occasions. Her luck ran out with a fourth arrest; this time she was caught with a sample of her poison on her, and although she claimed that it was simply a potion intended to remove unwanted marks from clients’ faces, her captors suspected otherwise.
In this version of events, the Roman authorities chose to act with a discretion and a willingness to play a long game seldom exhibited by police during the seventeenth century. Realising that De Grandis could not be working alone, they released her, allowed her to go back to her old haunts, and then set up an elaborate trap to catch both her and her confederates. A Florentine noblewoman by the name of signora Loreti was brought to the city and set up with the identity of the “Marchesa Romanini.” Establishing her bona fides by moving into a substantial mansion in a fashionable district of the city, Loreti began to pay visits to De Grandis. At first the fake Marchesa sought the services of an astrologer, but it was not long before she was spinning tales of an unhappy marriage and offering huge sums for a bottle of Aqua Tofana. An appointment was agreed, and, as soon as the exchange was made, two officers and a notary stepped out from behind a curtain. The liquid in the bottle handed to Loreti was tested on a number of stray animals. It swiftly killed them, and the whole of Spara’s gang was rounded up and brought to trial.
The result was the scandalous court case whose written remnants Ademollo discovered during his searches of Rome’s archives. The main members of the gang were rapidly convicted, and – although the details of the sentences are missing from the record – we know that, on 6 July 1659, Spara herself, De Grandis, Maria Spinola, Laura Crispolti and Graziosa Farina were all hanged in the Campo di Fiori in the presence of an unusually large crowd. Ademollo mentions that five accomplices were also tried, but we have no record of their fates, and the Vita di Alessandro VII adds that 46 of the gang’s customers were subsequently “immured” for life. Most, if not all, of the women convicted in this way were surely De Grandis’s low-class clients; Gigli’s diary notes that they were packed off to prison rather than banished or detained in convents, the fates most often meted out to well-bred female criminals in this period.
There are certainly hints that attempts were made to limit the scope of the scandal. Some very prominent and powerful people had found themselves caught up in the investigation, and Ademollo states that Alexander VII himself ordered that Maria Aldobrandini’s name should be kept out of Spara’s trial; the Duchess was apparently never charged with any wrongdoing, and lived on until 1703. The dubious Father Girolamo is another conspicuous absentee from the records of the case. It is uncertain whether he was dead by this point, or was spirited away by the church authorities; either way, he was never interrogated and did not stand trial. Nor was any attempt made – publicly at least – to trace the full extent of the priest’s connections in either the Roman underworld or in high society. This creates a considerable gap in our understanding of the case for – as will become apparent later – renegade clerics of Girolamo’s type were essential to the functioning of the “magical underworlds” that seem to have existed in most large cities throughout Europe at this time.
What conclusions may be drawn thus far regarding the Tofana poison? There seems to be no reason to doubt that Teofania di Adamo and Girolama Spara existed, and were executed for the crime of poisoning in 1633 and 1659 respectively. Giulia Tofana, on the other hand, remains a thoroughly shadowy figure, though the existence of the process found by Ademollo, together with a printed warning to the citizens of Rome, containing a detailed description of the symptoms produced by poison sold in the Eternal City during the 1650s, is decent evidence that arsenic was being used in that time and that place. Nonetheless, while Francesca Flores gave information on Spara’s activities to the authorities, and Spara herself supposedly offered a free confession on the steps of the gallows, at least some of the evidence against the gang was probably extracted using torture, which makes it dangerous to accept it at face value.
There certainly is evidence of wrongdoing, separate from the gang’s confessions. In this respect, signora Loreti’s testimony is particularly damning, but Spara’s sister also let the authorities search the gang’s headquarters and gather evidence, and Ademollo mentions the testimony of one Francesco Landini, a captain in the Papal forces who moved into Spara’s house after her execution and there discovered a buried flask containing a clear liquid; tested on a stray dog, it proved to be a lethal poison. At root, however, whether or not one believes in the existence of a special poison, Aqua Tofana, depends on the assessment of two ambiguous bits of evidence.
There is, first, Ademollo’s statement that the Duke of Ceri died peacefully – a rarity in cases of arsenic poisoning. This might imply that Spara’s potions really were unusually subtle; equally, it could mean that the already ailing Duke died of natural causes. Second, the evidence produced at the trial of 1659 suggests that the gang had built up a considerable clientele. That might suggest that they were known to make and sell effective toxicants. The reality, however, is that their success might just as easily have been the product of coincidence and wishful thinking. Certainly there is nothing in the surviving record to show that Di Adamo, Tofana herself, or Spara had any special expertise with poisons – and so little was understood in those days about the ways that potions worked that it is hard to believe that any of them could have stumbled across secrets that remain elusive even today.
One plausible resolution of these problems is that the “Manna of St Nicholas” hawked by the gang was merely an ordinary arsenic poison, no more special or refined than any of the others sold in this period, and that the authorities’ willingness to believe in an Aqua Tofana possessed of almost supernatural powers was the product of fear – specifically, the fear that any ruling class feels when it finds itself suddenly vulnerable to the machinations of the poor. And certainly the idea that the effects of Aqua Tofana were consistently exaggerated helps to account for the existence of that strange late batch of sources detailing the activities of a second Tofana in early 18th century Naples. These reports are fewer in number than the manuscripts sources consulted by Ademollo and Salomene-Marino; they are not quite contemporary, and they contradict one another. But the authorities they cite are far from negligible, and they have to be examined if we are to fully understand the history of slow-poisoning in Italy.
There are three authorities for the existence of this second killer. The first is the French Dominican missionary and traveller Jean-Baptiste Labat, who describes the capture and execution of an old woman who sold poison-filled bottles of Manna of St Nicholas in Naples in 1709. The second is Pius Nikolaus von Garelli, who was personal physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI at the time that his master became King of the Two Sicilies. Garelli states, in a letter written to a friend, the German doctor Friedrich Hoffman, that a poisoner had used Aqua Tofana to kill more than 600 men, women and children in the same city. Finally, Johann Georg Keysler – who was in Naples in 1730 – notes than an old woman whom he calls “Tophana” was held in prison there as late as 1730.
It is easiest to deal, first, with Labat’s account. It fills four pages of a travelogue published a quarter of a century later, and describes the activities of a murderer who practised her trade in Naples under the protection of the church. Labat says that she frequently changed her residence to evade detection, and was quick to retire to a monastery or convent whenever she felt under threat – an arrangement that permitted her to be “extremely defiant.” His account was widely disseminated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a large number of secondary sources, for example the Encyclopedia Londinensis, explicitly identify this poisoner as “Tofana.”
According to Labat, it took the Viceroy of Naples himself – an Austrian by the name of Wilrich von Daun – to secure the old woman’s arrest. Ignoring the protests of the church, Von Daun ordered that she be dragged bodily from the convent where she had sought sanctuary, and brought to the Castell dell’Ovo, a stronghold in the Bay of Naples where she could safely be interrogated. The arrest caused a sensation, chiefly because it was an explicit challenge to the power of the church; Labat notes that the Cardinal-Archbishop of Naples, Francesco Pignatelli, was so angered at Von Daun’s defilement of sanctuary that he threatened to excommunicate the whole city if the prisoner was not immediately returned to him. The wily Viceroy countered by putting about the story that his captive had just confessed to a plot to poison every spring in the city, together with the granaries and the fruits in the markets. Word of this supposed conspiracy against the lives of ordinary Neapolitans was sufficient to switch the support of the Naples mob from the Cardinal to the civil authorities; Von Daun had his captive executed and – as was noted earlier – then dealt with Pignatelli’s protest, returning his prisoner’s body to the church by the contemptuous method of having the corpse hurled over the wall of the convent in which she had sheltered.It is possible to square some elements of Labat’s version of events with the account given by Garelli, the physician, who also describes a poisoner at work in Naples. Garelli’s chief interest lay in the composition of Aqua Tofana – which he describes as “nothing else than crystallised arsenic dissolved in water, but with the addition, for what purpose I know not, of the herb Cymbalaria (snapdragon)” – but he was apparently quite well-informed, having his information direct from the Emperor, who had read the process (prosecution file) on the case. He adds that the poisoner was captured, and confessed, and was still alive in prison when he wrote. This statement, in turn, can be linked to the evidence of J.G. Keysler [the name also appears sometimes as “Keyssler” or “Kessler”], who in his “Letter 57,” written from Naples in March or April 1730, reports:
Tophana, the noted female poisoner, from whom Aqua Tophana took its name, is still in Prison here, and most strangers, out of Curiosity, go to see her: She is an old little Woman, who had belonged to some religious sisterhood, for which Reason her Life had been spared; tho’ she sent many hundred People out of the World, and, in particular, was very liberal of her Drops, by way of Alms, to married Women, who would, it may well be supposed, have no great Regret at getting rid of disagreeable Husbands. From four to six Drops of this liquid is a quantity sufficient to do a Man’s Business, and some affirm, that the Dose may be ordered so as to take Effect in a determinate Time.
Three accounts, then, all concerning poison in Naples, all dating to between 1700 and 1730 – and all, it is possible to imagine from internal evidence, concerned with a single female murderer who was active in the city in those years. Superficially, at least, the chief difficulty is that while it might be plausible to pair the accounts – supposing, for instance, that Garelli’s undated letter, referring to “that infamous poisoner, still alive in Naples,” was drafted before the execution of Von Daun’s prisoner, or that Keysler’s “old little Woman” who was “still” in gaol in 1730 was the same captive mentioned by Garelli – it requires considerable rewriting to link all three. Keysler’s mention of a “Tophana” who had “belonged to some religious sisterhood” might be a garbled reference to the poisoner described by Labat who frequently sought sanctuary in convents. But although the French monk was at Civitavecchia, almost 200 miles from Naples, when the incidents that he describes took place (and hence may well have had his details unreliably and at second hand), there is little justification, other than convenience, for accepting his account of a killer who concealed herself in convents, while dismissing outright the story of her arrest and execution.
A second and far more important concern emerges only from re-examination of the original accounts of the three witnesses. These were written in French, Latin and German, and were plainly seldom consulted by the secondary authorities who compiled English-language accounts of Aqua Tofana in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, these later writers either made assumptions or copied from each other, with the result that the secondary literature is clogged with near-identical accounts attributing the Naples killings to a poisoner named “Tofana” or “Tophana”. To give a single representative example, the New-York Mirror of 13 April 1833 states that
Labat says that she was arrested in 1709… and Garelli… whose authority on this point is most to be relied on, writes to a friend, about 1719, that she was still in prison in Naples.
None of this is true. Read in the original, it is immediately clear that only Keysler actually claims knowledge of an 18th century “Tophana.” Labat’s account fails to name the woman dragged from a convent in 1709, suggesting only that the poison that she used must have been Aqua Tofana; Garelli, similarly, refers first to “a certain slow poison, which that infamous poisoner, still alive in Naples, employed to the destruction of six hundred persons,” and only later to a liquid “known in the vulgar Neapolitan tongue as Aqua Tofana.” It is impossible to be certain, at this remove, of the identity of the killer whom Garelli considered so “infamous” that it was not necessary to name her. In both cases, however, it is clear that later writers have simply assumed, from the conjunction of unknown poisoners and named poison, that the murderer’s name must have been Tofana.
This leaves only the puzzle of Keysler’s unambiguous description of “Tophana, the noted female poisoner” in gaol in Naples in 1730, and his assertion that “most strangers, out of Curiosity, go to see her.” In the circumstances, it is surely permissible to suggest that, whoever the mysterious prisoner of 1730 was, she may have been nicknamed after her infamous predecessor, or even appropriated Tofana’s name in order to benefit from the notoriety; after all, the poisoner’s numerous visitors must at least have provided her with distraction. More probably, they paid handsomely to hear her story.
All this, I think, allows for two conclusions. The first is that we can place the historical Giulia Tofana in the Rome of the 1640s and 1650s, and dismiss reports of murderous “Tophanas” in the Naples of the first third of the 18th century as errors that have muddied waters for two centuries. The second is that the notoriety of the Naples poisoners tells us a good deal about the lasting impression that the real Tofana made in early modern Europe. Her name, it’s clear, became synonymous with poison – not merely in Italy, but well outside its boundaries. To grasp how a single sensational court case dating to 1659 could have a lasting impact, and why Aqua Tofana itself was much discussed and so much feared, we next need to consider the broader reputation of Italians during this period – an era in which it was widely believed that they knew more about poisons, and poisoning, than any other people.
Masters of the art of poison
Late in the summer of 1568, Charles de Guise, the enigmatic cardinal of Lorraine, made a plan to end the divisive Wars of Religion that were beginning to tear France apart. According to a dispatch written by the English ambassador, the churchman sent to Italy for 50 expert poisoners, each of whom he paid 1,000 crowns “to empoison wine, wells, and other victuals” most likely to be used by his Protestant Huguenot enemies.
Fifty thousand crowns was an enormous sum, and though there are grounds to doubt the details – there was no mass poisoning of Huguenots at the time – the fact that the story was circulating in the highest diplomatic circles suggests that it was known and thought credible at the time. Certainly it is hard to imagine a better illustration of the reputation that Italians enjoyed during these years as masters of the art of poison. Most of Europe was united in the opinion that there was something uniquely skilful – and uniquely devilish – about the Italian way with lethal compounds. The English traveller Fynes Moryson wrote a few years later that “the Italyans above all other nations, most practise revenge by treasons, and espetially are skilful in making and giving poisons.” A French pamphlet, cited by Anne Somerset, asserted that “in Italy poisons were the surest and most common aids in relieving hate and vengeance.”
The Italians’ reputation as keen poisoners can be traced back at least as far as the early 1400s and the amoral activities of Venice’s Council of 10. Later in the same century, the Borgia family grew notorious for its supposedly liberal use of a mysterious potion known as cantarella – “thought,” the Encyclopedia of Toxicology observes, “to have been a mixture of copper, arsenic, and phosphorus, prepared in the decaying carcass of a hog.” This – combined with Machiavelli’s notorious advocacy of politics as an art best practised with only cosmetic nods to morality – made it easy to believe the worst of scheming local rulers.
Contemporary sources certainly imply that Italians had dramatically extended the repertoire of poison. It was widely reported that it was possible to purchase concoctions in Florence or Rome that killed by touch or via inhalation, and that Italians knew how to poison clothing and stirrups and bouquets of flowers. Cantarella was supposed to be subtle, precise and undetectable – precisely the same terms later used to describe Aqua Tofana. “At dinner,” the toxicologist Walter J. Decker notes,
a goblet of wine suitably treated … would be served, and death would result at the appointed time. The poison of the Borgias was reported to function with time-clock precision. It is said that a draught could be prepared that would kill in a day, a month, or a year, as desired.
Such stories were circulating years before the supposed invention of the Tofana poison. When Catherine de Medici moved to France in 1533 to marry King Henri II, she took with her a “perfumer,” Renato Bianco, and set him up in a laboratory that was popularly believed to be connected to her private apartments by a secret passage. Bianco’s legitimate business flourished – he set up shop near Notre Dame, and succeeded in introducing a fashion for perfumed gloves to Paris – but he also acquired an unsavoury (and so far as can be ascertained, entirely unwarranted) reputation as a poisoner. It was put about that he had something to do with the unexpected death of Catherine’s enemy Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre. In the most common version of this story, Bianco “effected his purpose by means of a pair of gloves strongly impregnated with a subtle and powerful poison.”
Accounts of this sort continued to circulate well beyond the sixteenth century. They were still current in the early 1670s, more than a decade after the Tofana scandal, when a famously beautiful French noblewoman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, admitted to poisoning her father and two brothers in order to inherit their money and support her profligate husband – whom she had also attempted to kill. Contemporary accounts linked Brinvilliers to Italy; under interrogation, she claimed to have been in league with a noted Swiss apothecary named Christophe Glaser, who had travelled to Florence in order to learn the secrets of “the finest and most subtle poisons.” Glaser (she said) subsequently sold her lover Gaudin de Sainte-Croix the secret of what was claimed to be an especially lethal concoction made from “refined arsenic and essence of toads.”
It is instructive to consider the details of the Marquise de Brinvilliers’ testimony. She was not tortured, and she seems to have genuinely believed in Glaser’s expertise. Yet the poison that she actually used on her father and brothers was neither subtle nor undetectable; her father died in agony, and only after suffering from “extraordinary fits of vomiting, inconceivable stomach pains and strange burnings of the entrails.” Even at a time when sudden, pain-wracked deaths were not uncommon, this aroused suspicion, and a post mortem examination was made of one of the brothers; it revealed, Anne Somerset writes, that “the dead man’s stomach and liver were blackened and gangrenous, and the intestines were so dried out that they were starting to disintegrate.”
The same sort of ambiguities extended to the Marquise’s personal effects, which – when searched – were found to include quantities of corrosive sublimate, a crude poison whose symptoms closely match those experienced by her father and brothers. But the same casket also yielded two vials of clear, mysterious liquid that defied contemporary analysis. The physician commissioned to examine them reported that the liquid was an unknown poison that killed a chicken, a pigeon and a dog in only a few hours, leaving no trace but “a little curdled blood in the ventricle of one animal’s heart.” In much the same way, when, a further decade later, the notorious “Affair of the Poisons” exploded in France – exposing the existence of an extensive Parisian underworld of fortune-tellers, sorcerers and poisoners, and dragging in several senior members of Louis XIV’s court, among them the Sun King’s own mistress, Madame de Montespan – the interrogations conducted by the Paris police turned up references both to the familiar arsenic-and-toad-juice potions and to an exotic Italian import, diamond powder, which was supposed to kill invisibly, by shredding the intestines.
Is it remotely plausible, then, to suppose that Italians actually deserved their reputation as great poisoners, or that real chemical discoveries were being made in Italy? If they were, there is really only one even marginally credible means by which such breakthroughs may have been occurred: via the experiments of contemporary apothecaries and alchemists.
Alchemy, let it be said, did not concern itself with poisoning. It is traditional (as P.G. Maxwell-Smyth points out) to view the three aims of every serious 17th century “chymist” as the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of “an elixir or pill of immortality,” and the production of “various substances which could improve vegetation.” Modern scholarship, however, has increasingly suggested that experiments aimed at the production of life-prolonging drugs and cures for diseases were considered more important, and were much more common, than efforts at the production of gold. “Alchemy in the medieval and early modern West,” Vittoria Feola explains, “was above all concerned with pharmacological concoctions.”
A second point worth bearing in mind is that alchemy was widely practised in Rome at the time of the Aqua Tofana scandal, not only privately, by individual alchemists, but also under the patronage of the woman who was then the city’s most celebrated and intellectually adventurous resident: the former Queen Christina of Sweden. This remarkable woman – born the only child of Gustavus Adolphus, the king who had made Sweden one of the great powers of the day, raised as a prince rather than a princess, and often praised as “the Minerva of the North” – had secretly converted to Catholicism and abdicated her throne in 1654. Establishing a new court in Rome, she renewed her interest in the arts and sciences, establishing a new Academia Regia at which a scandalously wide variety of subjects were debated.
Christina’s chemical interests were considerable. She sought out and studied Hermetic texts, wrote out a manuscript entitled Il Laboratorio Filosofico in her own hand, sponsored several renowned alchemists, took an active part in some of their experiments, and even conducted a number of her own, using an Italian named Vitebo as her assistant. It has sometimes been suggested that the queen’s involvement in alchemy was a product of financial embarrassment – she lived extravagantly, and the funds that she was due from the Swedish government were often late – but such speculation fails to take account of her intellectual curiosity. It is well worth noting, in this respect, not only that she briefly sponsored Giuseppe Francesco Borri (“heresiarch, traitor, alchymist, and empiric,” in one immoderate assessment, and probably the most controversial scientist of his day), but also that there still stands in Rome a monumental door, covered in alchemical symbols and known as the Porta Magica, which was built by the queen’s friend the Marchese Palombara to commemorate a strange occurrence that supposedly took place in her private laboratory in 1669. According to the historian Susanna Åkerman,
an unknown traveller had arrived and had promised to perform the ultimate alchemical act in her chambers. The night passed, at dawn the door was opened, and on the floor a broken glass was found with scraps of gold and a cryptic message; the man himself had disappeared.
From our perspective, however, undoubtedly the most interesting of the queen’s alchemical acquaintances was the same Francesco Maria Santinelli (sometimes given as Sentinelli) who became the lover of the Duchess of Ceri. Santinelli was a reputed Rosicrucian as well as an author of sacred alchemical poetry; he was also highly charming and persuasive, enjoying a close relationship with the queen as well as with the duchess. Entering Christina’s service when she arrived in Italy in 1656, he remained with her into 1659, when either the scandal of his relationship with Aldobrandini, or the suspicion that he had helped himself to the queen’s diamonds, or both, led to his hasty departure to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. Santinelli was thus in Rome at the time that the Aqua Tofana scandal broke, and it is not beyond all bounds of possibility that a rogue of his type, given access to the poison by his lover, might have brought it into Christina’s circle.
The suggestion is rank speculation, obviously, but it opens a line of enquiry worth pursuing for a second reason, since the Swedish queen also apparently employed an even shadier character around this time, an Italian known – distantly – to history as the poisoner Exili, and rather more widely around the middle of the 17th century as perhaps the leading assassin in Europe. Exactly who Exili was remains unknown; he appears in sundry obscure histories under sundry obscure names – as Exili, as Egidio, as Egidio Exili, and as Antonio Exili and Nicolo Eggidio as well. The most reliable accounts we have of him during this period come from French Archives de la Bastille, however, and in these documents he appears as “un Italien, nommé Eggidi.” It seems, then, that “Exili” may be merely a corruption, but as that is the name by which this elusive character is generally known, I will continue to use it here.
The information contained in the Archives de la Bastille can be summarised as follows: Exili had appeared in France some time late in 1662, and had attracted sufficient attention to get himself arrested in Aix. He was taken from there to Paris, where he was locked up in the city’s infamous royal prison. A letter dated 10 April 1663, written by the highly competent François-Michel le Tellier (who was the Marquis de Louvois and a member of Louis XIV’s Conseil des dépêches), reveals that Exili had insisted that he was a gentleman-in-waiting to Queen Christina, and that this claim was backed up by the discovery of a document which he was carrying when he was arrested. This was a letter addressed to a man named Terras, who had been identified as a Franciscan friar associated with the church of Saint-Maximin in Provence. Terras, it transpired, was a chaplain in Christina’s service.
How Exili came to be a member of the Queen of Sweden’s entourage remains unknown. I have found no mention of him whatsoever in any of the numerous studies of Christina’s Roman court written in English, Swedish or Italian, and there is certainly no proof that she employed him in the capacity of poisoner. What can be said, however, is that an anonymous book – published in the Netherlands around 1680 and written chiefly as a vitriolic attack on Louis XIV’s royal confessor, Françoise de la Chaise – asserts in passing that Exili was the “brother of a well-known lady of light morals who had an extensive following among the Roman prelates” and claims that, by 1650, he “occupied the position of public murderer at the disposal of any client who cared to hire him.” Rumours of this sort may explain why Louis XIV was so suspicious of Exili’s presence in his kingdom, and why he ordered that the Italian be held in prison while enquiries were made to ascertain what he was planning to do in France.
This much, at least, can be substantiated: according to the Archives de la Bastille (which comprise letters relating to the prisoners confined there, not all written at the prison, which were recovered by the Paris Assembly after the French Revolution and eventually edited and published by François Ravaisson), Exili was indeed imprisoned there between 2 February and 27 June 1663. It is not possible to state why he was released, or whether pressure from Christina had anything to do with the decision, but probably he was considered an undesirable, and potentially dangerous. Louis had sent orders for Father Terras to be examined by the First President (principal judge) at Aix, and this interrogation apparently yielded some incriminating information, for though the transcript of the pair’s meeting has been lost, Le Tellier wrote on 8 May that “we will profit by what it contains to extract all knowledge which will be of use to us in connection with this affair.”
Whatever the evidence against Exili, it was apparently enough to thoroughly incriminate him, but insufficient to prompt the French authorities to order any punishment that might incur Christina’s wrath. The episode was smoothed over that spring, but we know that when Exili expressed a wish to travel on to England, Louis insisted that he be escorted all the way to Calais, rather than risk letting him loose in his kingdom. The French records contain a deposition signed by François Desgrez, a senior officer of the Paris police, certifying that he had been ordered to accompany le Sieur Eggidi to the port.
For what happened next, we need to turn to the records compiled during the interrogation of the Marquise de Brinvilliers a few years later. These have been summarised by Hugh Stokes, who notes that Brinvilliers placed much of the blame for her initiation into the business of poisoning on her lover, Gaudin de Sainte-Croix. Stokes adds that one witness, the Marquise’s tutor, Jean Briancourt,
had asked how Sainte-Croix had picked up this “beautiful business of poisoning.” His mistress replied that when Sainte-Croix had been sent to the Bastille… he had met an Italian, the cleverest man in the world for poisons. The secrets of this Italian had cost much money, and she herself had supplied Sainte-Croix with much money to purchase such valuable information.
This appears to be good evidence that Brinvillers believed in Exili as a master-poisoner, and it may help to explain the next strange wrinkle in the story – the evidence of the factum (complaint) against the Marquise made by her sister, which contains the startling assertion that Louis XIV’s deportation order “was never properly executed, and that Exili lived for at least six months after his release in the house of Gaudin de Sainte-Croix.” There is certainly something wrong here; Desgrez was a punctilious policeman who seems unlikely to have let Exili out of his sight until he was safely on board a ship for England, while any association with Sainte-Croix must suggest that Exili had left the service of Christina – a risky thing to do, since she was the one woman who might have protected him if he was discovered back in France. Stokes suggests that it may be possible to reconcile the two accounts by supposing that the Italian slipped back into France a few days after leaving Calais and then returned to Paris – tempted, presumably by the larger rewards on offer from Sainte-Croix.
The one certainty in all this is that the time that Exili spent in the Bastille did overlap the dates of Sainte-Croix’s imprisonment there, and in fact the two men spent the six weeks between 19 March and 2 May in the prison together. Beyond that lies nothing but conjecture. Sainte-Croix and Exili may have met, and they might have conversed. Brinvilliers probably did supply her lover with the funds he said he needed to buy the secrets of Italian poisons – we know she gave her lover plenty of cash for all sorts of purposes at this time. If she did, however, it seems most likely that her money was wasted, for had she possessed specially effective toxicants, there would have been no reason for her to have used corrosive sublimate to kill her father and her brothers – risking detection thereby, and indeed inviting her own arrest, trial and execution.
If there ever was a relationship between Brinvilliers, Sainte-Croix and Exili, in short, it seems most likely that it was based on trickery of some sort. Exili may have claimed access to terrible secrets to extract money from Sainte-Croix; Sainte-Croix may have used Exili’s name to persuade his lover to part with cash for information that he had actually obtained in the Bastille – or, indeed, had never had at all. It does not seem necessary to go further than this; indeed, I would not have ventured this far had it not been for those two mysterious vials of clear liquid found among the Marquise’s personal possessions, and which had apparently been willed to her by Sainte-Croix.
Where does all this mystery leave us? With significant interest in the enigmatic figure of Exili, or Eggidi, certainly. Anne Somerset, for one, has suggested that his role in the Brinvilliers affair has been greatly exaggerated, but it is he who provides a possible link between the Aqua Tofana scandal that took place in Rome late in the 1650s, the Marquise and the Affair of the Poisons itself, which shook in France only 15 years later. The same enigma also impels us to look a great deal more closely at Christina’s court in Rome, as well – for while there seems to be no reason to take seriously the handful of 19th century sources which speculate that Exili got his knowledge of poisons direct from Girolama Spara, the research conducted for this essay does make it possible to suggest an (admittedly hugely tenuous) alternative route whereby the poison known as Aqua Tofana might have found its way to Paris: from Spara to Aldobrandini, that is, and then from Aldobrandini to Santinelli, from Santinelli to Exili, and from Exili to Sainte-Croix. And, finally, the mystery of Exili’s peculiar influence, and apparently easy movement between Italy, France and England, leaves us wishing that we better understood how poisons and other secrets were bought and bartered in a town like Rome.
The magical underworlds of early modern Europe
Tofana, Spara and their friends were able to operate successfully not only because they offered services that were plainly in demand, but also because they belonged to what Lynn Wood Mollenauer has aptly termed a “criminal magical underworld” that flourished in 17th century Rome.
Underground communities of this sort existed in most large towns in this period, and probably had done so for at least several hundred years. They consisted of a bizarre collection of alchemists, astrologers, confidence men, shady apothecaries, wise women, witches, back-street abortionists, and dubious clerics who freelanced as black magicians. Between them, the members of the magical underworld offered a dazzling variety of services. They cast horoscopes, told fortunes, cured toothache, sold love philtres and nostrums for bad breath, promised supernatural access to hidden treasure, and even supplied stillborn foetuses to gamblers, who saw them as certain guarantees of luck. In short, they hawked solutions to the sorts of problems that priests and doctors could not solve, and which their clients could scarcely take to the authorities.
The most important members of this magical underworld were not poisoners like Tofana, whose role seems in fact to have been to supply risky last resorts. They were renegade priests, who, in an age in which even the sacrilegious had religious faith, offered access to the sacerdotal power that was understood to be essential to effective spells. Much of the magic that they worked involved perversions – often literally inversions – of familiar Christian ceremony. They passed wishes scribbled on scraps of paper underneath the communion chalice; their spells were chanted in what appeared to be a mystical language (it was really mangled Latin, Greek and Hebrew); and most of their magic words had holy roots – “agla,” in the water diviners’ chant of “Alpha, agla, ley,” stood for the Hebrew Ata Gibor Leolam Adonai, or “Thou art mighty forever, Lord.” It took a consecrated priest, not a wise woman or a self-proclaimed magician, to infuse good luck charms that promised a lifespan of 166 years with what was believed to be real religious power, to summon demons, or to celebrate a black “amatory mass” using a naked girl’s stomach as an altar.
Much of the information that we have about these renegades comes from the Paris police investigation into the Affair of the Poisons. The man who sat at the centre of the magical underworld there turned out to be a self-proclaimed “very great magician” by the name of Adam du Coeuret, who called himself Lesage (“the wise one”). Lesage possessed a magic hazel staff, which he used to cast spells, and he conducted a wide variety of magical ceremonies for clients – burying a sheep’s heart in an attempt to bring about a death, saying prayers over the bodies of flayed frogs. A large part of his performances involved fairly simple magic tricks; creating small explosions to distract attention while he palmed his clients’ notes of their requirements was a favourite technique. But even Lesage admitted that his powers ultimately stemmed from the Christian god. His wand had been blessed, he sold love potions concocted in the shadow of a crucifix containing a fragment of the True Cross, and he worked in partnership with a trio of consecrated priests named Huet, Henault and Mariette.
There are hints in the Affair of the Poisons that more than a mere handful of priests had been tempted by the considerable sums of money and the influence on offer in the magical underworld. More than two score churchmen were eventually implicated in events, and the police investigation turfed up a fourth undoubted renegade, the 70-year-old Abbé Étienne Guibourg, who “resembled a debauched vulture” and had only one good eye, but had successfully combined a 50-year career in the church with an active secret life as a black magician. Guibourg had also taken two mistresses, who had between them given birth to at least nine of his children, several of whom he confessed to having murdered within hours of their birth – all without a breath of scandal ever reaching the ears of his superiors. François Mariette, when denounced to the authorities, was sentenced to spend time in a sort of “home for wayward priests,” the existence of which further suggests that the church acknowledged that a problem existed. And there is evidence from Rome that dubious clerics were active in that city too, under the very walls of the Vatican. The diarist Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) describes one alarming incident that took place after dark in the Colosseum, where, on his own request (so P.J.A.N. Rietbergen notes),
a wayward priest involves him in an experience that yet proves rather unsettling: as the pentacle quivers above a youth lying naked in the theatre’s ruined precinct, demons appear that can hardly be constrained. Though Cellini tries hard to make light of the experiment, he does not care to repeat it.
Renegades such as Guibourg and Mariette nonetheless formed only a small part of the magical underworld as a whole. It would have been highly dangerous for them to have gone touting for business, and most of their work was referred to them by a much more numerous group who may be broadly classed as “wise women” (Somerset prefers the term “divineress”). Their numbers included Tofana and Spara, in Rome, and Catherine Montvoisin, in Paris, and the most successful among them were able to establish themselves in positions of considerable influence; Montvoisin – a notorious sorceress and poisoner better known as La Voisin (“the neighbour”) – was the most important single figure caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.
Like the disgraced clerics whom them they employed to perform the rituals of power, these sorceresses flourished along the blurred and shifting borders between the sacred and the profane. They not only drew on a common magical tradition that had existed in Europe since the Middle Ages, but also possessed the means to attract clients; typically new customers were drawn into the magical underworld by way of a minor transgression involving a consultation with a wise woman – perhaps seeking the recovery of some lost valuable or to have a fortune told. La Voisin (and by extension probably Spara and Tofana, too) also involved herself in fertility treatments and abortion, and so had access to other powerful tools of magic: cauls, afterbirth and the bodies of premature babies, whose entrails were a vital ingredient in love potions.
Magical underworlds flourished because they offered desperate clients desperate remedies. For so long as influence depended on access; when love and beauty were passports into high society; where women were chattels, often poorly treated by selfish husbands; and while health remained elusive, and death came frequently and suddenly even to the young and strong, there would always be demand for them. The simplest of their charms, as Mollenauer points out, were dangerous things to possess in an age in which the authorities made no distinction between sin and crime, and might prosecute either with the aid of torture; as for the most elaborate of their denizens’ prescriptions, these “carried idolatry and sacrilege to new heights.” But the very enormity of the sins committed in such ceremonies appeared the surest guarantee of potency in an age that took it for granted that demons really could be summoned, and that black magic might be harnessed for human benefit by anyone willing to hazard their eternal soul.
We lack any real detail of what went on in Rome when the authorities there got wind of Spara’s activities, but the investigations that took place in Paris two decades later supply us with numerous insights into the minutiae of a contemporary sorceress’s work. The French police uncovered stacks of grimoires and magical primers, clerical equipment such as incense and candles, wands, and the ingredients for all sorts of sexual magic. This last category included breast milk and bags of powdered menstrual blood, the last of which was believed to inflame passion when to be added to a lover’s meal. They also found several secret laboratories that were – Duramy says – equipped with
furnaces, forceps, and magical minerals, like sulfur and mercury, as well as lethal poisons such as arsenic, nitric acid, and mercuric chloride… vials, vats, jugs, jars and packets, potions, and potpourris, cauldrons with deadly nightshade (belladonna), witches’ thimble (digitalis), root madrigore (or mandrake), powder of cantharis (Spanish Fly), of toad and bat and viper, blobs of hanged-man’s fat, nail clippings, bone splinters, specimens of human blood, excrement, urine, semen…
It seems clear, then, that these were well-established operations. They required not only a considerable investment, but also a high degree of stability and security. The dealings of the magical underworld, it is true, were becoming increasingly risky; by the beginning of the 17th century, the church had effectively criminalised all forms of magic and superstition. Detection meant excommunication as well as civil prosecution, and even the purchase of a lucky amulet could be (and occasionally was) seen as equivalent to entering into a pact with the devil. But the shadowy inhabitants of these remarkable societies were very well-connected, and this helped them to dodge most trouble. The investigation that Louis XIV ordered into the Affair of the Poisons took as its starting point the Marquise de Brinvilliers, but it was hurriedly closed down when the trail followed by the Paris police led them to none other than the royal mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan – who was reported by several informants to have purchased love potions for the Sun King himself from La Voisin.
Mollenauer studied the magical underworld of Paris, which was then the largest city in Europe. When it was broken up in the wake of the Affair of the Poisons, no fewer than 46 renegade priests and a total of well over 300 other suspects were arrested as part of the investigation, of whom two died under torture, more than 30 were executed, and several dozen others were either imprisoned for life or sent to the galleys – the same thing, but with hard labour. A sorceress known as La Vigoreux, meanwhile, informed the Paris police that as many as 400 fortune tellers touted for business in the city in those days. It is hard to be certain, in such fevered times, that most or even many of the prisoners caught up in the Poisons Affair were actually guilty. If they were, however, then – since Rome was a third the size of Paris, and since there is no particular reason to suppose that its criminals were any less ingenious or debauched – it would not be too much to suppose that an equivalent underworld at least two or three hundred strong flourished in the Eternal City in the 1650s. Nor does it seem far-fetched to suggest that Farther Girolamo probably had a good deal in common with the renegade priests of the French capital or that, like their Parisian contemporaries, Spara and her gang operated in plain sight.
Some parts of the wise women’s businesses were, indeed, perfectly legitimate – La Voisin, who went to her death at the stake suspected of dozens if not hundreds of murders, acquired many of her clients via a sideline as a maker of cosmetics. She issued receipts, and was sufficiently business-like to require even clients who came to her for dangerous magic to give her written promises that they would settle her bills upon the successful completion of whatever murky task they had assigned to her. Spara and Tofana likely did much the same.
All this suggests that their magical underworld, like the underworld of Paris, was probably an open secret, or at least widely rumoured. A year or more before the scandal of the Affair of the Poisons broke in Paris, after all, the courtier-poet Jean de la Fontaine could rhyme:
Lost a hanky?
Have a lover?
Your husband living too long for your taste?
A tiresome mother? A jealous wife?
Off you go to the sorceress
To get the news you want to hear.
What mattered most, in communities like these, was to offer solutions to problems that seemed to have a good chance of working, at least in anxious clients’ minds. Involving both priests and chemical compounds was a sure way of achieving this – not that such hard and fast distinctions between science and religion were typically made during this period. It is important to remember, in this respect, that effective poisons were far from typical of the products of the magical underworld as a whole; the efficacy of lucky charms and love potions must have owed more to the placebo effect and to mere chance. It took only a few apparently successful outcomes, though, for practitioners such as Giulia Tofana to gain themselves a reputation. And once that was secured, a steady supply of customers was almost guaranteed, for a quick-thinking huckster could always conjure reasons why a spell or a potion had failed to work, and the services that they provided could not be had anywhere else.
We know from the confessions of La Voisin that the wise women of the magical underworld tried hard to turn casual callers into regular customers. Such relationships were more profitable, of course, but they were also safer. It would have been highly incautious for Tofana and her friends to supply the most expensive and most lethal of their wares to unknown visitors, and this explains why the relationship between a client and a sorceress more typically began with a much less risky and more innocent consultation. Only when the two had got to know each other – and built a web of trust and mutual complicity – would the conversation turn to marital problems, and a few customers proceed along the continuum that led eventually to murder. One gentlewoman swept up in the Affair of the Poisons caught something of the mixed motives and the half-belief that seem to have been typical of such well-heeled customers when she confessed to her interrogators that she had “wanted to know what all the world wanted to know… It was out of female curiosity, to know what would happen, and out of folly; it was foolishness, stupidities, ridiculous things, and to fall in love.”
It does not seem too much – given all this evidence – to suggest that the activities of the criminal magical underworlds of Europe probably did extend occasionally to the provision of arsenic to a desperate or angry customer who had probably already ploughed substantial sums into magical remedies that had not worked. It would be going a good deal further, though, to attempt to make the case that the evidence collected by Ademollo and Salomene-Marino equates to proof that murder by poison was very common in Rome, or that Spara and the members of her gang made and sold a special potion – Aqua Tofana – that was more subtle and more lethal than the ordinary concoctions of the time. There is, in fact, some reason to believe that poison was not nearly so prevalent in Italy as contemporaries believed; a calendar of cases heard by the courts in Tofana’s hometown, Palermo, between 1541 and 1819 lists only seven executions for murder by poison. So it is perfectly plausible, in sum, that some of the deaths attributed to poison in the public records of the time were the result of natural causes, and that the fame of Aqua Tofana itself was largely the product of a moral panic.
Poisons were feared not simply because they were difficult to detect, nor even because a powerful ruler could be reduced to quivering shadows of his former self by a mere woman or an embittered servant, but because contemporary medicine held them to be fundamentally occult – indeed, essentially demonic. It helps to remember, in this regard, that both the Tofana scandal and the Affair of the Poisons took place at a remarkable time: in a Europe on the cusp of modernity, one caught between what Keith Thomas famously termed “religion and the decline of magic.” And perhaps this, more than anything, explains why was possible for the gossipy French duc de San Simon to observe of these strange years:
It seems that there are, at certain moments, crimes which become the fashion, like clothes. Poisoning was a la mode at the time.
My grateful thanks to Simon Young of the Umbra Institute, Perugia, for his translations from the Italian, Rob Finch for amending my Latin, and Jo Hedesan of Wolfson College, Oxford, for sharing her knowledge of alchemy in 17th century Italy.
Florence. The State Archive of Florence contains several volumes of correspondence from Tuscan agents based at various courts in Italy. Vincenzo de’Medici’s despatches touching on the 1640s poisoning scare in Naples can be found among this series.
Palermo. The two manuscripts discovered by Salvatore Salomene-Marino (which I have not consulted in the original) were both found lodged in the Biblioteca Comunale, Palermo. He states that the two volumes of Alessi’s Notizie piacevoli e curiose ossia aneddoti… are at MSS. Qq.H.43 &44. The Biblioteca Storica e Letteraria di Sicilia gives the reference MSS. Qq.C.9 for Baldassaro Zamparrone’s Compendio.
Rome. Alessandro Ademollo’s researches included explorations in the legal records of what is now the Archive di Stato di Roma. Unfortunately he did not reference his discoveries. I would suggest that the Spara process is most likely to be located in the process records for the 17th century in the series Tribunale criminale del Governatore or Tribunale criminale del Senatore.
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Appendix: translations of the sources for an 18th century Tofana
Letter from Garelli to Hoffman, nd (?1718). In Hoffman, II, 185
Occasione eleganti Tue differtationis de Erroribus circa venena in mentem venit lentum quoddam venemum, quo famosa venefica, in carceribus Neapolitanis adhuc vivens, in sexcentorum perniciem usa est. Hoc vero nihil aliud est, quam arsenicum crystallum in larga aquæ copia per simplicem decoctionem soluta, addita, nescio in quem finem, cymbalaria herba. Hoc mihi communicavit Augustissimus Imperatur, cuitransmissus est processus criminalis propria veneficae confessione confirmatus. Aqua vero vulgari idiomate Neapolitano Aqua dell Toffnina appellature. Certissime interficit and plurimi hoc veneno occubuerunt.
Your elegant essay on the popular errors respecting poisons brought to my recollection a certain slow poison, which that infamous poisoner, still alive in Naples, employed to the destruction of 600 persons. It was nothing else but crystallised arsenic dissolved in water, with the addition, but for what purpose I do not know, of the herb Cymbalaria [snapdragon]. This was communicated to me by the most revered Emperor, who was made aware of a criminal action that was confirmed through the individual confession of a poisoner. In fact, in the common Neapolitan dialect the poison is called Toffnina Water. It is certain death, and very many people have succumbed as a result of this poison.