Italy was the beating heart of the poison trade. Both the ruling de Medici family of Tuscany and the Venetian republic set up poison factories to produce toxins as well as antidotes and test them on animals and condemned prisoners. Unlike the ancient Romans, who used plant-based poisons to murder imperial heirs and nagging mothers- in-law, Renaissance poisoners employed heavy metal poisons—the deadly quartet of arsenic, antimony, mercury, and lead.
Among the four million documents of the Medici Archives in Florence are numerous references to poison. In 1548, Duke Cosimo I initiated a plot to assassinate Piero Strozzi, a military leader who opposed Medici rule, by slipping poison into his food or drink. In February of that year, an anonymous correspondent wrote in cipher to Cosimo, "Piero Strozzi usually stops to drink a few times during his journey." The writer requested "something that could poison his water or wine, with instructions on how to mix it."
In 1590, Cosimo's son, Grand Duke Ferdinando, suspected of having poisoned his older brother Francesco to gain the throne three years earlier, wrote his agent in Milan, "You are being sent a bit of poison, and the messenger will tell you how to use it... And we are pleased to promise three thousand scudi and even four to the one who administers the poison. The quantity being sent is enough to poison an entire pitcher of wine, has neither odor nor taste, and works very powerfully. You need to mix it well with wine, and if you want to poison only one glass of wine at a time, you need to take a half ounce of the material, rather more than less."
The mysterious Council of Ten, one of the main governing bodies of the Republic of Venice from 1310 to 1797, ordered assassination by "secret, careful, and dexterous means"—a clear reference to poison. In a new study, Matthew Lubin of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has identified thirty-four cases of Venetian state-sponsored political poisonings between 1431 and 1767. Eleven of the attempts failed, nine succeeded; in two cases, the intended victims appeared to have died of natural causes before consuming poison, and in twelve cases, the outcomes are not recorded. In all probability, there were many more Venetian poison attempts on political undesirables than were recorded.
The council hired botanists at the nearby University of Padua to create the poisons. Council annals include two detailed poison recipes from 1540 and 1544 that called for the following ingredients: sublimate (mercury chloride, a poisonous white crystal), arsenic, red arsenic, orpiment (yellow arsenic trisulfide crystals), sal ammoniac (a mineral composed of ammonia chloride), rock salt, verdigris (a blue or green powder from corroding copper), and distillate of cyclamen, a flower that blooms in December in Venice.
The widespread popularity of poison lasted well into the seventeenth century. Until her execution in 1659, a woman named Giulia Toffana sold poisons for fifty years in Naples and Rome, mostly to would-be widows, killing an estimated six hundred individuals. She created what became known as Aqua Toffana, a toxic brew of arsenic, lead, and belladonna that was colorless, tasteless, and easily mixed with wine, and which remained in favor long after Giulia's death. To fool the authorities, she disguised the poison as holy water in glass vials with the images of saints or put it in cosmetics containers.
In 1676, the forty-six-year-old Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d'Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers, was executed in Paris for using Aqua Toffana to kill her father and two brothers in order to inherit their estates. During her interrogation, she declared, "Half the people of quality are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk." And indeed, three years later, 319 people—including many courtiers—were arrested in and around Paris, and thirty-six were sentenced to death for poisoning.
KILLING THE KING WITH CUISINE
It would only take one person to slip a little something into a king's food. Henry VIII had two hundred people employed in his kitchens at Hampton Court: cooks, scullery maids, stewards, carvers, porters, bakers, butchers, gardeners, butlers, pantlers (pantry servants), and delivery men who plucked, chopped, boiled, baked, carried, garnished, plated, scrubbed, and ran errands. Royal kitchens were food factories, pumping out hundreds of meals a day as servants trudged in and out.
With such an unsettling number of hands touching his food, what steps did a royal take to avoid ingesting poison— The earliest advice comes from the great Jewish physician, philosopher, and scholar Maimonides, who in 1198 wrote a treatise on the subject for his employer, Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria. He advised against eating foods with uneven textures, such as soups and stews, or strong flavors that could conceal the flavor or texture of poison. "Care should also be exercised with regards to foods...obviously sour, pungent, or highly-flavored," wrote Maimonides, "also ill- smelling dishes or those prepared with onion or garlic. All these foods are best taken from a reliable person, above all suspicion, because the way to harm by poison is only to those foods which assimilate the poisonous taste and smell, as well as the poison's appearance and consistency."