Teriaca: The Original Snake Oil!

Alla Testa d'Oro, Pharmacy, Venice
The next time you are plying your way along the busy Salizada Pio X, the short street which leads to the Ponte di Rialto, keep an eye open for the golden head. It is all that remains of Alla Testa d'Oro, an ancient pharmacy, which sold a rather unusual 'medicine'.

The Alla Testa d'Oro was one of the few pharmacies in Venice which was authorised to sell Teriaca, a sort of medicine which, it was claimed, cured everything from headaches to haemorrhoids. Teriaca (also known as Triaca, Theriac, Tiryaq or Theriaque) was also supposed to be an effective antidote to poison.

The origins of teriaca are uncertain; many attribute the recipe to Andromaco, doctor to the emperor Nero. The words Theriaca d'Andromaco can still be made out on the wall above the golden head. Teriaca was made up of a wide range of ingredients, including the meat of vipers, honey, liquorice and numerous herbs, all of which were ground up in large bronze mortars while a spell was chanted. It is sometimes still possible to find the marks in the paving stones, where the mortars sat. (There is a good example in Campo Santo Stefano, although the pharmacy disappeared a few years to be replaced by a jewellery shop).
Teriaca and the making of the circular marks in the pavement of the Campo Santo Stefano, Venice
The all-powerful Venetian state viewed pharmacy as one of the noble arts and pharmacists were held in such high esteem that they had the right to marry a Venetian noblewoman, should they so wish.