Storytime: Aqua Tofana

Two drops of queenliness and a drop of chemistry, and we’re on the way to travel back into the 17th Century.

BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT!

  • Renaissance women were denied equal rights as they were subjects of their husbands.
  • Giulia Tofana built a business to help women who were abused by their husbands.
  • Aqua Tofana was produced as poison disguised in cosmetic packaging, meant to be served to abusive men.
  • Not all women have their scientific contributions written down in history; but as we do it, as we continue to work and discover, we are also breaking down gender barriers and are serving as the gate for newer generations until the future eras.

The idea of early women being in charge of running the household influences the feminist view until today. Besides Mona Lisa, real women were confined to gender norms during the renaissance, from education to marriage to societal roles. However, there were poets, painters, muses, and other prominent names who managed to break that boundary.

A name: Giulia Tofana

Her name and identity are shrouded in mystery. There isn’t even a single portrait of how she looked to prove that she really existed, but she left stories that may haunt and inspire us at the same time. Giulia was born around 1620 in Palermo, Italy. Her mother, Thofania d’Amado, was executed in 1633 for the indictment of poisoning her own husband. Like the latter, she became a widow as well as a businesswoman. The business? Cosmetics (wink).

Aqua Tofana

The case of Giulia’s mother was mentioned earlier; it was rumored that her recipe was passed down to her daughter. Another word on the street is that Giulia was experienced in apothecary (now known as pharmacy). These may have paved the way for Aqua Tofana, poison disguised in the packaging of face cream or oil bottles and powder cases. Don’t be cautious of your skin care products just yet! After all, Giulia used very specific ingredients to create Aqua Tofana.

Some of Aqua Tofana’s components can be seen in the periodic table. Arsenic, (As) lead (Pb), and a poisonous plant called belladonna are the known ingredients of this concoction. (Disclaimer: do not try this at home. Giulia didn’t just make this because she wanted to.)

With this mixture, she became the “savior” of women who were abused by their husbands. Aqua Tofana was sold to 600 women, and fed to 600 men who had no time to regret their wrongdoings. The product would have still been in count, however, one customer panicked and pleaded with her husband not to eat the soup that she poured drops of the poison in. Of course, her husband would have questioned why he shouldn’t eat it. You may guess what happened next: Tofana’s name and business were out in the open. ‘Like mother, like daughter,’ Giulia was arrested for her poisonous concoction.

Giulia Tofana is an example of good objectives but bad methods. She left a legacy that even Wolfgang Mozart allegedly blamed in his deathbed, “Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.”

She wasn’t alone. Despite lack of access to formal science education in earlier centuries, the names of female amateur chemists gained recognition alongside hers. If they were able to make a name for themselves under the field, then we can as well.

Written by Jai Inocencio
Edited by Jes de Joya
Graphics by Sherna Sahilan

REFERENCES

Britt, T. (2019, October 25). The story of the 17th-century woman who used makeup to save women. Blossom. https://itsblossom.com/blog/2019/10/04/giulia-tofana-poisoned-makeup/

McKennett, H. (2020, June 2). Giulia Tofana: The legendary serial poisoner of 17th-century Rome. All That’s Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/giulia-tofana

British Literature Wiki. (n.d.). Social and family life in the late 17th & early 18th centuries. https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/social-and-family-life-in-the-late17th-early-18th-centuries/

Zheng, S. (2020, October 7). This woman’s side hustle killed over 600 abusive husbands in 17th century Italy. The Tempest. https://thetempest.co/2020/09/04/history/giulia-tofana-professional-poisoner/

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