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An Ancient Apothecary in Venice

An Ancient Apothecary in Venice
14 October 2016 2 Comments

It’s easy to miss as you walk by the church of San Bartolomeo at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. Look up and you will see a head cast in bronze with a stern expression that was once the shop sign for the apothecary “Alla Testa d’Oro” (At the Golden Head)

Whose Face is it?

At a time when most of the population of Venice and Europe were illiterate, signs were created to describe the activities of the shop it advertised. While some people suggest the head is a portrait of Virgilio Zorzi, a former owner of the apothecary shop, others have suggested it might be an imaginary portrait of Andromache or Mithridates. I believe however it is a portrait of an aging Marcus Agrippa with his small, tight mouth, his broad strong head and the laurel leave crown he wore more than once thanks to his achievements under the great Augustus.

What could you buy at an Apothecary?

An apothecary was something like a pharmacist where one went to buy any sort of potion to cure an illness. On the wall below the Golden Head you can just make out an inscription that refers to Theriaca d’Anromaco that was a potion to cure any number of ailments. The origins of this potion date back to before Christ when in 65 BC Mithridates, King of Pontus brewed the famous potion for the first time. Totalling 46 ingredients, the recipe was then completed by Andromachus, personal physician to Nero, who added a further 25 substances. Criton, physician to Trajan then coined the name Teriaca where it came down to being sold in Venice.

By 1603 the Teriaca of the Alla Testa d’Oro was considered the best in all of Venice and was authorized to make the ancient potion three times a year. After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 this apothecary continued to produce the Teriaca potion, right into the 20th century. When regulations regarding pharmaceutical products were introduced into Italy in the 1940’s, Teriaca could no longer include opium which was included for its analgesic properties. As it was the “Alla Testa d’Oro” was the last producer of this ancient medicine and soon the shop was to close forever, closing a chapter not only on “old Venice” but of medicines lost in time.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.


  1. Peter Reply

    I love stumbling across these urban legends in ancient cities like Venice and discovering the stories behind the story.

  2. Sandra Riggins Reply

    Excellent article. Exciting to learn how ancient cultures managed to survive and flourish! Thank you, Peter.

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