The musicographer, Blaze de Bury, is in conversation with an elderly gentleman, beside whom he is seated, at a performance of Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia at the Italian Theatre, in Paris. The stranger claims to be in possession of the recipe of the famous Borgia poison.
“Yes,” pursues the old man. “I possess by inheritance the ownership of this recipe because, in my family, it is handed down from father to son. Ah! Ah! It’s not banal, is it, such knowledge?”
Blaze de Bury hammers him with questions. The other just keeps smiling with an enigmatic smile.
The curtain rises and the third act is performed. At the following entr’acte, Blaze de Bury, very intrigued, puts the conversation back on the same theme. His neighbour had just been named in front of him. It was the Duke of Riario Sforza, a descendant of the historic family related to the Borgias.
The Duke promises to reveal the famous recipe to Blaze de Bury, because he is studying Lucretia – he had even rehabilitated her somewhat. Rendez-vous was fixed for this revelation. Blaze de Bury made the mistake of missing this appointment, which was a shame, because the Duke left Paris, and the opportunity was never renewed.
Apparently, others had known this mysterious secret, but they neglected to transmit it to posterity. It is said that the King of Spain, Philip II, possessed it.
The Borgia poison bore the name of cantarella or cantarelli. Cantarella, a word of popular origin, means “candle”. According to Paolo Jovio, it is “a sort of whiteish powder, which resembles sugar in a way, and which was tested on a great number of poor innocent people who died in a miserable state”.
But is this cantarella the slow poison of the Renaissance which allows the manipulation of the length of time before death, and permits killing at a more or less long interval after absorption?
One point is sure: arsenic is the consecrated king of poisons, and constitutes the basis of all toxic preparations, which are sometimes extremely complicated.
The Middle Ages are the time of vegetal poisons. The time of the solanaceas, of belladonna, of jusquiama, well-known to witches for their therapeutic and toxic properties. The Renaissance is the time of mineral poisons, whose superiority over their rivals is confirmed.
The science of crime did not want to remain behind Art and Poetry. It progressed too. It is true that it is a natural law, that the progress of the spirit serves equally well the cause of good and of evil, and that the moralisation of the human species seems to profit little from the freeing of thought.
The ingeniousness of poisoners is shown, in particular, in the choice of the vehicule in which they could easily conceal the drug. Each possesses his mortal arm which, like a family jewel, is handed down from father to son.
Savelli poisons by keys prepared for this. He makes the gift of a carved box to the victim, then gives him the key to open it. The key has a few asperities and is difficult to fit into the lock. It therefore has to be forced in. During this manoeuvre, the recipient cuts or grazes his hand. The wound is insignificant in appearance, but rapidly worsens. A drop of poison contained in an invisible bezel having infected the wound, death is inevitable.
Others use death rings made the same way. It is enough to shake hands with someone, to scratch him with the setting, and the poison begins its work. Death can be immediate but, most often, it is slow and painful. Hair and teeth fall out, the skin is covered in ulcers and gangrenous wounds.
A few, all the better to conceal the drug, poison only one side of the blade of a golden knife. If you cut a piece of fruit with this knife, only one piece is poisoned.
The use of poison starts to be generalised among the people. Armies in campaign do not neglect this cowardly way of exterminating their enemies.
Brantome, recounting the life of the Grand-Master de Chaumont, cites this lovely act: to stop the Swiss from coming back to attack Milan, he makes them “all disappear and retire without loss of his people, for he cut off their food supplies and destroyed all their mills, and had all the wine at Gallereas, where they were, poisoned.”. About two hundred died. An odd way to fight a war.
This act of the Grand-Master de Chaumont raised no anger nor indignation. Soldiers did worse things.
Once, among other times, Gascon soldiers swallowed all the gold which they were carrying, before the battle, to stop their enemies getting it. Their enemies took them prisoner, and learning what they had done, disembowelled them all to get hold of the gold.
As for the cruelties committed by Caesar Borgia and his troops, they depass anything imaginable. The pillage of Faenza remains sadly famous in the annals of Italy.
The poisoning of sources, wells, fountains, food therefore passes as a legitimate proceeding. The best arm being the one which kills the most surely.
Poison is also used in duels. Brantome reports that two lords decide to end their quarrel in the following strange fashion: they prepare a goblet full of poison and propose that each of the two parties drink half. An original duel, particularly if the use of counter-poisons was not forbidden.
However, there are even weirder ones, like the strange combat where two adversaries have to walk bare-foot in a room paved with razors.
Seventh part tomorrow.