Poisonous preparations were usually accompanied by spells and black magic. We know that these two arts are inseparable and that all good poison must be placed under the invocation of Satan and his demons.
The Italians mixed exercises of piety and the most arduous penances with unrefined sorcery. There are numerous examples of popular superstition at this time.
Muratori recounts that many calamities occur following a sinister presage like, in July 1487, Pope John’s fountain which flows with blood-coloured water.
At other times, the calamities are so terrible that the people and their lords go on prolonged fasts, and prostitutes take no customers. One of them who, during a period of abstinence, received a young man, out of cupidity, is manhandled by her colleagues, and atrociously mutilated.
As these penitences do not calm Heaven’s anger, it is concluded that these dreadful sufferings are punishment for vice, crimes and debauchery, and expiatory victims are looked for, among the people. Two young barbers, convicted of sodomy, are arrested. They are tied up with their hands behind their backs, and are whipped in the public square.
As for assassins, poisoners, high-ranking thieves, no-one bothers them, and they enjoy the most absolute impunity. It will be like this up until the XIXth Century.
Around 1810, a Spaniard having been poisoned in Rome by an Italian, the Spanish Ambassador wants to punish the crime. He protests energetically to the Roman authorities, but meets with obstinate resistance.
The Ambassador insists, and after long and difficult negotiations, obtains the arrest and punishment of the guilty party. The people of Rome are astounded. They are used to seeing these crimes go unpunished.
To motivate the police, these crimes have to become some sort of public calamity. Once it is known that the woman Toffana is a serial killer of grand proportions, she is arrested and judged. This sinister female, by selling toxic water, had made such a great number of victims, that she had to be neutralised.
When poisoning is “accidental”, the authorities take much less notice of it. A certain unconsciousness of immorality, indifference to an often inexistent punishment, could be causes of the multiple poisonings of the Italian Renaissance.
Numerous and perverse possibilities exist for killing someone by poison. Here are a few, from different epochs.
Three centuries before the present era, Agathocle, tyrant of Syracuse, is poisoned by his son with the help of a toothpick. The effect is immediate.
The Ancient Persians and Turks knew how to poison the stirrup, the saddle, the reins of a horse, and the rider’s boots.
Don Juan will be poisoned by his brother, Philip II, in a similar manner.
Cardinal Pierre de Berulle, founder of the Order of the Carmelites and of the Congregation of the Oratory, is poisoned by a communion wafer during Mass.
Henri VII appears also to have been poisoned during communion by a wafer, and Cardinal de Comeyn, Scottish Chancellor, by drinking consecrated wine.
Pope Clement VII is poisoned by a torch carried before him, to honour him. In this case, the poison was perhaps arsenic.
Calpurnius, to get rid of concubines whom he no longer desired, gives them poison to drink. All those having anything to do with them, die too.
A similar event re-appears during modern times. Ladislas, King of Naples, is besieging Florence. He tells the city’s inhabitants that, if they deliver to him the most beautiful Florentine woman, he will raise the siege. The Florentines send him a young virgin of the greatest beauty, daughter of a Greek doctor who, before being separated from her, ties a handkerchief of great price around her neck.
Transported with joy upon seeing her, the King puts her through a complete marriage ceremony. But no sooner has he obtained his wishes, he dies. The handkerchief was poisoned. The effect of the poison had been even stronger because of the prince’s pores being opened by his physical efforts in bed. The young girl suffered the same end.
Pope Urbain VIII was almost poisoned by Thomas Orsolini and Dominic Branza, an Augustin monk, by a powder poured on a wound. But, the crime was discovered before it was executed.
Porta, in Natural Magic, speaks of another way of killing, by enclosing narcotic plants in a box for several days. Plants like belladonna, hemlock, jusquiama and opium. If you let them ferment, the resulting gas is extremely noxious. He also speaks of administering the poison during sleep, by putting this open box under the nose of the sleeper.
According to Emile Gilbert, it is possible to explain the death of Jeanne d’Albret like this. “On the pretext of choosing gloves, she must have been presented with a false-bottomed box, pierced with holes, containing venimous substances in fermentation, whose odour would have been neutralised by some sort of perfume.
“The length of time which she spent breathing in these fumes was doubtless sufficient to occasion troubles in the brain, a loss of consciousness of undetermined length, which necessarily becomes mortal, the absorption of these noxious gases having been direct.”
Henri IV complained one day to Sully that Concini and his wife, who had convinced Marie de Medicis that the King wanted to get rid of her, had also persuaded her not to eat anything which he had sent to her, and to cook her meat in her bedroom.
Later, thought was given to poisoning Henri IV, himself, by a hollow fork, into which “there would be poison which would flow into the morsel which he was served”.
The list of those who used poison is very long. Poison has been used at all times throughout History, by all sorts of people.
The Borgias did it openly, and seemingly, with no qualms of conscience. Perhaps it is this which shocks us so much today.