GASPARIS, Stefano de [with] PERLA, Francesco.

GASPARIS, Stefano de [with] PERLA, Francesco. Liquoris artificialis pro opobalsamo orientali in conficienda theriaca Romae adhibiti physica oppugnatio [with] De orientali Opobalsamo nuper in Theriacae confectione adhibito

Rome, Antonio Landini; Ludovico Grignani, 1641, 1640


FIRST EDITIONS. 12mo, two works in one, pp. (xxii) 287 (xxix); 2 pp; pp. (viii) 214 (xxvi). Roman and italic letter, typographical ornaments, headpieces and tailpieces, woodcut floriated and historiated initials in second work. Charming engraved architectural t-p to first work, second t-p with woodcut of a bee. A little very light browning, small glue marks to last leaf. A very good copy, crisp and clean in contemporary vellum, ms. titles to spine.


Rare first editions of these two pharmaceutical essays discussing the provenance, use and characteristics of the ‘true’ opobalsamum, a rare and precious ingredient of theriac.

Theriac was an ancient medical concoction: originally formulated by the Greeks as a cure for snakes’ bites, it later became an antidote for all poisons. In the Renaissance, it was widely produced and prescribed as a universal panacea against all diseases. Among its numerous ingredients, opobalsamum – a balm obtained from a tree native of Arabia, Africa and India – was so expensive and difficult to find, that it was often falsified and many in Europe believed that it no longer existed.

In the 1640s, a famous polemic arose between Italian apothecaries and physicians, when the Roman doctor Stefano de Gasparis published ‘Liquoris artificialis pro opobalsamo’ (here), accusing Antonio Manfredi and Vincenzo Pannuzzi, two apothecaries, of producing their theriac using ‘false’ opobalsamum. In this work, de Gasparis claims that the substance that they used, which was bought on the Venetian market, was not genuine. The treatise comprises four books, the first dedicated to presenting the characteristics of real opobalsamum according to ancient sources, the second and third aimed at demonstrating that what Manfredi and Panuzzi employed was not authentic opobalsamum obtained from the plant, but a fabricated mixture of ingredients, and the last concluding that their theriac was therefore “ineffective and useless”.

In the following years, a very long list of physicians participated to this dispute – including Pietro Castelli and Giuseppe Donzelli, highly regarded scholars at the time – which soon spread from Rome to Venice, Naples and other Italian cities. All these medical writers had different opinions on the correct interpretation of ancient authors’ texts, as well as on the right experimental procedure to be followed in order to attest opobalsamum’s authenticity. Among de Gaspari’s opponents, there was Francesco Perla, a Roman physician who wrote ‘De orientali Opobalsamo’ (the second work here). The book is dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), and the charming woodcut of a bee on the title page is the symbol of the Barberini family. In this work, after introducing the history of opobalsamum and presenting the current state of the debate, Perla dedicates a long chapter to dismantle Gasperi’s arguments and prove that the controversial substance was in fact genuine. It appears that the debate was never completely solved, and remarkably theriac continued to be produced and sold in Italy until 1884.

1) USTC 4009726; Krivatsy 4571; BM STC It 17th century, p. 378; Not in Wellcome I, Garrison-Morton, Heirs of Hippocrates, Pritzel, Graesse, Brunet. 2) USTC 4014575; Krivatsy 8797; Pritzel 7875; BM STC It 17th century, p. 673; Not in Garrison-Morton, Heirs of Hippocrates, Graesse, Brunet. 1 – New York Academy of Medicine, Cornell and NLM in US 2 – Yale, NLM and University of Wisconsin in US
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