The medicine that united Valencia with the powerful Rome

The European Commission will have to decide, in a few weeks, if it approves the declaration of the “Route of historic pharmacies and medicinal gardens”, which would be equated to other itineraries such as the Camino de Santiago or the Silk Road. On this occasion “Aromas itinerarium salutis” has been promoted by the University of Valencia, after years of research, and has its nerve center in Trastevere in Rome, receiver of knowledge and products from all over the world for centuries, from where they were distributed to all corners, after the elaboration process in conventual spice shops and pharmacies. Also part of the future route are places in countries such as Croatia, Romania or Israel.

as already reported Raise-EMV, At the head of the project is Marisa Vázquez de Agredos Pascual, full professor in the Department of Art History and vice-dean of International Relations in the Faculty of Geography and History. And in converting the research into an itinerary that can be marketed, art historian Nuria Blaya, director of the University of Florida Majors and an expert in cultural tourism, plays a key role. The team is completed by Cristina Expósito, Duccio Sanesi, Simona Tardi and Roxana Rotaru. In addition, over the years, professional contributions from different disciplines (from archeology to perfume) have been made and numerous institutions from a dozen countries lend their support to the project.

The last chapter in this process, mandatory before going to the Commission, has been the organization of a pilot itinerary with a small group of people. This experience has recently been attended by medical professionals such as María Antonia Carratalà, who worked for 20 years in the Public Health area of ​​the Ministry of Health; of the History of Art, such as Irene Ballester, member of the Consell Valencià de Cultura; of journalism, such as the deputy director of Levante-EMV, Isabel Olmos; or from the field of Equality, such as documentary filmmaker and gender expert, Paqui Méndez, among others.

The itinerary had its first important chapter in the convent of Santa Cecilia, in Trastevere, run by Benedictine nuns. The Reverend Mother Abbess Maria Giovanna Valenziano was the hostess of a visit that passed through the rose garden (where 66 rose bushes are planted with species from all over the world, some of them very old, from which a rose jam is made with a recipe from 1700 ) and a spectacular ‘botanical sunrise’ that recreates the one that existed, with numerous aromatic and medicinal species such as lavender or sage, as well as citrus trees or an Arab-Norman garden area. The abbess’s brother, Salvatore Valenziano, has advised on the conservation process and the lavender essential oil produced and marketed by the nuns comes from this orchard. Vázquez de Agredos and Blaya proposed incorporating the Valencian endemism Salvia de Mariola there.

The “Scalla” treasures

On the second day, the group visited Santa Maria della Scala, in the hands of the Carmelite friars, with Father Deepak Joseph Tauro in charge, where one of the few spice shops that survived the passage of time is preserved by becoming the apothecary of the Popes in the 19th century. The activity closed to the public in the mid-20th century, although there is a modern pharmacy on the ground floor. Entering the first floor means traveling through time through aromas, bottles, test tubes, recipe books, labels and other utensils, which have survived and are being studied for seven years. The apothecary was one of the most important medical and pharmaceutical research centers in the world, since the Carmelites controlled all trade routes between the 15th and 18th centuries and had access to all kinds of ingredients and all the latest developments in the field, which they later transformed. Among the shelves there is still one on poisons, with bottles containing arsenic or digitalis, used in medicinal remedies.

The Versailles perfume laboratory has been involved in the investigation of some of the compounds in this apothecary. And as a result of the findings after years of study, the Roman authorities are considering restoring some rooms of the Santa María de la Scalla spice shop and even turning them into museums, a process in which the researchers will collaborate.

And against the conventual grocery stores, secular pharmacies emerged with force, which ended up winning the battle. For this reason, another chapter of the itinerary is the visit to the Noble Chemical-Pharmaceutical College of Rome, where its president, Giuseppe Perroni, explained the history of an institution made up strictly of 50 establishments, which apply Galenic methods, whose headquarters were built on the old Temple of Faustina, built by Emperor Antoninus in honor of his deceased young wife, part of which is still preserved.

The imposing building faces the forum, near where Galen taught, a space that was discovered in an excavation three months before the pandemic, and in front of the Via Sacra, where medicines were sold. It also houses ceramic pots and urns that contained ingredients, represented in the decoration, as well as a “very important” archive of the history of medicine and pharmacy in Rome.

The Academy of Spain

One of the institutions that sponsors the project is the Academy of Spain in Rome, whose facilities were built on part of the disappeared botanical garden of Santa María della Scalla. In their facilities, the two Valencian researchers proposed a participatory activity consisting of the reading of literary texts on drugs such as opium or laudanum. The common thread of water, as a source of health and sanitation, has also been present when crossing the Tiber and visiting many of the fountains and large fountains.

The pilot trip also included a visit to the church of Montserrat and Santiago (reference temple for the Crown of Aragon), a space at the service of the Spanish population visiting Rome, where they can go for any need, as explained the rector José Jaime Brosel, a Valencian priest born in Alfara del Patriarca and an expert in heritage, who has given a boost to the restoration of pieces and research. The church of Montserrat houses the tombs of the Borja popes, among other artistic treasures, such as a sculpture by Bernini or a collection of chasubles.

«A different tourism»

Days after returning from the heritage and aromatic experience, the group will have to carry out an evaluation. However, Irene Ballester values ​​that it is “a trip full of immersive experiences in which unique places are visited” and that it means “a different type of tourism and, above all, away from overcrowding”, although the itinerary takes place in the bustling Rome.

For her part, María Antonia Carratalà highlights that the research will become a European project “that starts from Valencia and will unite the Carpathians and Transylvania and that, like the old caravans of the ‘Silk and Spice Route’, will rescue that part of the history of Medicine that pushes to come to light and be recognized and recovered».

While Paqui Méndez praises the discovery of a “heritage little known by the mass public” that immersed the group in the history of science, medicine or the pharmacopoeia, “where women have been largely absent, because for a long time they were left out of academic knowledge and therefore of official medicine, of schools like Galen’s, when they have been true transmitters of popular medicine, the healers». “They have been overshadowed by Roman medicine, despite the fact that their legacy is indisputable,” she values. Hence, now the research team and manager of the initiative has the challenge of recovering them.