Venice – The Old Pharmacies

Venice – The Old Pharmacies. This post describes the surviving evidence and locations of this important trade; that still can be seen today.

At several sites, you can see exactly how they looked (both original and reconstructed), where you can admire the stunning interiors and decoration; with exquisitely carved furniture, statuary, glass and ceramic storage jars and apothecary inscriptions.

Venice had a long history of caring for its sick, homeless, poor and orphaned. Apothecaries, were also an important element of this system. 

By the 16th century, manufacture of medicines gained such importance, that business grew at a significant rate. This led to the Venetian authorities imposing strict regulations and quality control on their production; leading to an opening up of international markets and an important revenue source for the state.

  • Introduction.
  • Remaining evidence seen today.
  • Links (internal-external)



Venice – The Old Pharmacies:  Introduction.


Venice had a long history of caring for its sick, homeless, poor and orphaned.

The Venetian Republic was famous for its advanced healthcare system, which included the establishment of Public Health Officers and the creation of the first “lazzaretti”* (small islands with isolation hospitals, first for leprosy, then the plague and also for the quaranteening of ships, crew and goods). (* Please see my two posts on the islands of Lazzarotti Vecchio and Nuovo; at the bottom of page.)

Also, for the renowned four “Ospedali Grandi”, that were to became internationally recognised, as important musical institutions. These Great Hospitals, emerged from hospices, that had been formed in Venice in the preceding centuries: La Pieta (1346), the Ospedale degl’Incurabili (1522), the Ospedale di Santa Maria dei Derelitti (1528) and the Ospedale di San Lazzaro e dei Mendicanti (1595).

Apothecaries, were also an important element of this system and traces of their ancient activity, can still be found around the historic city.

As the Venetian Republic grew in importance, the medicinal trade benefited from the near monopoly; that the city had in the spice trade with the East.  Good quality ingredients became available at reasonable prices.  From 1468, all trading ships, crew and goods were held in quarantine on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo for forty days, to avoid any contamination risks to the city.

Due to the rapid development of the printing and publishing industry in Venice, the most significant books and texts dealing with medicines and pharmacology were produced. The present-day collection, held in the Biblioteca Marciano; contains all the fundamental texts on Arabic medicine.  These works provided the Venetians with the intellectual and scientific understanding necessary, for production of different types of medicines.

In the 16th century, manufacture of medicines gained importance, that trade in medicines grew at such a rate; the Venetian authorities imposed strict regulations and quality control; leading to an opening up of international markets. The city had to impose limits on the number of apothecaries opening up.

However, one particular potion – a Venetian “cure-all”, named “Teriaca”, became so internationally renowned; that abuse occurred, in the form of unregulated over-production and also counterfeiting of ingredients or labelling. Popular in England, it was called “the Venetian treacle!

The name comes from the Greek “théroin”, (wild beast), because it was effective against the poisonous bites of beasts; its main ingredient being obtained from the viper snake.

The government finally licensed around four pharmacies and its production was limited to one or two annual productions. The snakes were publicly displayed in wire cages in the streets, up to three days beforehand and the potion manufactured in cauldrons, situated on a specific spot on the stone pavement!

In the 1940’s, with the introduction of new regulations regarding pharmaceutical products; opium added for its analgesic properties, was banned and the original recipe could not be produced anymore.


Venice – The Old Pharmacies: Remaining evidence 


♠ The most famous of these is probably the “Farmacia ai Do San Marchi” (At the Two St. Marks), now, the “Museum of 18th century Venice” in Ca’ Rezzonico; on the Grand Canal.

The Pharmacy was originally located in Campo San Stin, dating back to the 18th century. Ownership changed hands several times, before in 1908; the contents of the entire interior in the hands of a French antique dealer, was donated to one of the city’s museums.

The pharmacy is located on the third floor and consists of three intercommunicating rooms. (Please see a link to the museum, at the bottom of page.)



♠ The “Ercole d’Oro Pharmacy”,  is a spectacular example of the few remaining Venetian “spezieria” of the 17-18th century. Found at the Campo Santa Fosca, in Cannaregio, it now forms part of the premises of the “Merchant of Venice” perfumery company; that provides hand-crafted perfumes and sensory experiences.

Here, you can fully appreciate and marvel at what this important apothecary, looked like at the time. It has a stunning original interior, where you can admire the painted ceiling, the exquisite furniture with reliefs and fine sculptures, apothecary inscriptions, the pottery and glass storage jars. (Please see a link to my post at bottom of page).



♠ In Campo San Fantin in the San Marco district, can be seen another 19th century pharmacy; now used as a flagship perfume shop by “The Merchant of Venice“* retail group. It is located between the famous Teatro di Fenice and the La Scala Contarini di Bovolo; both essential places to visit. It was designed by architect Giambattista Meduna, in the Gothic Revival style and contains large size allegories of the different sciences of the period. (* Please see link to the flagship shop at the bottom of page.)



♠ Close to the main entrance gate of the former Scuola Grande di San Marco, now the main hospital of Venice (photo below); can be seen a smaller door above which is the sign “Farmacia”. Originally it was the pharmacy for the hospital.

The space is now a small museum with a collection of ancient pots and tools used by the pharmacists, as well as a collection of relics from the pathological anatomy department of the hospital.


♠ Near the window of the “Farmacia Burati Alla Colonna e Mezza”, in Campo San Polo; can be seen the oval relief on the wall. The inscription translates as, “At the One and a Half Columns” and shows the image of one column and another one cut in half.

Traditionally, the original name of the shop was “Alle Due Colonne”, (At the Two Columns); which at the time created confusion; because of the presence of another pharmacy with the same name, in another part of the city.

At the end of the 16th century, it was decreed that the pharmacy in Campo San Polo; had to remove one half of its two columns; to remain in business. Two indentations in the stone paving, near to the pharmacy; show the exact location of the cauldrons, used for the manufacture of Teriaca.



♠ On the right-hand side of the short access road to the southern approach of the Rialto Bridge, is the site of the famous pharmacy “Alla Testa d’Oro” (At the Golden Head).

Looking up above the doorway, is a bronze head and all that remains of the old shop and functioned to identify it, to the largely illiterate population of that time. (Please see a link to my post at the bottom of page.)



♠ Some of the present pharmacies in Venice, still keep their ancient shop names; including some remarkable ones, such as “Al lupo coronato” (At the Crowned Wolf), or “Al Basilico” (At the Basilisk).


LINKS (internalexternal)

Pharmacy in the Museum of 18th C, Venice” – Ca’ Rezzonico

Ercole d’Oro Pharmacy

“The Golden Head – La Testa D’Oro”

“Teriaca – The Divine Potion”

The Ospedali Grandi of Venice

Established in 1423 and 1468, Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo respectively, were Venice’s first isolation hospital and quarantine facilities; firstly for leprosy, then the bubonic plague and also for isolation of ships, crew and goods.

Lazzaretto Nuovo      

Lazaretto Vecchio

Immerse yourself in the Venetian perfumery art…Discover why the Venetian perfumery masters have always been contended among the European courts, to fulfill their art of creators of very precious fragrances.

The Merchant of Venice perfume shops – Venice



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