Almost opposite the entrance to the church of San Bartolomeo at the foot of Rialto Bridge is a small sculpture of a head that often passes unnoticed. In bronze, it is the old shop sign for the apothecary “Alla Testa d’Oro” (At the Golden Head) and dates from an era when a substantial percentage of the population was illiterate and had no other way of identifying the shop.
It is not known whom the artist took as his inspiration for the depiction of a rather haughty, determined face crowned with laurel leaves, but perhaps it was Virgilo Zorzi, one of the former owners of the apothecary shop, or perhaps it was an imaginary portrait of Andromache or Mithridates. On the wall, you can also see a fragment of an inscription which refers to Theriaca d’Andromaco – a sort of universal panacea believed to be efficacious against any number of ills, Teriaca (another post to follow) was a speciality of this spezieria as early as 1603. In fact, its Teriaca was considered to be the best in the city, this “Alla Testa d’Oro” was authorised to manufacture the potion three times a year, whilst all the other licensed apothecaries in Venice could only do so once a year.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the apothecary was the only one to go on producing Teriaca, and it would continue to do so right into the 20th century, even if the recipe was simplified. For example, when regulations regarding pharmaceutical products was introduced in the 1940s, Teriaca could not longer contain opium, an ingredient that had originally been included for its analgesic properties.
So next time you are in Venice, seek out the bronze head and remember that this was the symbol of a special secret – the recipe for a universal panacea!