Pharmacy jar
  • Pharmacy jar
  • Workshop of Pompei family , Probably
  • Castelli, Italy
  • Date: 1540s - 1550s
  • Medium: Tin-glazed earthenware, painted
  • Height: 24.1 cm
  • Diameter: 16 cm
  • Inv: C51
  • Location: Smoking Room
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Further Reading
  • Drug jars made from tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) were used extensively in Italian apothecaries in the 16th century. They were well suited to this purpose, being impermeable and easy to clean, while their decoration often included a scroll or cartouche inscribed with a description of the contents. These took both liquid and solid form, and were wide-ranging, even including spices such as cinnamon and pepper. Spouted drug jars such as this one were for liquid (wed) remedies. Closely comparable jars are inscribed as containing syrop, oil and honey. The inscriptions identifying the contents, in Gothic or in Roman script, often appear in abbreviated form. The Latin inscription near the base of this example, ‘D Duob Radicib’ (De Duobus Radicibus) translates to ‘of two roots’. The development of printing in the later 15th century contributes to an increased knowledge about and standardization of remedies. These could be kept clean by the application of a ceramic lid or a paper or fabric cover tied below the jar’s rim.

    Pharmacy jars were produced in sets. The number and variety of the containers carried, depending on their destination. A large set might be ordered for the pharmacy of a hospital or monastic order, while a set for domestic use would be less extensive. Their decoration could include the initials of an institution or the coat of arms of a noble family.

    This jar is one of about 300 similarly and strikingly decorated vessels of various shapes. They were made in the Pompei family workshop in Castelli, a small and remote hill town in the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy. From the 16th century, ceramic production was the main staple of the town’s economy. The vessels share a predominantly white tin glaze. The simple figurative elements are naïve and cartoon-like. On the wet drug jars, the spouts and the arrangement of the zones of decoration are formulaic, enabling rapid production.

    The vessels in this group were not attributed to Castelli until the 1980s, when Claudio de Pompeis, a descendant of the 16th-century Pompei family, was able to show through archaeological evidence that they had been made in the Pompei workshop. Orazio Pompei was probably the head of this important workshop. His name is inscribed on a closely comparable jar, made to contain syrup of endive juice. Drug jars on this style were named the ‘Orsini-Colanna pharmacy jars’ due to the presence of a bear (‘orso’) embracing a column (‘colona’) emblematic of two Roman families, the Orsini and Colonna, on an example in the British Museum. However, it is now thought that the vessels are from several sets.