Let me set the scene: on a bright and sunny day in early 17th century Palermo, Italy, you decide to kill your husband before the Bubonic Plague does.

With profusely perspiring palms, you clutch your weapon of choice (emblazoned with Saint Nicholas of Bari’s smirking face) closer to your racing bosom. You watch with bated breath as your abusive husband, 20 years older than you, lifts a last spoonful of soup to his parted lips. His face and jowls, already a deathly pallor, contort in realization – but your husband is already three doses in. Later, while cleaning up the spillage, you write a polite letter to your sweet neighbor Giulia Tofana, thanking her for helping you embrace widowhood.

Illustration of Aqua Tofana in a bottle disguised with the image of Saint NIcholas of Bari
[Image Description: Illustration of Aqua Tofana in a bottle disguised with the image of Saint Nicholas of Bari] Via Wikipedia
Giulia Tofana was none other than the mother of Renaissance Italy’s most effective and traceless poison: Aqua Tofana. The poison was famously used by wives looking to discreetly off their husbands, mostly for the purpose of escaping dangerous and abusive marriages. Women of the Renaissance period were ultimately failed by the law and offered no protections against their husbands. Girls were married before becoming women, and more emphasis was placed on arranging the socially-motivated marriage than the woman’s happiness and wellbeing. 

The 14th-century Italian feminist writer Christine de Pizan critiques this medieval woman’s subjugation to marriage in The Book of the City of Ladies: “How many women are there … who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens?”

Thanks to Tofana, hundreds of her women customers freed themselves from such ‘weary lives’; in fact, an estimated 600 persons fell victim to this silent but inescapable poison. However, this number becomes fuzzy once we take into account the conflicting stories evidencing it. One source claimed that Tofana confessed under torture (preceding her execution) to having helped poison at least 600 men between the years 1633 and 1651.

At the same time, physician Nikolaus von Gaurelli cited legal papers suggesting the same number dead, but in the early 1700s. And yet another source extends Tofana’s career even further into the timeline: Johann Keysler’s 1730 writing, Travels Through Germany: Hungary, Bohemia, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorrain, observed a woman prisoner named “Tophana” who matched the presumably dead Tofana’s criminal profile. 

Though her namesake poison lived on in infamy and the tremulous hearts of Italian men, we know very little about Tofana’s background and personal life. Tofana was born in Palermo, Sicily in the early 1600s, and was rumored to have been a beautiful widow herself (though we have no existing historical illustrations of her to verify this.) Tofana likely spent much of her free time around apothecaries before advancing to concoct Aqua Tofana. We can perhaps trace her first dealings to the trials of two women that occurred in 1632 and 1633 in Palermo, in which both women were put to death for poisoning their victims in a way characteristic to Aqua Tofana. 

Like the life and lucrative death of Tofana’s estimated 50-year-long career, the actual contents of Aqua Tofana itself were shrouded in mystery. Because of commonly reported symptoms such as stomach pain, vomiting, dehydration, and diarrhea, historians agree that the poison’s primary ingredient was arsenic. According to the entries of famous Roman chronicler Giacinto Gigli, solimato, or mercuric chloride, might have been another ingredient. Other rumored ingredients include Bella Donna, lead, Cymbalaria, madmen’s spittle, and Spanish Fly. Funnily enough, the often-cited antidote to suspected Aqua Tofana poisoning is what some people use to help remedy acne scars today: vinegar and lemon juice. 

Even the legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suspected – and consequently started a rumor – that he had been poisoned with Aqua Tofana when he fell ill in 1791 in Prague. However, historians have no cause to believe this was true.

Painting of The Death of Mozart by Charles E. Chambers. A sickly man sits in front of a pianist, surrounded by two women and a violinist
[Image Description: Painting of The Death of Mozart by Charles E. Chambers. A sickly man sits in front of a pianist, surrounded by two women and a violinist] Via Wikipedia
Part of what made Tofana’s creation so sought after and effective was its slow-acting properties. Aqua Tofana was as colorless as the anti-mask movement and as tasteless as the fox-eye trend, and could also be administered in doses as small as 4 drops via wine or virtually any innocent-looking liquid. Over the controlled period of three to four dosages, the husband would begin a slow death under the guise of cold-like symptoms or a naturally progressing disease. After the husband slowly weakened into an anticlimactic death, his body would reveal no traces under post-mortem examination, and the wife would, more often than not, escape suspicion.

This epic woman and the poison she masterminded have largely been buried in history despite their massive influence on freeing Italian women from unhappy marriages. Historians are still at odds as to whether Tofana was executed after being busted by a bowl of soup, strangled to death at a convent, or simply passed away peacefully via natural causes, in bed. 

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  • Shannon Zheng

    Shannon Zheng is a multidisciplinary artist and designer studying Art & Design and Philosophy at the University of Michigan. She is interested in channeling art as a form of intervention, whether it be through constructing visual narratives to promote social change or designing confrontationally through an activist lens.