The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

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Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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