Via San Pietro - Modena - MO - 41121
Phone: +39 328 6673338
Timetable:The Monastic Dispensary is open to the public: Monday to Saturday from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm and from 3.30 to 7.30 pm. Closed on Monday mornings and Sundays. Special Sunday opening subject to appointment with Luca Bergonzini on +39 328 673338. The Monastic vinegar laboratory will open in May 2015.
It would seem that, from the tenth century on, the Benedictine monastery had a dispensary, at least for the internal infirmary.
It wasn't until the abbey complex was rebuilt in the sixteenth century however, that the dispensary was moved close to the main entrance. This was a strategic position because it was connected to the first Monastic courtyard, for this reason called either the Dispensary courtyard or the Fountain courtyard, after the monumental well fountain built here in 1545.
From this period and above all in the following centuries, and therefore until the health reform in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Benedictine dispensary was, for its importance, the focal point of the medical-pharmaceutical services of the city and the entire dukedom. Given its importance, Ludovico Antonio Muratori himself was to mention it, in 1710 dedicating one of his most important studies to the health and hygiene conditions in Modena: Del governo della peste… (Dealing with the plague…)
Alterations to the entrance of the monastery in the eighteenth century were followed by transferal of the dispensary to inside the building overlooking Via San Pietro, above which guest quarters were also opened. Over the centuries, and in parallel with incidents involving the monastery itself, this wing underwent great transformation, as can be seen still today by the decorations and structures in masonry.
Entrusted to a lay apothecary who was however supervised by a monk, this important dispensary had wooden furnishings with sculpted relief work as described by the monastery’s chronicler and historian, Lazarelli.
Unfortunately, these furnishings were completely destroyed under the reign of Napoleon and during the Kingdom of Italy and only a few fragments are left in memory of the decorated white pottery vases that used to fill the shelves in the dispensary. These were probably manufactured in Sassuolo in the eighteenth century, a theory backed by examination of pieces that came to light during searches carried out a few years ago in the adjacent courtyard.
No less famous is the section of the monastery's library, second in importance only to the duke’s. It was used by the apothecary and inventories today preserved in the Modena State Archives show that it included more than fifty volumes, with books on herbs and recipes and treatises on botany and pharmacopoeia.
The products dispensed included several famous medicaments made from spices and flowers grown in the adjacent courtyard. They also included “pastes for perfumes" using incense and juniper, myrrh and carnation, and above all "Theriac", for which the monastery had the ducal exclusive for both production and sales. “Theriac”, was made from the macerated flesh of a female viper from the Euganean Hills, not pregnant and captured a few weeks after winter hibernation.
The head and guts were removed, the rest was boiled in salted water, flavoured, ground and kneaded with dry bread, then mixed with opium and finally formed into walnut-sized balls and put to dry. It was considered a remedy for a long list of illnesses, from kidney or abdominal colic, to malignant fever, migraine, insomnia, animal bites and even coughs. It was also used to control cases of madness, to reawaken flagging sexual appetites, to reinvigorate a weakened body and to protect from leprosy and the plague. It was taken in various doses and using different methods depending on the kind of illness and how advanced it was. It could be mashed into wine, into water or wrapped in gold leaf.
But the main condition was that the sick person’s body had to be purged thoroughly before taking it and this even entailed vigorous bloodletting.
Closed in 1796, the Dispensary was reopened in 2007 and sells products from other Italian and European Benedictine monasteries.