Uwe Neumahr, Cesare Borgia: Der Fürst und die italienische Renaissance
When arsenic comes to mind, few think of its medical uses, which date back to ancient Greece and China more than two millennia ago. More recently, potassium arsenite— now a reputable anticancer treatment—was sold as an early cure-all medication in 1786. Of far greater significance, arsphenamine (Salvarsan), an organic arsenic-containing drug, was the first authentic cure for syphilis, which plagued humankind beginning in the sixteenth century.
Arsenic’s role as a medicine, however, is dwarfed by its esteemed reputation as a poison between the times of ancient Rome and the nineteenth century. It was first isolated as an element in 1250. The poison of choice for nefarious professionals, arsenic trioxide (white arsenic) is colorless, nearly tasteless, and readily dissolvable in water and other drinking liquids. Thus, victims are oblivious to their impending doom. While the signs and symptoms of strychnine and cyanide poisoning are obvious, family members, physicians, and authorities might unwittingly attribute arsenic-induced vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle cramps to any number of ailments.
Among the most infamous and highly successful early poisoners was Agrippina the Younger. Sister of Caligula, she used arsenic to dispose of her husband, freeing her to marry the Roman emperor Claudius, her uncle. Many poisonings later, her sixteen-year-old son Nero became emperor. “La Cantarella” arsenic trioxide powder was a family trademark perfected by the Borgias of Renaissance Italy—particularly Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) and his children, Cesare and Lucrezia. La Cantarella was said to induce a deep, death-simulating sleep lasting for four hours, during which time the user had no detectable pulse. Juliet may have taken this potion while awaiting Romeo. Two centuries later, Tofana of Sicily’s arsenic solution Aqua Tofana was reportedly responsible for the deaths of 500–600 persons.
The epoch of the “inheritance powder” declined significantly in 1836, when the British chemist James Marsh developed an irrefutable and highly sensitive chemical test for the presence of this poison in tissues.