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Albarello pharmacy jar for mercury ointment, Italy, 1520-1560

The Italian inscription painted on this earthenware albarello jar suggests that it once held mercury unguent or ointment. The ointment was used for a number of illnesses, most notably for the treatment of syphilis. Mercury is toxic and if taken over a long time would eventually poison the patient. Albarello vases, with their characteristic hourglass shape and multicoloured decoration, originated in Persia. The shape was developed so that many jars could be put on one shelf, to save on space, but the jars could still be safely removed by grasping them around the middle. This type of decorated pottery is known as maiolica (or majolica) and is believed to be named after the island of Majorca, where the finest pots of this type were said to be made. This example is from a group of potteries called Deruta, based in Umbria, Italy.

Object number:

A42660

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Glossary:

Glossary: syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Glossary: sexually transmitted infection

Any disease transmitted by sexual intercourse. STIs include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, some chlamydia infections and genital herpes.

Glossary: albarello

A form of jar, typically from Medieval Spain, used for storing drugs. The word ‘albarello’ is of Spanish origin but historians appear divided over whether or not the design of the jar originated in Spain, Morocco or China. The shape of the waisted jar is distinctive.