Giulia Tofana: Power & Poison

Giulia Tofana was an Italian professional purveyor of poisons, and the inventor of the deadly poison Aqua Tofana, which is named after her.
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There is much legend associated with her life as a poisoner, and like all novelists do, I have taken the aspects of the story I liked best, and used a combination or research and imagination to fill the gaps. For the most succinct and detailed analysis of the real facts of Giulia Tofana’s life, I suggest this excellent article by Mike Dash.

Wikipedia’s rather bald entry for Giulia Tofana, Theofania d’Adamo’s daughter, states she was born in 1620, but as she supposedly confessed she had killed 600 men with her poisons in Rome alone between the years 1633 and 1651, this would give her an age of only thirteen when she began the poisonings and invented Aqua Tofana. This is possible, but not probable. For a novelist, this is both a problem and an opportunity.

Aqua Tofana

It was of course essential to pin down time and place. Early on, I made the decision to keep to the legend and have Giulia Tofana as one person rather than three. Compressing two more legendary lives would certainly have been much more of a conundrum than compressing the one that already existed. For the purposes of this pair of novels, I made my character of Giulia ten years older, born in 1610, so more neatly dovetailing with existing records of her activities in Palermo, Naples and Rome in the early 17th century. However, I did include her mother Theofania in the novel, and her well-documented execution in 1633. Giulia’s name ‘Tofana’ was probably taken from a contraction of her mother’s name.

The first recorded mention of Aqua Tofana (literal meaning – Tofana Water) is from 1632-33. The poison itself probably contained arsenic, belladonna and lead, though many other ingredients have been ascribed to it. Colourless and tasteless, it was potent enough to kill with a few drops. Legend has it that it was disguised as the ‘Manna of St Nicholas’, a cure-all that was supposed to drip from the reliquary bones of St Nicholas. The ‘elixir’ was also concealed as perfume and could be displayed openly in the bedchambers of women of the time.

Italy has a long tradition of poison, reaching back as far as the Borgias, and before that to ancient Rome. Women in the Renaissance era were constrained by the laws of matrimony, and particularly by the extortionate nature of dowries, which meant many families could only afford to ‘dower’ one daughter. The power was all held by men and like many times in the past women were seen as property, and their main purpose was to provide heirs to their husband’s fortune. As some women perished in childbirth, many men married several times. The younger and more innocent the bride, the better. Women were oppressed, and married off to men sometimes three times their age. With the only alternative being a convent, is there any wonder they might seek escape with what were euphemistically termed ‘inheritance powders’?

In this world where men often ruled as tyrants over their wives, and daughters were sold off to build powerful business alliances, the crime of poison was common. It is likely that Giulia Tofana received many word-of-mouth referrals for her services. I suspect it was also tempting to ascribe all poisonings to the same woman once Giulia Tofana had gained notoriety, and her name became a by-word for the crime. Penalties were severe for women who challenged the acceptable societal order, and for those suspected of poison, executions by what we might call torture (burning, pressing, drowning) were common. But one of the things I wanted to emphasize in the novel is that women were never entirely powerless, they drew upon their sense of community, on their sisterhood for support, and this enabled them to achieve more than they could ever do alone. For more about women in this era, I highly recommend Women in Italy 1350 -1650: Ideals and Realities by Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli.

As Giulia Tofana’s history was what I might call ‘slippery’, my main concern was to make her environment and the context as accurate as it could be. I made extensive use of 17th century maps, of academic research papers on the JStor website and a huge heap of books about women in Italy in the mid 17th century.

I set the companion novel to The Poison Keeper in Rome because Rome was one of the places best associated with the name of Giulia Tofana and where she is believed to have poisoned many wealthy men. The Silkworm Keeper continues her story once she leaves Naples and gets to Rome.

For this part of the story, I focussed on a more hopeful strand of the legend (from the Victorian source of Alessandro Ademollo) that maintains that Giulia Tofana wasn’t executed for her crimes, but lived on in a convent until 1651 and then died there, unsuspected of any crime. But according to a diary written by physician Salvatore Salomene-Marino, Giulia Tofana recruited several other female poison makers and dispensers in Rome, including Laura Crispoltii and Graziosa Farina, and these women do make an appearance in the novel. Few facts are known about them, so we can only speculate as to how they met Giulia Tofana. According to Ademollo, it is Giulia’s daughter, Girolama Spara, that carried on the family tradition of poisoning. In 1657 she was responsible for the death by poison of the nobleman the Duke of Ceri, at the insistence of his wife, Maria Alsobrandini.

Strychnos toxifera, the plant used as a poison.

Part of the inspiration for The Silkworm Keeper came from a true history of nuns in Reggio, Calabria. In 17th century Italy a woman had few choices, commonly marriage or the nunnery. When Signor Strozzi of Calabria died, he had many female relatives that needed support – an unmarried sister and half-sister, plus a sister-in-law, and a married sister with four granddaughters. Such a family of women was considered a misfortune and a burden. Strozzi’s will stipulated that after his wife’s death his palazzo would become a convent, a neat (and cheap!) way of dealing with all the other unmarried women in his life.

These women were incarcerated in the convent against their wishes, and took up sericulture (silkworm breeding) as a means of livelihood. But their convent life became so wearisome that they took their revenge by torching the convent. I hit upon the entirely fictional idea of sending Giulia Tofana to this convent, as penance for her sins, which filled a gap in the historical narrative nicely, and provided plenty of tension and some lovely female characters – until of course the convent burns down. As a novelist I am always straddling the fence between fact and fiction, inhabiting that strange borderland between what is real and what my imagination can produce.

Unsurprisingly, in the real history, when the convent was burned down, the Church was outraged by this event, and a trial of the Sisters took place. At the end of the lengthy trial, and with the idea of keeping this heretical transgression out of the public eye as much as possible, the fire was deemed accidental, and no one was found guilty. Unfortunately, the reluctant nuns still could not escape; they were all taken back into a neighbouring convent whilst they awaited the rebuilding of the doomed Convent of San Nicolo. No sooner had the refurbishment been completed than the convent was destroyed again, but this time by an earthquake. The real-life Sisters remained in the neighbouring convent for the rest of their lives.

You will find a fully annotated account of this real history in the rather luridly titled Nuns Behaving Badly by Craig A Monson, but this is an excellent piece of academic writing and I am grateful to him for his in-depth research.

I chose a different fate for my Sisters, for I needed to integrate the story with that of Giulia Tofana, the poisoner. For a novelist, skirting around the unpleasant facts of the torture and execution of your main protagonist is never going to be easy. I chose to end the second novel with the birth of Giulia’s daughter, Girolama. Perhaps one day, I will tell her story too.

Deborah Swift is a USA Today bestselling writer and author of The Poison Keeper and The Silkworm Keeper.