Cantarella: Potent Renaissance Poison Made from Insects

As you now know (and probably could have guessed), I’m a big fan of the Borgias. What’s not to like? Every other week, it seemed like somebody was poisoning someone else with something called cantarella. Because I become fixated on odd little details, I had to know what it was, and now it’s part of my database of poisons (yes, I have one of those. You don’t?). 

So what was it?

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly. 

Poisoning your enemies with bugs.
Because f*** you, that’s why.


Although it was rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely associated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little added toxicity

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, the powder engorges the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, it raises blisters, causes inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. So the next time you’re watching the Borgias (or re-watching, in slow-motion, as Cesare smolders through three seasons of political intrigue), pay attention to the poison, because the symptoms are all there. Nicely done, Neil Jordan. Nicely done. 

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The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

Here she is holding a dagger.
Battista Dossi, 1486

The Borgias were a prominent family in Renaissance Italy who are remembered in infamy to this day. Although they produced two popes (Callixtus III and Alexander IV) and contributed to the Renaissance as major patrons of the arts, they are remembered for the crimes there were accused of committing, including but not limited to: adultery, incest, murder, bribery, simony, theft, and poisoning. The lives of the family of Pope Alexander IV were so sensational, in fact, that Showtime made a series about them (If you enjoy good looking men in leather trousers running about garroting people, it’s on Netflix).

Pope Alexander IV’s daughter, Lucrezia (1480 – 1519), was a renowned beauty and may have been the subject of many great works of art, although she only has one confirmed portrait. She was described as having “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees; a beautiful complexion; hazel eyes which changed color; a full, high bosom; and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air.’” 

She was blonde, but she was Spanish by descent and the rest of her family was dark, so how did the most famous femme fatale of the Renaissance lighten her hair before there was Clairol?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, detail


It’s generally believed that this color was achieved by rinsing it in a mixture of lye and lemon juice before exposing it to sunlight. The longer it was exposed, the lighter it would become. This process would take a long time for anyone, but imagine how much longer it would take if your hair fell past your knees. To give you some idea, there is an account that on one occasion, Lucrezia postponed a journey for days just to wash her hair. (1) 

Days. 

She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. Bleaching recipes were common in medieval cosmetic texts, and most of them include using lye or ashes in a rinse. There must have been something to it, because the practice of lightening hair with lemon juice has remained popular to this day. Elle Magazine even has a helpful guide to lightening your hair with lemon juice and sunlight a la Lucrezia Borgia, only they’ve replaced the lye with chamomile tea for a less caustic rinse. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of your smokin’ hot foremothers or you’re just curious, you can read their recipe here

A lock of Lucrezia’s famous blonde hair is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan to this day.

(1) Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty. Sutton Publishing, 2005.