The Apothecary’s Shop by Roberto Tiraboschi

Translated by Katherine Gregor

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Venice 1118 Anno Domini.

In early twelfth century Venice set we our scene, although the cod historical touch is maybe just a little unfair, there is quite a lot of ‘the Year of Our Lord’, single Italian words thrown in for effect and so on, and some of the prose is well overblown: ‘Every night, Venice would turn into a sleeping octopus, cloaked in a huge jet of ink’; or a person Magdalena doesn’t understand is described as ‘a tile she was unable to fire into the mosaic of her soul’; or a nervous memory evoked by her husband’s study is ‘a diseased memory of a terrible grief that rotted her soul’.

It is a strong story, and has a number of different threads which are woven together to create a picture of a brutal, filthy, afflicted city, a far cry from the romantic view of the nineteenth century, the superficially placid and museum elegant city of E. M. Forster or La Serenissima. In fact, this underworld view of Venice is something of a sub-genre of its own, notably with novels like Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (for a long list of literature set in Venice, incidentally, have a look at this: And I cannot mention books set in Venice without recommending that everyone reads Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities!

But back to the Tiraboschi. An uncannily well preserved body of a naked girl is found by Alvise, a young man out fishing for crabs, and another member of his household – he is an adopted servant in a fine palace owned by a rich trader, a man ambitious to be Doge – wonders if this could be the woman he loved and lost in a great storm some ten years earlier. This man, Edgardo, is deformed and has given up the cloister for his now lost love, so the plot is complex already. But the owner of the house, Grimani, is desperate for a son, having lost one boy in infancy, and a significant sub-plot is the efforts of both him and his wife (Magdalena) to create an heir – he by energetic use of the conventional technique, though he turns to curious medicinal means later, not to mention witchcraft; and she by consulting the mysterious Abella, a female doctor, who speaks a lot of Latin, carries out physical inspections in intimate detail, and deduces illness through her super-sensitive sense of smell and taste, skills she applies to both urine and semen. Clearly, the plot is too straightforward to be interesting yet, so Constanza, the sister of the Grimani wife, disappears and – spoiler alert – is later found dead, with curious injuries inside her nose and anus.

Alvise is accused of her murder, and the main plot driver is the efforts of Edgardo and Abella to prove the accusation wrong. They don’t like each other, or trust each other, but they work together. On the way, they deal with the devious Sabbatai (the eponymous apothecary), glass makers, grave robbers, and a host of other Venetian characters, mostly conceived after the manner of Brueghel. The blurb compares the book to Eco’s The Name of the Rose, though that is flying rather high. It’s definitely a compelling story, and it evokes a licentious, lawless, superstitious and dangerous Venice, which is still, for all its faults and the disasters it has suffered, a mighty trading and intellectual centre. But the detail is occasionally unnecessarily in your face, and the language is horribly overblown, though how much of this is in the underlying Italian, I cannot say. For example, at one stage an erect penis is described as having ‘a funny arched shape and a long, purple vein running the length of it, throbbing like the breath of a dying salamander’! And every event is the cause of extremely intense self analysis and gothic description. It feels as if the translator, Katherine Gregor, may well have been faithfully reproducing the floridity and excess of the Italian.

I won’t spoil the ending, in case you do read it – and if you are interested in Venice, it is worth the effort, although you may feel you need a map at your side (there is a helpful glossary of Italian words at the end). But there will be surprises, and what is found may be lost again. My favourite character, though she is certainly not without flaws, is Abella. Here she is, appearing at the Ca’Grimaldi for the first time:

Immersed in the half-light of a morning suffocated by fog, what appeared before Magdalena’s eyes brought back the gruesome recollection of a fox, skinned and dripping with blood, nailed to the door of a stable, which she’d seen as a child.

An explosion of scarlet was throbbing in the middle of the room. It came from a large, regal robe, which came down to the floor, trimmed with a fur collar, dominated by a wide-brimmed hat with a cone, also bright ruby.

The physician was standing with his back to her and, under his robe, there was the suggestion of a strong, sturdy body.

He radiated a vibrant aura and exuded authority. … The contours of the blood-colored (sic) mass shifted and produced a warm rustle. The body spun round, swelling the cloak. …

Oh, merciful God! There was no doubt. The physician, magister Abella, was a woman!

There is, apparently, historical warranty for this idea, in the person of Trotula De Ruggiero, a female physician who worked at Salerno in the 11th century.

I will let Calvino do the conclusion for me:

with cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Roberto Tiraboschi, The Apothecary’s Shop (Europa Editions, 2017). 978-1609454173, 327pp., paperback.

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