The Elixir of Popes, Painters and Lorenzo the Magnificent

Referred to as the “Godfathers of the Renaissance”, the Medici are known for many things. Their political skills, papal legacy, ambition and struggle for power in 15th century Italy were equally matched by their cultural and artistic patronage of some of the most famous artists and scholars of the Western world. Da Vinci, Donatello, Raphael, Giotto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Vasari and Galileo were all under the influence of their dynastic rule. Leo X and Clement VIII were part of the family.

AlkermesWhat fueled the bodies and energized the minds of these Renaissance movers and shakers? Perhaps it was an elixir.  Elixirs are sweetened liquids usually containing alcohol with complex and exotic formulas believed to have medicinal properties and health benefits. Experiencing melancholy, seeking wisdom and longevity, do you have a fluttering heart or frequent fainting spells, spasms or hysteria? These vexations of the body were said to be cured by the restorative properties of elixirs.

A favored elixir of the Medici said to be “revive weary and lazy spirits” was the scarlet Alkermes. Dispensed through the Dominican farmacia of Santa Maria Novella, the formula is thought to have originated in 9th century Persia as a medicinal drink used as a restorative by royalty. The monastic formula was a revision of the original and contained clove, nutmeg and orange blossom. The original included, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, rosewater and kermes; alchemic yet somewhat recognizable ingredients except for the enigmatic kermes.

Kermes is a small parasitic insect (Kermes vermilio) found on the Mediterranean oak tree whose desiccated bodies yield a crimson dye. Popular as a natural colorant, kermes was used to dye the yarn woven into many of the Gothic tapestries producing a fine blood-red color which to this day “remains unfaded, though many of them are two or three hundred years old”. Cochineal, another colorant derived from insects replaced kermes in the monk’s recipe.

Today Alkermes is thought of as an exotic Italian liqueur used in the making of zuppa inglese(Italian trifle). It is drizzled over the final layer of savoiardi or lady fingers for color and flavoring.  Commercially available, with alcoholic contents ranging from 21 to 32%, it is still an exotic ingredient somewhat difficult to find. I found my bottle at the Alkermes PamOfficina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the personal pharmacy of the Medici where you can still buy ancient elixirs, oils and perfumes from the Renaissance.  At times I’ve been tempted to take a swig of it to revive my weary and lazy spirits or flavor my zuppa inglese but for some reason I can’t seem to get by the origin of the word Alchermes. Although today artificial  substitutes are used to achieve Alkermes scarlet red color, the name Alkermes comes from the Arabic “al quermiz”, meaning “the worm”, which in reality is the insect (the cochineal*), from which the scarlet color of the elixir of the Medici comes.

*many contemporary preparations still use cochineal extract and a similar ingredient called carmine in their products and have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

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