Pair of Drug Jars

Attributed to Annibale Fontana
Italian, about 1580
Painted and gilt terracotta


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Designed as a pair, these elaborately modeled drug jars were made to contain mithridatum and theriac, used as antidotes to poisons, to ward off the plague, and as general cure-alls. They were among the most highly prized and complex drugs in the Renaissance pharmacy, especially in Italy and France, where they continued to be made for centuries. The highly decorative combination of gilding and lead-white paint on the outside of the vessels disguises their basic function as drug jars, a purpose supported by the fact that their interiors are glazed to make them watertight. These jars, elaborately decorated with a rich sampling of sixteenth-century ornament, would have been prominently displayed by the owner or pharmacy to which they belonged. The vigorous strapwork, masks, and relief and figural decoration are typical of Italian Mannerist decorative arts and are closely related to the work of the most important Milanese sculptor of the period, Annibale Fontana.

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