Today I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Poison Keeper.
Researching Giulia Tofana
Finding an Enigma
I first came across Giulia Tofana on the internet when I was researching herbs for a different novel. I was immediately fascinated but somewhat daunted as it was quickly apparent that she was more of a legend than a real historical figure, although undoubtedly that figure was grounded in truth. By far the best and most thorough article about her online is this one by Mike Dash. https://mikedashhistory.com/2015/04/06/aqua-tofana-slow-poisoning-and-husband-killing-in-17th-century-italy/
This was my starting point, and I probably followed his footsteps a lot of the way, but I needed more context because I had a whole society to build, not just one woman. His article contains a thorough list of references most I which I consulted through Academia and JStor, where academic papers are available to subscribers for a fee. This included articles by the British Medical Journal on poisons, and articles about the Seventeenth Century Judiciary, or articles about the poison Giulia Tofana invented, Aqua Tofana. Everyone has theories about what the poison was made of, but no-one has absolute proof. The prime suspect is a combination of arsenic and a crushed herb which is a type of toadflax.
My search for the truth was hampered by the fact that I don’t speak Italian, however I did do Latin at school and that definitely helped when faced with a text in Italian and ‘Google Translate!’
The sources that are available for Giulia Tofana are all secondary, but most are available as on the internet and many written years after her death. From my research it is apparent that there are records for the deaths of Theofania di Adamo in 1633 (probably her mother) and Girolama Spara (her daughter) in 1659, and that they were both executed for their part in the poisonings. Giulia Tofana, although by far the best known of this trio of women is herself a shadow in the background of this story, which is why I chose her as the subject of my book. Here is the diary of Giacinto Gigli on JStor which I found very useful. It makes reference to Giulia Tofana and I used it again especially for the second in this series, The Silkworm Keeper when Giulia goes to Rome. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76twr.6?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
The Italians’ reputation as keen poisoners can be traced back as far as the Borgias. I read anything I could find on the Borgias and their ‘cantarella’ or poison. According to the Encyclopaedia of Toxicology this was a mixture of copper, arsenic, and phosphorus, prepared in the decaying carcass of a hog. I also researched antidotes which sounded equally outlandish, Venice Treacle for example contained rotting viper’s flesh, and the use of Bezoar stones which were imported from the East and were stones from the stomach of a yak.
Apart from this, my main concern was to paint a portrait of a realistic woman who existed in her milieu, and for that I needed mostly books. When researching I always invest in books I might need. One particularly useful book about women of this period is Women in Italy – 1350 -1650 Ideals and Realities by Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli. For example, one woman’s advice to another woman in a letter:
“If your husband beats you or torments you and keeps bad company, you should blame your bad behaviour, your excessive loquacity and extreme obstinacy, which would be enough to make you unpleasant even in hell.”
The ‘friend’ certainly pulls no punches! But the real extracts from letters give a fantastic insight into the mind-set of the age, and many insights into how repressive the society for women was, and why the cult of poisoning was so strong. I also investigated Italian courtesans in Naples who formed a vast number of the population, and there are several extracts about them in the books I have on my desk. There are currently 27 books on my desk relating to this project,
Mapping the Territory
Two things that were incredibly useful to me were the maps of Palermo and Naples that I used to orientate myself to the geography. Have a look at this fantastic map of Naples on Wikimedia here which is dated very close to the time period in which the novel takes place. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Alessandro_Baratta%2C_pianta_di_Napoli_1629.jpg
Maps were particularly useful as my research trip to Naples was cancelled because of Covid. The street names, and landmarks could then be explored on google maps. I am writing the sequel now, and also used online guided tours of The Vatican and Rome. Sometimes video views of Italian works of art with a good guide can be more informative than a real tour where you are wrestling with crowds and the heat.
The novel is born
Of course putting all this together in a novel is like constructing the star on a Christmas tree, there’s a lot holding up the story, but it might not be the focus of the reader’s attention. I am always surprised how little of all this makes its way to the pages, but as a writer I would feel quite unsupported without it all. In the end I invented incident to keep the plot moving, but only where it would fit within the context of the time and place and what was plausibly known of Giulia Tofana. But in the end, this is fiction, and my sincerest wish is for the research not to show!
Thank you so much for hosting me!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. I find maps incredibly helpful, even when they’re centuries older than the storyline, because they show the old streets which can have changed radically in recent years. Good luck with the new book. Intrigued, here’s the blurb.
Here’s the blurb:
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society
The Poison Keeper is available with Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner.
Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.