A Woman to Know: Giulia Tofana

During the Renaissance, in an era of arranged marriages that left no possibility of divorce, the only way out of an unhappy union was death.  — Genevieve Carlton

During the Renaissance, in an era of arranged marriages that left no possibility of divorce, the only way out of an unhappy union was death.  — Genevieve Carlton

(Aqua Tofana, image via Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1631 and 1659, Palermo noblewoman Giulia Tofana built quite the customer base for her handmade cosmetics. But her most popular product — a supposed “complexion aid” called Aqua Tofana — didn’t just mask blemishes and smooth imperfections. Giulia hid a powerful poison in the makeup compact, marketing it to young wives trapped in abusive marriages. With the help of her teenage daughter, she bottled Aqua Tofana in tiny vials decorated with a St. Nicholas label and advised her clients to sneak the poison into the targeted husband’s nightly wine. Over the course of the first two doses, the husband would develop the symptoms of a cold, and then the final two doses would kill him, hiding any trace of poison.

In 1659, however, one of the husbands caught his wife mid-attempted murder. She told him everything: about the new makeup she’d bought, about Giulia’s directions to poison his soup, about the flourishing poison business, about the other women who’d told her of the market — everything.

Giulia ran from the Papal authorities and sought sanctuary in a church, protected by some locals who feared her power. But the police turned Giulia’s customers against her, threatening them with charges and spreading a rumor that the notorious noblewoman had plans to taint the city water supply.

Once found and tortured, Giulia confessed to aiding in the murders of more than 600 husbands. In 1659, she was publicly executed at the very same church at which she’d sought sanctuary; the authorities threw her body over the wall and bricked her daughter and other assistants within the dungeons of the nearby Palazzo Pucci.

Add to your reading list:

Read more:

Hear more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.