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The most famous poisonings in history – what caused them?

Dangerous substances that can be both a poison and a cure

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Rodrigo Borgia (aka Pope Alexander VI)

Poisonings regained huge popularity on the banks of the Tiber river millennium after the fall of the Eternal City, during the reign of Rodrigo Borgia, better known as Pope Alexander VI.

The legend tells that the Borgias used a special Cantarella poison, most likely containing arsenic, copper salts and phosphorus. It is a poison, which causes death within 24 hours, used by medieval poisoners.

Most likely, we are talking about cantharidin powder, a substance excreted by the sword fly (in Latin cantharis), a manure beetle and some other insect species. In large doses it causes death, and in moderate doses, it has long been used as a male aphrodisiac.

manure beetle cantarella

Alexander VI, who got rid of hundreds of undesirable people, himself became a victim of a conspirator. Soon after the celebration of the 11th anniversary of St. Peter’s accession to the throne, Alexander, together with his son Cesare, conceived to poison Cardinal Adrian Corneto. They went to the Cardinal’s palace for dinner. The master, who knew of the fate prepared for him, replaced the cup with deadly poison. Not noticing the switch, Cesare and Alexander drank the poisoned wine and the next day became very ill. According to the legend, young and physically strong Cesare, having fallen ill for several days, recovered thanks to baths from the blood of freshly beaten bulls, whose blood absorbed the poisons. Alexander, who was 72 years old, died after four days of agony.

The devoted servant Burhardt moved the body to a small palace chapel, where it stayed for several days. In August 1503 there was terrible heat. When the servant returned to the chapel to prepare Alexander for the funeral, the body was already black and swollen. With great difficulty, he pushed it into a coffin.

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