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Albarello vase for terra sigillata, Portugal, 1701-1800

The vase was used to store “TERRA SIGILLA ROSSA”. This refers to terra sigillata, a clay believed to have medicinal qualities, first used on the Greek island of Lemnos. The clay was crushed into a powder and taken with liquids or made into a paste and applied to the body. Terra sigillata was believed to fight against a number of diseases including plague and was highly sought after during epidemics. An increased demand needed an increased supply and sources were found elsewhere in Europe. Albarello vases originated in Persia. The characteristic hourglass shape was invented so that lots of jars could be put on one shelf, but each one could still be safely removed by grasping it around the middle.

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Related Themes and Topics



Glossary: plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

Glossary: epidemic

A sudden widespread occurance of an infection with high numbers of people affected.

Glossary: pharmacy

The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.

Glossary: terra sigillata

A form of clay from the Greek islands of Lemnos or Samos. Until the 1700s, terra sigillata was used as a medicine and seen as a general cure for bodily impurities.

Glossary: albarello

A form of jar, typically from Medieval Spain, used for storing drugs. The word ‘albarello’ is of Spanish origin but historians appear divided over whether or not the design of the jar originated in Spain, Morocco or China. The shape of the waisted jar is distinctive.