A masterpiece, a unique work of art that embodies centuries of medical knowledge: the Kitâb al-Diryâq (the “Book of Theriac”) is a fascinating Arab codex of which Aboca Edizioni has recently produced a collector's facsimile. Also known as the “Paris theriac”, as one of the best copies of the manuscript is held in the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (Ms Arabe 2964), this Arab codex describes theriac, perhaps the most famous and important medicine used in the ancient world.

The name is derived from the Greek work “thèrion” (savage), which immediately gives some idea what complaint this compound was, initially, used to treat: it was considered an excellent cure in the event of being bitten by poisonous snakes or wild animals. Its usage in the ancient world later spread enormously: Galen explains that theriac was able to “return the sea to calm after the storm”, and in one of his most important works, De antidotis, he clearly states its composition and preparation.

From the eleventh century, theriac began to establish itself as one of the principal medicines used in the Western world and numerous formulas for its preparation began to circulate. These differed in terms of the nature and number of substances they incorporated. In some cases, the formulas totalled more than one hundred ingredients, all of which, whether originating from animal, mineral or, above all, vegetal substances, were of course those believed to be most powerful and effective in their action on the human organism.

Whereas many of theriac's ingredients were in common use, others had to be imported. These belonged to the group of costly “spices” that were brought from India and China and whose trade was especially brisk during the Middle Ages. Consequently, theriac became rarer and more costly: it was believed to be a panacea that was difficult to afford but, once owned, could overcome all ailments. To have an idea of its value, this is what the pharmacist Pierre Maginet wrote in 1623: “Of all our other compositions, theriac is like the sun among the planets, fire among the elements, gold among metals, the cedar among trees”.

Given its preciousness, it is logical that works of great value – both artistic and scientific – should be dedicated to theriac. The manuscript of which this facsimile has been made is the oldest and most splendid of these treatises and was completed in 1199 by Muhammad ibn Abi al-Fat, as is detailed in its colophon, but the place where it was created is currently unknown. It is reasonable, however, to suppose that it originated in an area of the Muslim world where Arabic was spoken. One thing we can be certain of, given the number of superb coloured illustrations it includes, is that it must have been made for a very special patron.

Each of the 72 pages of the Kitâb al-Diryâq is decorated with paintings illuminated with gold dust, even on the introductory pages of the summary, all ornately drawn and decorated. Equally surprising are the two title pages, which are dedicated to the moon and the magical and astrological myths connected with it. Next come the handwritten pages embellished with miniatures and traditional arabesque motifs, each of which is an individual work of art within a general work of art. The elegant script in the cartouche panels of these pages is itself a decorative element; in fact, the Kitâb al-Diryâq is one of the first creations in which the script is considered not only as a means of transmission of information but also a form of art in itself.

The first plants to be illustrated are the medicinal plants used in the Arab world, which include liquorice, cardamom, incense, garlic and poppy. Equally attractive are the portraits of nine Greek doctors, including Andromachus the Elder and Galen, each of which is identified by name and whose recipes for the preparation of theriac are given. These doctors are naturally those who contributed the most to the development and diffusion of the medicine in question, as is recounted in the several anecdotes that accompany the portraits. A further eleven recipes are given at the end of the manuscript, based on viper flesh, which was considered a fundamental ingredient for the preparation of the compound.

The variety of characters portrayed, their different manners of dress, and the many animals, plants and scenes of daily life to be seen in the 72 pages form a unique ensemble and an irreplaceable historic document of the twelfth century.

For a complete comprehension of this complex and fascinating work, a critical commentary is required to investigate all the manuscript's various aspects. The essays that accompany the Kitâb al-Diryâq are published in two polyglot versions: one in Italian, German and Spanish, the other in French, English and Arabic. Written by five internationally known Arabist experts, the commentary explains how the manuscript is of importance not just artistically but also from the standpoints of science, archaeology and ethnography.

This extraordinary codex is a vehicle for many instances of symbolism and arcane meaning: take, for example, the two title pages dedicated to the moon. Many myths and magical interpretations were attributed to this heavenly body in the Arab world, as is described by Arabist Anna Caiozzo in her essay The Three States of the Moon. The moon was considered the female celestial body par excellence, the protectress of mothers, brides and wetnurses. In the title page of the Kitâb al-Diryâq, it is shown framed by four angels who, in this context, can be considered as symbols of the four elements (water, air, earth and fire). In the field of medicine, these elements have always been associated with the bodily humours whereas, in astrology and mysticism, they were considered the principles of creation.

Anyone perusing the pages of the Kitâb al-Diryâq will be struck by the glimmer of the gold decoration, which conveys the allure of the Orient and the atmosphere of the Thousand and One Nights. This facsimile succeeds perfectly in combining the love of beauty with the conviction that, in our enormous heritage from the past, it is always possible to make new discoveries that aid us in tackling the present.

In collaboration with: www.abocamuseum.it