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  #1  
Old 05-08-2013, 05:36 PM
dracoi dracoi is offline
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Oil of Vitriol and the Borgias

(If this is more Cafe Society, feel free to move it, but it's more of a historical/etymology question than about the drama).

I've been watching the Showtime series Borgia and am puzzled by what the characters keep calling "oil of vitriol" or "vitriolo." If you've seen the series, you know it's some kind of addictive pain-killing drug that was recommended as a cure-all by the Pope's physician.

When I search on the Internet, I confirm what I'd already thought: oil of vitriol is the old name for sulfuric acid. I have never heard of sulfuric acid having any pharmaceutical or addictive properties. It just seems like a good way to burn your face off.

Is it a mixture made by adding sulfuric acid to other ingredients? Or just some alternative meaning for "oil of vitriol" that was common in the 1490's, but that isn't preserved in modern dictionaries?
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  #2  
Old 05-08-2013, 07:16 PM
Johnny Q Johnny Q is offline
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I'd guess that if you're actively burning yourself with sulfuric acid, whatever other pain you're feeling becomes a tad less noticeable.
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  #3  
Old 05-08-2013, 09:36 PM
JRDelirious JRDelirious is online now
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"vitriolo" by itself referred to any of a number of sulphates. From Britannica:

Quote:
any of certain hydrated sulfates or sulfuric acid. Most of the vitriols have important and varied industrial uses. Blue, or roman, vitriol is cupric sulfate; green vitriol—also called copperas, a name formerly applied to all the vitriols—is ferrous sulfate. White vitriol is zinc sulfate; red, or rose, vitriol is cobalt sulfate; and uranvitriol is a native uranium sulfate.
No idea if there is/was some real-world medical use for any of these, such as that there would be some nostrum based on one of those compounds -- however as mentioned, "oil of vitriol" has been understood to be what we now call sulphuric acid since the days of alchemy so it would have had to be extraordinarily dilute to be even remotely safe to use.

The way the product is described in the OP sounds more like laudanum, if anything.
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  #4  
Old 05-09-2013, 06:00 AM
Colophon Colophon is offline
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Diethyl ether was known as "sweet oil of vitriol":

Quote:
It was first synthesized in 1540 by Valerius Cordus, who called it "sweet oil of vitriol" (oleum dulce vitrioli)—the name reflects the fact that it is obtained by distilling a mixture of ethanol and sulfuric acid (then known as oil of vitriol)—and noted some of its medicinal properties. At about the same time, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, discovered ether's analgesic properties in chickens.
That means its use in the show might be slightly anachronistic, but I'll bet that's what they were referring to. Wikipedia does suggest it might have been used before that first recorded synthesis.

Last edited by Colophon; 05-09-2013 at 06:02 AM..
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  #5  
Old 05-09-2013, 06:17 AM
Nava Nava is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JRDelirious View Post
"vitriolo" by itself referred to any of a number of sulphates. ...


No idea if there is/was some real-world medical use for any of these
Not medical, but cupric sulphate solutions are used as fungicides in other environments (such as agriculture). Who knows what was it used for back in the 16th century.
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  #6  
Old 05-09-2013, 10:38 AM
am77494 am77494 is offline
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I am certain that this is a reference to diethyl ether. It has a history of medicinal / recreational use.

It used to be called "oleum vitrioli dulce " or "oleum dulce vitrioli " and was made by reacting alcohol with sulfuric acid.
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  #7  
Old 05-09-2013, 11:44 AM
dracoi dracoi is offline
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Diethyl ether does sound like a good match. Wikipedia says it may have been created in 1275, though the 1540 date is the only one that's verified. That makes it at least possible, given a little creative license.

The characters don't breathe it like I'd expect for ether, but I see that Wikipedia mentions a use by Polish peasants in the 19th-20th Centuries where they drink it by adding a drop to another drink. In the Borgia series, the doctor recommended adding two drops to a glass of sweet wine (though the characters pretty quickly start drinking it straight, and a lot more than two drops).

For something that's a major plot point in the second season of a supposedly historical series, I'm surprised to have found so little information. I guess I'll have to do some fact-checking on the rest of it.
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  #8  
Old 06-07-2013, 11:41 AM
WChadKnight WChadKnight is offline
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Alchemical Agent

Vitriol Oil is commonly theorized to have been a very weak sulfuric acid by modern alchemical buffs. But attaching scientific classifications to substances that alchemists themselves believed to be metaphorical in the first place, then add the fact that they most always wrote in code, and you see how hard it becomes to know for certain. In the texts I've read, vitriol oil was used as a reduction agent in the creation of "philosophic mercury", which was supposedly a lot like not-so-much-philosopical mercury known today, except red in color. If anyone got that far is unknown really, because one more reaction and you would've had a Philosopher's Stone. You know, make your own gold, immortality, the Holy Grail, off to school with Harry Potter, etc.,. I don't know, but you know one guy who was really into pouring through ancient alchemical texts, Albert Einstein. According to his wife, it was his real passion. So I don't feel like too much of an idiot doing it.
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  #9  
Old 06-07-2013, 12:00 PM
Ludovic Ludovic is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WChadKnight View Post
I don't know, but you know one guy who was really into pouring through ancient alchemical texts
...but hopefully not with Oil of Vitriol!
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  #10  
Old 06-07-2013, 02:19 PM
tracer tracer is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ludovic View Post
...but hopefully not with Oil of Vitriol!
Maybe he really really hated the notion of acid-free paper....
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  #11  
Old 06-07-2013, 03:39 PM
eburacum45 eburacum45 is online now
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The medicinal use of oil of vitriol and white wine in Tudor times has just been mentioned on TV here in the UK, on a programme called 'The Time Traveller's Guide'. If ethanol and sulphuric acid together makes ether, could they have been making ether to drink/sniff in the glass?

Any organic chemists know if a drop of oil of vitriol in wine is palatable or poisonous?
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  #12  
Old 06-10-2013, 12:37 AM
WChadKnight WChadKnight is offline
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pH

I'd actually like to hear some thoughts on this subject from someone accredited in organic chemistry as well, specifically in regards to the mixing of sulphuric acid (rendered almost neutral by wine's major ingredient: 99% water I know) with all of the complex organic compounds from the grapes (further complicated by the fermentation process). I'm not a chemist by any means, and can't contribute much here, but I majored in organic chemistry for a year and had planned to pursue a career in the field. I ultimately decided, three years into college by the way(lol), to go into electrical engineering and computer science.
I would like to know:
#1: If I'm even right about sulfuric acid being the main component of what was known to renaissance-era alchemists as vitriol oil a.k.a. vitriola.
#2: Other ingredients.
#3: Was it actually a common practice to ingest it mixed with wine medicinally as a treatment for some ailments?
#4: Which ailments?
#5: What specific illnesses would have fallen under the umbrella term: "Melancholia"(sp?)
#6: Would renaissance-era alchemists have had any grasp of the nature of pH levels and their effects on chemistry?
#7: Will one of the Borgias be able to commit some sexual act that is so depraved, so completely abominable, that they will finally win the the family honor of having all the others refer to them as: "The Real Borgia". How about necrophilia with an animal of the same sex that you just whipped to death? Too conventional?
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Old 06-10-2013, 01:30 PM
dracoi dracoi is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WChadKnight View Post
#1: If I'm even right about sulfuric acid being the main component of what was known to renaissance-era alchemists as vitriol oil a.k.a. vitriola.
You're definitely right about this one. That name is associated with sulfuric acid, and lots of sources on the Web confirm this.

On the other hand, your earlier posts about ambiguity in naming (intentional or otherwise) is also relevant. A modern chemist might recognize that adding sulfuric acid to something means that you no longer have any sulfuric acid left; an alchemist would not necessarily be aware of that, so might keep using the oil of vitriol term.

Quote:
#7: Will one of the Borgias be able to commit some sexual act that is so depraved, so completely abominable, that they will finally win the the family honor of having all the others refer to them as: "The Real Borgia". How about necrophilia with an animal of the same sex that you just whipped to death? Too conventional?
Based on the reading I've done, it's likely that the Borgias (from a factual/historical standpoint) were probably not as bad as their reputation. Some of the accusations were probably unfounded attacks by their enemies. The Borgias were certainly people I'd have stayed away from, but the same could be said for most of their peers.
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Old 07-24-2013, 09:09 PM
Guestebo Guestebo is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WChadKnight View Post
#5: What specific illnesses would have fallen under the umbrella term: "Melancholia"(sp?)
Melancholia is depression.
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  #15  
Old 07-25-2013, 05:29 AM
borgiapope borgiapope is offline
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Ether is the name of the game

It's ether http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture...ntury-britain/
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  #16  
Old 07-25-2013, 06:05 AM
Malacandra Malacandra is offline
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Ipse dixit!
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  #17  
Old 08-12-2014, 05:46 PM
dwwbuzz dwwbuzz is offline
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Oil of Vitriolo and the Borgias

Thanks to everyone for all the information gathered here about this reference to Oil of Vitriolo in the TV series "The Borgias".

There is mention that "...ethanol and sulphuric acid together makes ether" Am curious as to what the proportions would be? How much ethanol is added to how much sulphuric acid to create ether?
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Old 08-12-2014, 06:00 PM
Lemur866 Lemur866 is offline
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It seems the other way around--add a few drops of the acid to wine, and you get a bit of ether created in the solution. Bottoms up!
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  #19  
Old 08-12-2014, 06:26 PM
Captain Amazing Captain Amazing is online now
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From a 19th century textbook

Quote:
...Equal parts of thrice rectified spirit of wine (ethanol) and oil of vitriol are allowed to remain in contact for two months, and then the mixture is distilled from a water or sand bath. The distillate consists of two layers of liquid, of which the upper one is oleum vitrioli dulce verum.
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Old 08-12-2014, 06:48 PM
dropzone dropzone is online now
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All this time I thought Oil of Vitriol meant that Lucrezia killed those people with her acid tongue. *rimshot*
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  #21  
Old 08-12-2014, 08:36 PM
buddy431 buddy431 is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dwwbuzz View Post
Thanks to everyone for all the information gathered here about this reference to Oil of Vitriolo in the TV series "The Borgias".

There is mention that "...ethanol and sulphuric acid together makes ether" Am curious as to what the proportions would be? How much ethanol is added to how much sulphuric acid to create ether?
From a mass balance perspective, the ether only comes from the dehydration of the alcohol: none of the sulfuric acid ends up in the final product. The sulfuric acid has two purposes: The acidity is a catalyst for the reaction, and concentrated sulfuric acid is quite hydrophobic, so it will sequester the water from the dehydration to drive the reaction forward. Although, it sounds like oil of vitriol might have been rather dilute anyways, which would hurt it's dehydrating ability. I bet the yield suffered.

A modern chemist could make the reaction happen faster than a couple months: they'd probably run the reaction at reflux (that is, boiling) to help it go faster, with a condenser to return the evaporated product to the flask. They might consider using a Dean-Stark apparatus to remove the water as they went, to drive the reaction forward.

Of course, if they wanted diethyl ether, they would buy some from Sigma-Aldrich. Wikipedia says most modern diethyl ether is a byproduct of turning ethylene into ethanol (going from ethanol to ether is more or less the same reaction as the alchemists would have used, although it would look very different)
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  #22  
Old 08-12-2014, 09:09 PM
Lumpy Lumpy is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WChadKnight View Post
<...>"philosophic mercury", which was supposedly a lot like not-so-much-philosopical mercury known today, except red in color.
OMG! Red Mercury, the secret ingredient in Russian suitcase nukes! ( )

So, the Borgias were ether junkies; as Hunter S. Thompson put it:
Quote:
There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge,
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