Hard Times in the Renaissance

“CSI: Italian Renaissance” by Tom Mueller, Smithsonian, July-August, 2013

Isabella of AragonThis angelic girl is Isabella of Aragon, born in 1470, a shining star at the courts of Italy, renowned for her intellect and beauty. She knew Leonardo da Vinci, and there is an outside chance she could have been the model for the Mona Lisa.

Her remains are being examined by forensics pathologist Gino Fornaciari and his team at the University of Pisa.  They quickly notice that her front teeth had been filed back, some all  the way through the enamel, exposing the inner dentine.  That must have been painful, but the parallel file marks are unmistakable.  Curiously, her back teeth are black.

This is not a mystery to Fornaciari and his team who easily interpret the evidence.  Isabella had syphilis and was taking mercury, the only known treatment for the disease, but one that turns the surface of the teeth black.  She had the black layer filed off of the visible  front teeth and left the rear ones discolored.

(“No, no, Isabella, my dear.  No need to smile.  I can draw you as you are.  Just look down a bit—AND DON’T SMILE. Well, maybe just a little.”)

They are also studying the well-preserved remains of Cangrande della Scala, an important warlord of Verona.  Giotto painted his portrait, and Dante praised him as the paragon of a wise leader.  In 1329, he had just conquered a rival town when he died violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea.  Poisoning had always been suspected, but a gastrointestinal virus from contaminated well-water could have also been the cause.

His bones showed arthritis in his elbows, hips, knees, and sacra-lumbar vertebrae.  This would be unusual today but were the common signs of a knight who spent many hours on horseback swinging heavy weapons.  His liver was diseased but probably from a virus rather than alcohol because distilled hard liquor was unknown at the time.  His signs of lung damage, that today would only be found in coal miners, were common in his day when light and heat were by smokey fires.  Chimneys in banquet halls and bedchambers only became common a century later.   Pollen found in his intestines were shown to be of foxglove, a source of digoxin and used as a poison at that time.  The old rumors were true.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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