Saving the Mona Lisa: Misdiagnosis and Historical Malpractice

On February 6 Jonathan Jones asked ‘Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis?
The answer is, very simply, no.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-1506).  Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Syphilitic Man (c.1496).

Indeed, nobody in the sixteenth century had ‘syphilis’. What they did have was a disease that went by a host of names including the great pox, the French disease, the plague of Job and the sickness of Naples. They did not have ‘syphilis’ a name which, though coined in the sixteenth century, only came into common usage around the nineteenth century.

To be able to definitively state that Mona Lisa, Henry VIII, or any other early modern individual had ‘syphilis’, the disease caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium, you would need the results of a scientific analysis on their remains, something which can prove notoriously difficult at times. Show me positive results from such a test and the I will accept that, scientifically speaking, a person had syphilis. But, if they were from the sixteenth century, most importantly they had the pox.

Surely though ‘the pox’ is just an old name for syphilis and I shouldn’t be so pedantic? The grand narrative of the disease draws a neat line from the great pox that was first noted in 1495 through to the lues venerea (the venereal disease) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the syphilis of the nineteenth century onward.

L0024995 Woodcut: Syphilis: 1496
A chart showing the alignment of the planets that lead to the outbreak of the pox, from Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496). Source: Wellcome Library, London.

Sixteenth-century European medicine was still functioning on a principally humoral model, drawing from the classical works like those of Hippocrates and Galen. The understanding of the disease, its causes and cures was incredibly different from what we know today. For instance, some, like the Germanic secretary Joseph Grünpeck, believed that the disease had originated from a particular alignment of the planets. Others thought it may have been caused by an act of cannibalism. Jones suggests that the ‘new world’ theory influenced Leonardo’s painting, but the artist lived in a time when arguments on the disease’s ultimate origin were far from cohesive.

In terms of the infection of the individual, the pox was often interpreted as a punishment for sins, and not only sexual ones as in later periods, but also for things like blasphemy and public intoxication. Some practitioners also worried that the disease was spreading through the air, or via shared drinking vessels or clothes. For us, living in the age of microscopes and microbes where syphilis is principally a venereal disease, this can seem ridiculous, yet within the logic of early modern Europe these were credible theories. This was the world these individuals inhabited, the disease they knew as the pox. And what is most important is how these individuals and their society understood their disease, what it implied about, and how it affected, their physical, social and spiritual lives.

But did Mona Lisa even have the pox?
Again, I argue no.

Jonathan Jones’s evidence on this point is scant, to say the least. It is principally based on the fact that Lisa Gherardini (the presumed model for the painting) once bought some snail water. Oh, and she looks a bit tired: ‘The shadows around her eyes could easily seem unhealthy’.

Snail water was used for a range of diseases and ailments. And it certainly wasn’t the most popular treatment for the pox in the sixteenth century. It was mercury that quickly came to the fore as the favoured treatment and persisted as such into the eighteenth-century. A wide variety of herbal therapies, particularly the guaiacum bark from the Americas, were also employed. Treatments in pox hospitals usually combined mercury with a sanctioned diet and various herbal concoctions. They also usually involved sweating therapy where the patient would be placed by a stove and/or tightly wrapped in blankets, frequently covered in mercury ointment first, and left to sweat out their disease. Moreover, because the disease was associated with sin, medical advice often warned patients that they had to first make peace with God before they could even begin to hope for recovery.

L0006633 Sweating treatment for syphilis.
Sweating Treatment for Syphilis, J. Harreweijns (1685). Source: Wellcome Library, London.

So much for snail water. Regarding the shadows around the Mona Lisa’s 500 year-old eyes, in all of the contemporary medical accounts I have read about the disease, never have tiredness or such shadows been cited as symptoms of the pox. More urgent, and more certain, are the pain and the pustules that patients suffer with. Retrospective diagnosis is always bad practice in medical history and if we are to start diagnosing people based on the shadows under their eyes, then surely we are all potential syphilitics in Mr Jones’s perspective.

This brings me to my final point. Jonathan Jones’s article didn’t just bother me because it dealt so poorly with an issue that intersects with my own area of research, it bothered me because such unsubstantial pieces undermine the work done by historians. It makes it seem like we will simply take whatever facts suit us, or build theories out of thin air.

We cannot recapture history exactly as it was, we can never know everything, and there’s always a certain amount of construction involved in historical works. However, we have a duty to ensure that our work is well grounded in substantial sources, and this is what any reputable historian will do. Otherwise I could sit at home all day with infinite cups of tea writing a fantastical history of the pox, and not in front of the microfiche reader which seems to have provided the sound-effects for R2-D2 reading through hundreds of pages of early modern sources to trace the impact of the pox. We need more than snail-water, tired eyes, and a hunch. We live in an age where society is struggling to comprehend and contend with so many sources of information, which contain varying degrees of prejudice and honesty. In this context, the work of historians, the substantial, faithful, and accurate representation of our sources, is a most important one.

L0062790 Tongue with furrows of tertiary syphilis
Fissured tongue of a syphilitic man (tertiary syphilis), Thomas Godart (1885). Source: Wellcome Library, London.