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.

Re-collections: The beautiful sadness of a black dog and second-hand books

On a recent Sunday I found myself standing in an antique shop in Frankfurt, close to the Römer. There was the usual random assortment of things, old furniture, crockery, photographs… Browsing through the warren of rooms, which extended much further back than the shop’s modest exterior suggested, I caught site of a framed photograph lying on the floor.

IMG_20161023_165926561.jpg IMG_20161023_170012301.jpg

It is a photograph of no particular artistic merit. The shopkeeper certainly hadn’t given it pride of place, but obviously hoped to get a few euros for it. I was struck by it because it reminded me of the countless photographs that I’ve taken of my beloved cat, Shots. My photos are equally unartistic, and they capture a beast devoid grace or nobility. Shots is a cuddly (fat), lazy, cowardly cat. But he’s my cat, and the photo of him that is blue-tacked to my office wall makes me smile when work is dragging. It reminds me of his antics; how he greets you in the morning with a disgruntled ‘mef’, how he snores on my lap on winter nights, and follows you around the garden on summer days.


This photo of the little black dog was the same, an attempt to capture an impression of a treasured thing, something to lift the spirits and to remember with. Yet here it was in an antique shop going for a few euros, reflecting nothing of the love and happy memories that it likely encapsulated. How did it get there? Did the owner get rid of it (maybe they had a better picture)? Was it a strange unwanted Christmas present? Did the owner of the photograph die and thus no one remained who shared the particular memories of that particular little black dog? I tend to think it was the latter, but perhaps I’m just morose.

I really like second-hand and antique shops, I like objects that have histories, even if we can’t access them. But standing in this Frankfurt shop I felt surrounded by the fragments of peoples’ lives. There were sets of little figurines, probably carefully collected by someone over time, sort of Sylvanian Family type things, nutcrackers, and little soldiers too which may have been hand painted by their former owner. Each individual one had a price. Collections assembled over a lifetime were here to be dispersed. Things were taken out of order, grouped by material or type; there were whole racks of hideous fur coats.



A few days later in Nürnberg I was browsing at a secondhand book stall opposite the St. Lorenz Kirche, which was furnished with texts on topics from fiction to cookery via art, history and religion. Sometimes we fall out of love with things. Quite simply, we change over time and curate our collections in line with these changes. We often bring the pieces of our collections to the charity or second hand shop ourselves. But what about the box of postcards, written and set by various people from various different destinations, what about the photographs that interspersed them? How did the photo of a young man in a military uniform come to be there?

There are some things, photos, letters, that seem to intimate to have been given up by their original owner, the person who collected them and to whom they meant something. I imagine these things as being dispersed by relatives after a death, or through an auction of possessions which have no heir. Although we develop and redesign our collections over our lives, there is always a certain amount of stuff which those of us who are fortunate to actually live in enough comfort to do so accumulate. (Collections and privilege may be the subject of a future post.) A certain assemblage of items that we see as ‘my collection‘. We see these objects as permanently ours, but in reality they often outlive us. We don’t often think about the afterlives of our collections, save maybe in terms of wills and inheritance. But the little everyday objects, the books, the mugs, and the terrible photographs – we don’t think very much about what will happen to them. Our most treasured objects simply don’t have the same emotional resonance for others, even our loved ones. So stuff gets boxed-up and given away or sold off. Things like the book below given by a husband to his wife.

img_20161102_152723108  p1000855

When we go, the meanings of our personal collections go. No one will view or understand them through the same lens. Yet these objects enter new collections, are re-collected and assume new meanings. A little part of us enters a wider human web, meanings layer up within an object. We usually can’t find out much about the previous owner of a book for example, why they bought that book, what they felt about it, who they were and what this object witnessed from a shelf in their lives. But the weight of the history is there, the sense of connection between human lives in a circle of collecting, dispersing, re-collecting. It’s kind of sad, but it’s kind of beautiful too.

img_20161023_170544693 But we only leave things, rarely meanings.

Recommended Reading: ‘Housing Mr. Biswas’ in Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole.

History, Fiction

Chalk and cheese, history and fiction; at first sight some things appear to be wholly unrelated, if not binary opposites. However, if you eat too much cheese you may reach for some antacids, which frequently contain calcium carbonate – the main constituent of chalk.

In his review of East, West, Terry Eagleton proposes that ‘The comma between “East” and “West” in Salman Rushdie’s title thus forms a bridge as well as marking a gap’. Similarly, history and fiction can be conceptualised as sitting at opposite sides of a river – but there is a bridge, and the traffic moves both ways. Glance around any bookshop and you will inevitably encounter a considerable quantity of historical fiction, stories which draw (to one extent or another) on historical knowledge for their setting and inspiration. Similarly, fictional works can also provide sources for historians, as part of the creative output of their period novels often provide us with insight or social commentary.

All of this is already well known, but there is another important aspect to the history-fiction relationship, at least in my opinion. Around two years ago I did some research that involved looking at a selection of the sixteenth-century friendship albums (album amicorum) held in the British Library. These albums were compiled by young German men during their studies in foreign universities and contain signatures and testimonies of friendship from their fellow students. For instance:

‘Georgius Seutter wrote this as a perpetual bond of fraternity to (Ortelius – name scratched out) who was most distinguished in birth and virtue, in Padua, 17 May 1575’.

(From B.L.: Eagerton MS 1191, trans. Margaret F. Rosenthal ‘Fashions of Friendship’, p.625.)

0005 746 Illustrated page from the friendship album of Michael van Meer (1590-1653).

These albums are rich sources and provide insights into everything from perceptions of foreign customs and fashions, to interpersonal bonds. However, whilst the albums can at times give some sense of the relationships between students (some of which can be traced and elaborated through other sources, such as diaries or letters) many of these relationships remain a mystery. The statements of friendship, like that of Georgius Seutter, can strike us as highly formal in contrast to how we express friendship today. When reading through the albums I often wondered how well some of these young men actually knew each other. Who were acquaintances and who were closer friends? How much (and what) meaning did Seutter ascribe to his ‘bond of fraternity’ with Ortelius? Often these questions simply cannot be answered. Unanswerable questions permeate the entire field of history; no matter how diligently historians work there will always be gaps in our knowledge, innumerable individual lives have simply been lost. The past is often, as Eavan Boland put it:

… an empty café terrace.
An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.
And no way now to know what happened then –
none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

From ‘The black lace fan my mother gave me’, Eavan Boland, Outside History.

To ‘improvise’, to ‘make or create from whatever is available’ (OED). Historians undoubtedly do a certain amount of improvising, offering theories on the past founded in the extant evidence. However, where there is little or no evidence, where there are gaps in history, this is where, I believe, fiction can play an important role. Authors of fiction can take historical improvisation much further than historians, the only limitations on the extent of their improvisation are those which are imposed by the authors themselves through their selection of genre, style, etc. Moreover, when we are reading fiction we can suspend our disbelief, no one is looking for footnotes. Authors can insert characters into history, like Henri, who prepares Napoleon’s chicken in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Thus fiction, and poetry too, can provide improvised histories; they are free to imagine events and lives into the gaps in our knowledge.

Bernardine Evaristo’s novel in verse, The Emperor’s Babe, is one text that provides a rich imagining based on one of our historical gaps. The text is set in Roman Britain under the Emperor Septimius Severus and narrated by Zuleika, a daughter of Sudanese immigrants who was ‘born in the back of a shop’. Zuleika embodies a created but poignant individual history, whilst also standing as a symbol for Britain’s multicultural history. This is a history for which there is ever increasing evidence, archaeological work at York in 2010 proved there was an African presence in Britain during the Roman period, and this year a DNA study of remains held in the Museum of London has illustrated that the city was multicultural from its earliest days. As Peter Fryer put it ‘There were Africans in Britain before the English came’.


Yet there is still much that we don’t know about the lives of those of African origins or descent in Roman Britain. Evaristo’s fiction takes this gap and imagines one possible life into it. What we get is the story of Zuleika’s struggles, friendships, daily life, and love, and it is a vibrant, intimate, and very human story. Zuleika doesn’t change history, and Evaristo doesn’t rewrite known history, and this is perhaps part of what makes the idea of Zuleika seem more real to the reader. There is a sense, I find, when reading this novel, that Zuleika could very well have existed and that her story simply slipped through the gaps of history. Ultimately, however, we cannot ignore the fact that this is a fictional text, which can lead us to ask – What do we not know about history? What is missing? Who is missing? Why? This novel does not whitewash history, if anything it makes its gaps more visible.

These gaps in history are very often inhabited by the suppressed, the minorities, and the disfranchised. Britain’s long multicultural history remains largely under recognised, and there are some who would rather ignore or deny it altogether. The will to suppress is something that The Emperor’s Babe also addresses. If Zuleika represents a suppressed multicultural history Felix, her husband, represents a domineering narrative of history which visualises a monocultural Britain and focuses on the lives of “great” white men. Zuleika never has a child because her Caucasian husband ‘ruined me before I was ready’. Felix’s desire to practice authority over his wife, and her body, can be seen like a dominating narrative, suppressing female and multicultural histories. This isn’t just a novel situated in history, it is also a novel about how history is written.

Indeed, whilst The Emperor’s Babe doesn’t represent a dramatic rewriting of established historical facts, Evaristo does find another, possibly more subversive, way of rewriting history. The whole text challenges the form and ideology embodied by the classical epic poem. Zuleika’s professor, Theodorous, lectures that if she wishes to write poetry she must learn the first thousand years of the male dominated canon of epic poetry by heart. Then she must learn to write in the traditional formal structure conceived by a man, namely the ‘hendecasyllables/ à la Pliny Jr’. Subject matter must be confined to ‘war, death, the gods/ and the founding of countries’ – masculine subjects, and also topics which once formed the central focus of much historical scholarship. Yet throughout the text Evaristo, through Zuleika (who narrates the text in the first person), rejects these principles. She rejects any structure – the poetry throughout is highly varied in its style. Zuleika also, as Dave Gunning has observed, retains her own authentic voice throughout the text, speaking a ‘second-generation pleby creole’ that blends English, Cockney, Latin, Italian and Scots slang’. Moreover, Zuleika is driven by the desire to write about ‘us, about now’, and not for ‘posterity’. Thus, Evaristo improvises, she upends the traditional written form to remind us that there always other voices, other perspectives beyond the preserved or dominant narratives.

Another definition of ‘improvise’ in the OED states that this is an act of creation or invention that is sometimes carried out ‘as a result of necessity’. Eavan Boland writes in her poem Outside History, that ‘There are outsiders, always’, lives that have slipped into the gaps of history, of which no trace remains. However, absence does not equal irrelevance. Historians certainly can ask what is missing, and we should know where the gaps are, and sometimes we can offer convincing theories on the lives and experiences which these gaps mark. In the end however, it is fiction and poetry which can improvise, which can create human (hi)stories that prompt us to remember what we do not know.

There are outsiders, always. These stars –
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened

 thousands of years before
our pain did: they are, they have always been
outside history,

From ‘Outside History’, Eavan Boland, Outside History.


Texts Cited.

B.L: Egerton MS 1191, Album of Sigismundus Ortelius, 1573-1579.

Eavan Boland, Outside History: selected poems, 1980-1990 (London, 2001).

Terry Eagleton, ‘Deadly Fetishes’, London Review of Books, 16:19 (6 Oct. 1994).

Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984).

Pallab Ghosh, ‘DNA study finds London was ethnically diverse from start’, BBC News (23 Nov. 2015),

Dave Gunning, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Marginalisation in Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe’ in G. Kadija (ed.), Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British Literature (London: Hansib, 2005).

Alastair Niven, ‘Alastair Niven in conversation with Bernardine Evaristo’, Wasafiri 16 (2001): pp.15-20.

Margaret F. Rosenthal, ‘Fashions of Friendship in an Early Modern Illustrated Album Amicorum: British Library, MS Egerton 1191’, The journal of medieval and early modern studies, 39 (2009), pp.619-641.