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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Intention versus Interpretation: Curating Personal Identities from Silk Gowns to Facebook

A piece that I wrote for the Leverhulme Human Constellations blog, asking about how we construct collections, how we curate our digital identities, and where the power of definition lies.

Human Constellations

Mona O’Brien

img_20160811_134747313 A case displaying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fabrics from India, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

During our recent Human Constellations group trip to London, I found myself standing in front of the above display of garments in the V&A. On first glance it seems like a nice display, visually interesting but not overwhelming. Yet I walked away from it with a head full of questions and a gnawing sense of existential doubt.

The central dress was sewn from Indian silk embroidered cotton in eighteenth-century England. The red man’s robe (banyan), to the left, is made of fabric dyed and printed in South-East India; it was made up in Europe, in a style influenced by the Japanese kimono. These clothes, passive objects, have multiple identities, based on their materials, styles, and how they are displayed. Are they art objects? Historical objects? Ornaments for a body? Displays of wealth? Are they…

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The Fear

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Taken at The Lighthouse, Glasgow.

A soundtrack for this post: The Fear, Ben Howard.

I encounter fear on a daily basis, more specifically the fear of European society around 500 years ago as it attempted to deal with a new pandemic – the Great Pox (syphilis). I see fear in the doctors’ books, and the accounts of poxed patients. Fear seems so dramatic, the possibility of death, the devastation of nations, the rupturing of a moral façade and reputation. Fear is Other, fear is dramatic. But it isn’t just that. Fear is also mundane, fear can gnaw away inside us like slowly rusting iron and we can ignore it until it destabilises our internal structures. Fear is part of the everyday.

Last Friday I went swimming for the first time in around four years. Before I started university I loved swimming, I’d go every week, it was my stress-breaker during exams, the thing that always made me feel better; it always gave me a huge sense of freedom. Yet when I got into the pool it felt completely alien. I couldn’t remember if I remembered how to swim. The routine, the known suddenly wasn’t either of those things. I don’t know what made me take the decision to kick off from the wall, to test the veracity of my muscle memory. I botched my strokes, and the muscles in my arms ached for more of the weekend than I’d like to admit. I did it badly, I’m terrible compared to four years ago. But I did it. And I’m going to go back this week and do it again, hopefully a little better. And with a bit less fear.

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Fear is also committing ideas to a blank page, the attempt to make them more concrete, to expose them. And when you expose something you certainly run the risk of finding the cracks, the weaknesses, or the absolute unsustainability of the structure. Sometimes it works out, sometimes we see it all fall apart, and sometimes someone else brings it down. To challenge the established, to question, to propose something new; it’s like being in a pool of ideas and wondering if you’re going to sink or swim. That’s how I find doing history, I look all around me and I see the towering, apparently sound structures built up by my predecessors. Sometimes it feels like I’m in an overpopulated city with no space left to build. Taking the known, the primary sources, the historiography, and trying to make something new – but more than something new – something useful, something that will provoke thought and debate – that terrifies me some days. And the cursor on the blank page just blinks back at me. It would be really easy to stop. It’s very hard to start, Matt Houlbrook has written excellently on not writing, on the struggle to get things onto the page.

Some days there is a lot of fear, very few words make it onto the page and they may just get deleted the next day. But fear isn’t a wholly bad thing, at least in my opinion. When I am at my most afraid, that is usually when I’m sitting at the edge of something new, a new thought, a new perspective. A lot of other PhD candidates I know feel the same way, a strong sense of doubt and suspicion surrounding our own opinion. Maybe it’s the same for academics further on in their careers too, if I get there I’ll let you know.

To be original, to try something new, to reorder or question the known is frightening. And it can grow and become paralysing too. I’m certainly not saying fear is a wholly positive experience within the context of writing/doing history, but it’s certainly not just negative either.

Between fear and the known, the new sits.

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Taken at ‘Weather Forms‘ exhibition, The Lighthouse, Glasgow.

Absences, Notches

As my (rather longer than intended) silence may have suggested, I’ve been having a busy time recently. I’ve got some posts in the pipeline, but in the meantime here’s a link to a piece of mine on ‘Sores, Scorn and Stigma? Suffering Syphilis in Early Modern Germany’ which was published on the wonderful Notches blog as part of their series on venereal diseases:  http://notchesblog.com/2016/03/22/sores-scorn-and-stigma-suffering-syphilis-in-early-modern-germany/ .

P.S. If you’ve not already encountered it Notches is a great blog on all aspects of the history of sexuality – definitely worth following!