Saving the Mona Lisa: Misdiagnosis and Historical Malpractice

Something from our Mona O’Brien on retrospective diagnosis, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and, of course, the great pox.

A Network Of Lines

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…

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