Italian Renaissance CSI

Inside a lab in Pisa, forensics pathologist Gino Fornaciari and his team investigate 500-year-old cold cases from the Italian Renaissance.

Gino Fornaciari is no ordinary medical examiner; his bodies represent cold cases that are centuries, sometimes millennia, old. As head of a team of archaeologists, physical anthropologists, historians of medicine and additional specialists at the University of Pisa, he is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of paleopathology, the use of state-of-the-art medical technology and forensic techniques to investigate the lives and deaths of illustrious figures of the past. Here is an excerpt on two Bella donne:

Some of the most compelling tales surround the dynasties of the Aragonese and Medici. Among Fornaciari’s most memorable “patients” is Isabella of Aragon, born in 1470, a shining star at the greatest courts of Italy, renowned for her intellect, beauty, courage in battle and remarkable fortitude. She knew Leonardo da Vinci; some art historians also believe she could have been the model for the Mona Lisa. She conducted famous love affairs with courtier Giosuè di Ruggero and condottiero Prospero Colonna, as well as, one scholar maintains, with Leonardo himself. Even an objective scientist such as Fornaciari isn’t immune to her charms. “Knowing that I had Isabella of Aragon in my laboratory, one of the most celebrated ladies of the Renaissance, who’d known Leonardo da Vinci—he’d made the magnificent theater backdrops for her wedding feast— all this raised certain emotions.”


All the more so when Fornaciari took a close look at Isabella’s teeth. The outer surfaces of those in the front of her mouth had been carefully filed—in some cases the enamel had been completely removed—to erase a black patina that still covered the teeth farther back. Electron microscopy revealed parallel striations on the front teeth, indicating abrasions made by a file. The black stain, it turned out, resulted from ingestion of mercury, in her day believed to combat syphilis. Proud Isabella, jealous of her celebrated beauty, had been attempting to hide the growing discoloration associated with her disease. “I imagine poor Isabella trying to preserve her privacy, not wanting to appear with black teeth because people would know she had venereal disease,” says Fornaciari.

Eleanora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo, was the daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples and related to the Hapsburg and the Castilian royal families. Her face was immortalized by the Renaissance master Bronzino, who in a series of portraits captures her transformation from a radiant, aloof young bride to a sickly, prematurely aged woman in her late 30s, shortly before her death at age 40. Fornaciari uncovered the maladies that beset her. Dental problems plagued her. Slightly curved legs indicated a case of rickets she had suffered as a child. Childbirth had taken a major toll. “Pelvic skeletal markers show that she had numerous births—in fact, she and Cosimo had 11 children,” Fornaciari says. “She was almost constantly pregnant, which would have leached calcium out of her body.” Further analysis indicated that Eleanora had suffered from leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by biting sand flies that can cause skin lesions, fever and damage to the liver and spleen. DNA testing also revealed the presence of tuberculosis. “She was wealthy, and powerful, but her life was brutally hard,” Fornaciari says.


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