Mona Lisa's Cholesterol Problem


Mona Lisa's coy grin invites a barrage of questions—the most common being, what causes her smirk? Some historians have suspected she recently gave birth and she smiles out of joy. Others interpret it as the satisfied, yet guilty look of an unfaithful wife.

Vito Franco isn't as interested in her smile, though. Her skin and eyes preoccupy the pathologist from Palermo University. When he glances at the iconic image, he sees a woman suffering from high cholesterol.

Franco examined the painting and noticed fatty acid buildups, known as xanthelasma, on her left eyelid. Xanthelasmas are yellowish patches of cholesterol built up under the skin. On careful inspection, he noticed a lipoma (a benign fatty tissue tumor) on her right hand.

The physician studied more than 100 works of art, ranging from Egyptian sculptures to contemporary paintings. He sees disease in many of the images he inspected from the Renaissance era. In Botticelli's Portrait of a Youth, the boy's long, delicate fingers indicate he suffered from Marfan syndrome—a disease of the connective tissues, which sometimes leads to an aortic aneurysm. He believes that Margarita in Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas had a goiter and McCune-Albright syndrome, a disorder causing premature puberty. And Franco even diagnosed Michelangelo's health problems based on a painting. In Raphael's The School of Athens, the artist's knees are swollen. Franco believes kidney stones plagued Michelangelo, causing a build up of uric acid leading to swollen joints.

"Illness is part of the body, not a metaphysic or supernatural dimension," Franco told La Stampa. "And so in revealing their physicality, the people depicted expose their human vulnerability independently from our awareness of the authors of the work."

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