On April 6, 1520, Italian painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino—better known as Raphael—died at just 37 years old from what was reported to be a fever. While the last 500 years have given rise to various theories about the details of this illness, the most popular explanation is that Raphael’s excessive philandering led to a fatal case of syphilis.
His free-loving lifestyle wasn’t exactly a secret, and painter Giorgio Vasari popularized the idea that this behavior was linked to his untimely demise in his 1550 book, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects:
"Meanwhile, pursuing his amours in secret, Raffaello continued to divert himself beyond measure with the pleasures of love; whence it happened that, having on one occasion indulged in more than his usual excess, he returned to his house in a violent fever. The physicians, therefore, believing that he had overheated himself, and receiving from him no confession of the excess of which he had been guilty, imprudently bled him, insomuch that he was weakened and felt himself sinking; for he was in need rather of restoratives."
But a new study published in the journal Internal and Emergency Medicine suggests that Raphael’s fever was a symptom of pneumonia—not venereal disease—and the doctors’ ill-conceived attempts to treat the infection with bloodletting contributed to his death. Sources from the time state that Raphael had a high, continuous fever that lasted anywhere from eight to 15 days, which a disease like syphilis wouldn’t typically cause.
“A recent sexually transmitted infection—such as gonorrhea and syphilis—could not explain the incubation period,” the study explains. “Similarly an acute manifestation of viral hepatitis could not be considered without jaundice and other signs of liver failure.”
Since there are no records of any typhus or plague outbreaks in Rome from that time period, and because Raphael didn’t appear to have any intestinal symptoms, University of Milan-Bicocca historian Michele Augusto Riva and other authors of the study landed on pneumonia as the most likely culprit. Though 16th-century physicians wouldn’t customarily treat respiratory diseases with bloodletting, it seems that Raphael didn’t give them much information to go on.
“[W]e are sure that bloodletting contributed to Raphael’s death," Augusto Riva told The Guardian. "Physicians of that period were used to practicing bloodletting for the treatment of different diseases, but it would not generally be used for diseases of the lungs. In the case of Raphael, he did not explain the origin of the disease or his symptoms and so the physician incorrectly used bloodletting.”
Draining a patient’s blood while he fights off a high fever seems like a painfully dimwitted idea by today’s standards, but it definitely wasn’t the worst remedy that Renaissance doctors had in their arsenal—read about 11 other wild ones here.
[h/t The Guardian]