We've been wrong about Renaissance painter Raphael's cause of death, new study finds

Historians conclude that the artist suffered from pneumonia, and was wrongly treated with the ancient practice of bloodletting

Self-portrait of Raphael at the age of 23
Self-portrait of Raphael at the age of 23

A medical misdiagnosis may have cost Renaissance painter Raphael his life.

In April 1520, at the age of 37, he died only eight days after contracting a fever.

A new study by historians at the University of Milan Bicocca published in a journal of the Italian Society of Internal Medicine states that the ancient practice of bloodletting, where blood is withdrawn from a patient to cure disease, contributed to his death.

The study described the commonly held assumption that Raphael died because of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis as a “myth”. Other presumed causes, such as typhoid and malaria, were deemed invalid as well.

Reading up on the final weeks of Raphael’s life, the historians turned to the book The Lives of the Artists by 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari. In it, the writer portrayed Raphael as a man who had many trysts. These characterisations bolstered the notion that the painter may have died from a sexually transmitted disease.

Vasari wrote that while he was ill, Raphael did not tell physicians about his trips out in the middle of the night. These night-time excursions could have caused his illness. “It was much, much colder in March in that period, and it's very likely he caught pneumonia,” Michele Augusto Riva, medical historian and co-author of the study, told AFP.

Raphael’s physician at the time, however, attributed the artist’s fever to an “excess of humours”, or blood and bodily fluids, and proceeded to withdraw his blood via incisions or leeches. The procedure would have weakened him, leading to his death.

Riva explained that physicians at the time would not have used bloodletting for diseases of the lungs. However, she said that since Raphael had failed to share his movements, he was misdiagnosed and doctors would have “act[ed] on misinformation”.

“A medical mistake, and his own mistake in not faithfully recounting his history, contributed to Raphael’s death,” Riva said.

During the artist’s illness he was able to prepare a will, confess his sins to a priest and receive his last rites. A celebrated artist during his time, sharing the ranks of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael was given a large, stately funeral at the Vatican.

His body is buried at the Pantheon in Rome.

His renowned work 'The School of Athens'
Raphael's renowned work 'The School of Athens'

Updated: July 19, 2020 12:01 PM

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