Monday, January 5, 2015

The French Disease Reprise

Venus and Mercury with Cupid
Nicolas Chaperon (1612-1655)
A short time after finishing the seminary, newly ordained Catholic priest Antonio Neri entered employment with Don Antonio de' Medici at the Casino di San Marco. It was the beginning of a new century, and the beginning of what would become a lifelong accord between the two men. For the prince, the Casino also represented a new chapter in his own life. This was the palace that his father, Grand Duke Francesco, had built for himself, and after standing dormant for more than a decade it was now Don Antonio's. By renovating the Casino to his own taste, and restarting the alchemical and glass operations there, he was setting the stage for his adult life; what would turn out to be a difficult and physically painful life. In the seventeenth century, there were short term treatments for syphilis, but not a cure. Once contracted, the sexually transmitted bacterial infection would slowly, inexorably wind its way through the flesh and bones of its victim, savaging as it went. 

Don Antonio and Antonio Neri were both born in 1576. It is widely assumed by historians that the prince contracted the disease in his late teens, as a soldier and diplomat fighting the Ottoman encroachment into Hungary in the 1590s. What is not widely known is that he was sexually active as early as age fifteen. Crossed out and marked "in error" is a curious entry in the Florentine baptism register. Lines dated 31 October 1592, All Hallows Eve, record a male child, also named Antonio, born to the Medici Prince of Capestrano by the widow Madonna Isabella Casini. The following year, he was given a military commission and shipped to the front.

During his service, he was plagued by illness; he did participate in several battles, but was then reassigned to diplomatic duty. Upon return to Florence, the prince was ill for most of the ensuing year, running a fever that lasted for many weeks, keeping him bedridden for the entire summer. Later in the year, he suffered what was described as a terrible attack of "arthritic pain," leaving him immobile. These symptoms later resolved into "horrible diabetes," causing paralysis of the left side. It is difficult to imagine that the severity of Don Antonio's illness would not garner the full attention of the medical staff associated with the royal household. The symptoms described above are all consistent with syphilis.

Antonio Neri's father, Neri Neri, was physician to the royal family and must have been involved to a greater or lesser extent in Don Antonio's treatment. Dr. Neri’s 1585 treatise on left-side paralysis indicates he was considered an expert on the matter. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine that the doctor's alchemist son, the same age as the prince, might take an interest. While it is very possible they were already acquainted, perhaps this period was an opportunity for a bond to cement between the two Antonios.

This infection, which the Italians referred to as the "French disease" and the French as the "Italian disease" was elsewhere attributed to the Spanish, Germans and the Polish. Current research is still undecided if Spanish explorers brought the bacterium back with them from South America. The first recorded epidemics of syphilis occurred soon after Christopher Columbus’ return to Europe in the late 1400s.

Calamine and mercury were both effective at closing the open ulcers that were associated with advanced syphilis. Hence the expression "A night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury." While illness in the royal court was generally kept a closely guarded secret, Don Antonio did develop a very public reputation for spending lavish sums to acquire natural secrets and recipes. It would be foolish to deny that his medical condition played a role in his devotion to discovering new medicines and in his pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which according to legend could cure all disease.

In the first decade of the 1600s, while Antonio Neri was in Flanders, the prince's condition deteriorated. But as soon as Grand Duke Ferdinando was dead, a baby girl was born to Don Antonio's handmaid and  then three boys to another woman he employed as a music teacher. While it would be easy to jump to conclusions about promiscuity, the evidence is that as each birth became known, the royal family mobilized to break-up Don Antonio's relationships. As the son of Grand Duke Francesco, and arguably the rightful heirs to the throne, Don Antonio's children were a vexing issue for his uncle's family, who currently enjoyed power.

As the second decade of the seventeenth century wore on, Don Antonio gave up horseback riding, and then travels all together. By 1620, he was confined to his bed. On 2 May 1621, he died at the age of forty-five. An account of his funeral procession tells that his lower body was so ravaged, that blankets were used to cover the carnage.

This post first appeared here 20 December 2013

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