Analysis of Medieval warlord mummy reveals death by poison
Renaissance Italians who held power are infamous for intrigue, back-stabbing, power struggles, war and homicide, including murder by poisoning. In keeping with this theme, archaeologists have discovered that the mummy of a 14 th century Veronese warlord appears to have been deliberately poisoned with foxglove.
Of the toxic atmosphere of Renaissance, which flourished from the 1300s to the 1700s, The Florentine online magazine says: “ One of the many arts cultivated in Renaissance Italy was the black art of poisoning. The Medici Granducal Archives are teeming with references to this nefarious branch of chemistry. … [P]oison was used to resolve political problems and heads of state were its frequent victims. ”
The man whose body was exhumed recently was Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who died in 1329. There were rumors he was poisoned, but his death in written documents of the time had been attributed to drinking from a polluted spring days after he made a triumphant entry into the city of Treviso. He had gained control of Treviso, Vincenza and Padua by making war in the previous months, says LiveScience in an article about the new research.
Equestrian Statue of Cangrande della Scala , Museo di Castelvecchio , Verona. (Wikimedia Commons)
It wasn’t just in Italy that poison was a popular way of disposing of enemies. And the victims of poisoning were not just people in power. The Florentine says:
While rulers were almost always in peril, it appears that no one was beyond the reach of poison in early modern Europe, not the Jewish merchant from Ferrara with a valuable diamond in his possession, who was poisoned by thieves in 1558; nor the Franciscan friars of Borgo San Sepolcro, who were killed in 1565 with the poisoned breads left at their convent by a mysterious stranger; nor the wives of two cuckholded husbands, Giangiacomo de' Medici di Marignano, and the Count of Bagno.
NationalGeographic.com says the poison of choice for the Borgias, Spanish and Italian Renaissance rulers, was arsenic. Arsenic, like foxglove, also has medicinal properties. The Borgias rose to power in the 15 th and 16 th centuries, more than a century after Cangrande lived. It appears whoever poisoned Cangrande did not want to be so obvious with arsenic and used foxglove. Arsenic symptoms are more severe and may include blackening of skin and hair loss. Or perhaps foxglove was just a more popular poison in the 14 th century.
An interesting fact about Cangrande is that he was Dante Alghieri’s primary patron. The great poet wrote The Divine Comedy, which tells of the various punishments people suffer in hell for doing things like betrayal, murder and being “sowers of scandal and schism.”
Cangrande entered Treviso on July 18, 1329. He became sick days later after suffering from vomiting, diarrhea and fever. He died at age 38 on July 22.
Scaliger Tombs in Verona by Eduard Gerhardt, where Cangrande della Scala was buried (Wikimedia Commons)
Recently scientists led by Gino Fornaciari, a paleopathology researcher from the University of Pisa, exhumed Cangrande’s body from his elaborate tomb at Santa Maria Antiqua Church in Verona and did an investigation of his remains. Among his ailments were mild black lung and emphysema, possibly from being exposed to smoky environs such as palaces without fireplaces to remove the smoke, and arthritis from horse-riding.
They also found traces of pollen of foxglove or Digitalis purpurea in the rectum of his relatively well-preserved body. Foxglove probably imparted the toxic levels of digoxin and digitoxin in Cangrande’s liver and feces. These chemicals, which are poisonous in high enough concentrations, are found in the foxglove plant. Foxglove is a known poison from centuries ago, but digitalis is also used as a modern medicine in lower doses to treat congestive heart failure.
Fornaciari and his colleagues found Cangrande had consumed chamomile and black mulberry before he died. It is unknown whether foxglove may have been included in that drink.
The foxglove plant, also known as Digitalis purpurea (Wikimedia Commons)
LiveScience.com says eating any part of a foxglove plant, the leaves, roots or flowers, can induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations and a potentially fatal change in heart rate. Cangrande's symptoms of fever, diarrhea and vomiting, which were described in accounts from the time, are consistent with a foxglove overdose, says the abstract of the researchers’ study.
The study will be published in the February Journal of Archaeological Science. You can read the abstract here. It says in part:
“Both palynological and toxicological data suggest an intoxication through the oral administration of an infusion or decoction of leaves and flowers of Digitalis. … The most likely hypothesis on the causes of death is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis. Although several cases of poisoning through the use of organic substances are known from historical sources, no other direct evidences are documented in the palaeopathological literature.”
Featured image: Photograph of the top of the sarcophagus and mummy of Cangrande della Scala (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller