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This painting of Teofilo Folengo, a Renaissance poet, by an unknown artist is in the San Sebastian Museum in Italy. A father and son doctor team says the smile shows pathology, probably a stroke or brain tumor.

Influential 16th century poet diagnosed with pathological condition from his twisted smile

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Teofilo Folengo was a prominent 16 th century poet who wrote fantastic works that influenced later writers, including Francois Rabelais, author of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Two Italian doctors studying an old painting of Folengo have written a paper saying it appears, from his twisted smile, that the poet suffered from either a stroke or a brain tumor toward the end of his life.

Drs. Francesco M. Galassi and Stefano Galassi, son and father, say while they can’t properly conclude questions of disease from one old source, it appears from the white eyebrows and emaciated features that Folengo was at the end of his life and suffering from a significant pathological condition when the painting was executed.

“If that were to be found to have coincided with the central cause of his facial paralysis, namely—and most likely—a devastating stroke or a rapidly growing and metastasizing brain tumor with their imaginable consequences for his physical integrity, a scientifically reasonable and well-grounded explanation for the demise of the great poet may well be proposed,” the authors wrote in the journal Neurological Sciences.

The doctors wrote that though there are other purported paintings of Folengo, it is believed this anonymous painting actually portrays the real lineaments of the poet because a Latin inscription on the painting says “Theophilus Folengo/poeta Merlions/Obyt.” The people depicted in other paintings do not closely resemble the subject of the painting the doctors studied.

“What immediately catches the onlooker’s attention is the rather abnormal crooked grin his face shows, which cannot be thought of as a natural facial expression and may indeed be interpreted in the light of medical diagnostic principles,” they wrote.

The painting made news when it was presented to the Museo San Sebastiano in Mantua. An article in Gazzetta di Mantova says Folengo, a former cleric, is shown in the Benedictine order’s clothing. “The mouth has an involuntary grimace due to illness,” the gazzetta said. “Teofilo emerges from the dark background, the face excavated from the prevailing physiognomy, fixing his eyes, wry, sharp, black Flemish apparel.”

Folengo, who lived from 1491 to 1544, was also known by the pseudonym Merlino Coccajo or Cocai. He wrote in macaronic Latin what the doctors call the “heroicomic” epic poem Baldus. This work influenced Rabelais.

Gargantua’s meal, by Gustave Doré. Gargantua is a giant, a character of Rabelais.

Gargantua’s meal, by Gustave Doré. Gargantua is a giant, a character of Rabelais. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Folengo published seven books during his life and others he wrote were published posthumously. A brief article at Folengo.com introduces the author:

Teofilo Folengo was funny and inventive, his books portray the world of his day: lawyers, cooks, cops, monks, inn-keepers, his own self. Even compared to other Renaissance men and women, Folengo stands out as extremely knowledgeable and versatile, his writings encompass literature past and present, sacred and profane, geography, sexuality and many other fields. Poet, publicist, commentator and performer, he presented himself in his texts in every possible way: his Chaos del Triperuno is a dazzling probe of the interior written 500 years ago. His wit, his heart and his painstaking precision draw one in: Words are forged like parts for a bridge loved ones will depend on forever. Folengo wants us to laugh while we go back and forth.

Folengo’s  writings have been compared to the wildly original and strange paintings of Hieronymus Bosch:

A notorious paradox is characteristic of Bosch as an artist. While he endlessly opposes himself to ‘folly’, irrationality, ‘wildness’, and uncontrolled thought (and behaviour), his art fundamentally operates through whimsical and unpredictable invention, free association, and formal freedom.  … This comparison was not unjustified, as macaronic writers, such as Merlino Coccajo (Teofilo Folengo, 1491–1544) in his epos Baldus, often adhered world views similar to those of Bosch.

‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ by Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings have been compared to the writings of Teofilo Folengo.

‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ by Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings have been compared to the writings of Teofilo Folengo. For a better idea of the weirdness of this painting, see the high-resolution image at Wikimedia Commons .

Drs. Francesco M. Galassi and Stefano Galassi have also diagnosed other medical conditions in well-known historical paintings, including the Pompeii fresco that depicts Priapus , a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. According to Galassi and Galassi, the painting reveals a serious case of phimosis, in which the prepuce covering the head of the penis does not withdraw down the shaft.

The approach of undertaking medical diagnoses from old illustrations opens up an interesting new area of study in the field of history.

Featured image: This painting of Teofilo Folengo, a Renaissance poet, by an unknown artist is in the San Sebastian Museum in Italy. A father and son doctor team says the smile shows pathology, probably a stroke or brain tumor.

By Mark Miller

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