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CULTURE

It wasn’t the sex: bloodletting fatal for Raphael, Italian study claims

A feverish Raphael suffering from "a coronavirus-like disease" died after failing to tell his doctors he had been secretly visiting lovers on freezing cold nights, leading them to wrongly prescribe bloodletting, a new study claims.

It wasn't the sex: bloodletting fatal for Raphael, Italian study claims
A visitor looks at the painting "Self Portrait" by Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, on March 4, 2020,. Photo: AFP

Popular myth has the Renaissance painter succumb to syphilis in 1520 after wooing one too many ladies, though experts widely agree that he died of an infection.

Laid low by a raging fever, the prolific painter, designer and architect, was tended to by “the best doctors in Rome, sent to him by the pope” who feared losing the invaluable artist, medical historian Michele Augusto Riva told AFP.

But according to Italian painter Giorgio Vasari and his 1550 masterpiece on the lives of painters, Raphael failed to tell the physicians of his “frequent night outings in the cold” to visit lovers.

“It was much, much colder in March in that period, and it's very likely he caught pneumonia,” Riva said.

The doctors diagnosed a fever caused by an “excess of humours”, or blood, and let his blood — either through incisions or leeches — which fatally weakened him.

The artist, a child prodigy and part of a trinity of Renaissance greats along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, died aged only 37.

Raphael was sent off with high honours at a grand funeral at the Vatican, and his remains rest in Rome's Pantheon. A red rose graces his grave all the year round.

'His own mistake'

“In that period, doctors were aware of the dangers of bloodletting in the treatment of infectious diseases, but were acting on misinformation,” said Riva, who co-authored the study with three fellow researchers from the University of Milano Bicocca.

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

The researchers had been preparing the short study, which was published this week in the Internal and Emergency Medicine journal, before COVID-19 gripped northern Italy in late February.

As practising doctors, they then had to put it on hold when they found themselves on the frontline of the crisis, caring for medical staff who had caught the virus in intensive care units.

“From what we know, Raphael died of a pulmonary illness very similar to the coronavirus we've seen now,” he said.

Contemporary accounts of his death reveal the painter's disease “lasted 15 days; Raphael was composed enough to put his affairs in order, confess his sins, and receive the last rites,” the study says.

It said it was an acute disease, characterised by high and continuous fever.

“A recent sexually transmitted infection — such as gonorrhea and syphilis — could not explain the incubation period.

“An acute manifestation of viral hepatitis could not be considered without jaundice and other signs of liver failure. No epidemics of typhus or plague were reported in the city of Rome at that time,” it added.

Despite his premature death, Raphael produced a vast ouevre of seminal work, much of it at the Vatican, whose museums include several rooms filled with his frescoes.

Completed by Raphael's students after his death, they remain some of the Vatican's most popular rooms.

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CULTURE

Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Towns across Italy are holding pageants and parades as Carnival season begins, but few people know the true origins of this festivity, writes Silvia Marchetti.

Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Masks, wild costumes, confetti, fried frappe and castagnole – Carnival’s back. But not everyone knows that these festivities date back to the dawn of time.

“At exactly the same time of the year, now, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the Baccanali, which they likely imported from Mesopotamia. Then the Romans turned the Greek partying into the Saturnali and Lupercali”, says Giorgio Franchetti, an historian of Ancient Rome.

READ ALSO: Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy’s most magical carnivals

During the Baccanali – feasts held in honor of Bacchus, or Dioysius, the god of wine – revelers would dance and get drunk on wine mixed with honey, which allowed them to let loose, free their souls and connect with the divinities and the afterworld. The wine supposedly sent them into a physical and spiritual ecstasy, a sort of purifying trance.

The ancient Romans took these wild events further. The Saturnali celebrations, in honor of Saturno, who was also the god of agriculture, coincided with the sowing of the fields and fertility rites.

“Lumps of earth would be overturned to allow the seeds to sink in, in the same way the Saturnali triggered an overturning of the established order, social roles and hierarchies: women would dress as men, men as women, slaves as masters, masters as slaves, and all partook in extreme acts”, says Franchetti. Wine and lavish meals went on for a week, and nobody, not even the slaves, worked.

Revellers in masks and costumes take part in the Venice Carnival. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The destruction of the known order of things by allowing people to vent out their desires and instincts once a year was necessary to maintain the establishment of such order. Creating chaos was the only rule; it was a blank cheque to debauchery.

Italians still have a saying: “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (during Carnival any kind of trick goes). Morality and taboos drop, transgression takes over, the boundaries between evil and good, profane and sacred, blur.

READ ALSO: Did Valentine’s Day really originate in Italy?

The Saturnali were the celebration of a topsy-turvy subversive world, where disguises and masks concealed identities and allowed revelers to act with total freedom and commit all sorts of mischief.

Sexuality plays a key part: extreme sexual activity and sex role reversal triggered a strong fertility force believed to regenerate nature ahead of spring.

February was also when the empire honored the Febbris goddess, worshipped by the pre-Roman Etruscans too as a bringer of purification.

“The Ancient Romans had another festival as well during our period of Carnival; it was called Lupercali in honor of the god-wolf Luperco, otherwise known as Caco or Fauno, whose cult hails back to the Etruscans”, says Franchetti.

(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Luperco represented the most vicious human passions and animal instincts, and in his name a free pass to perversion was granted to the people.

According to Franchetti, who studied ancient sources, during the Lupercali drunk partygoers would wrap themselves in animal skins, before taking them off to run naked across the Roman forum – men, women and slaves alike. Random coupling and animal sacrifices were carried out. 

The nakedness symbolized that, for one moment of the year, all were equal. Wars paused, famine became a momentary abundance of food. It was a break from the harsh reality of authority. During one such Lupercali it is said even Julius Caesar participated and foresaw his future coronation as emperor, as in a vision.

When Christianity came along it overlapped with these pagan celebrations, making the need for social release even stronger.

Catholicism regulated and integrated carnival into the Christian calendar, marking it as a pre-Lent festivity.  And Lent, the 40-days period of reflection and profound soul-cleansing in preparation for Easter with fasting and penance, stopped the wild parties.

READ ALSO: Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy’s Epiphany holiday has a curious history

Franchetti explains that the origin of the term ‘carnival’ stems from the Latin ‘carnem levare’, meaning ‘farewell to meat’, to mark Shrove Tuesday, the last day when eating fat or meat, considered an extravagance, was still allowed before Lent.

The perception and existence of a tyrannical church that terrified sinners with images of hell and punished vices, lust and amorality, only intensified peoples’ desire to have fun during carnival. 

And even the clergy couldn’t resist the party: for two centuries during the middle ages masked priests celebrated “the feast of the crazy” by using sausages instead of sacramental bread for mass. 

“If it wants to survive, society’s structured order needs Carnival as a momentary worship of chaos and disorder, to justify and strengthen such order”, says Franchetti.

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