ER,  Italy,  Western Europe

Renaissance Zombies

Woodcut from 1497 showing syphilis patients Photo Credit-© SCIENCE SOURCE/COLORIZATION BY JESSICA WILSON

Most people are aware of the resurgence of zombies in popular culture.  What most people don’t realize that there was a time in history when the streets of Italy resembled The Walking Dead.  The syphilis outbreak in the High Renaissance was very close to a zombie outbreak in the most cosmopolitan parts of Europe.

The Italian Renaissance was a time of great learning, art and culture.  There was flamboyant dress, parties and promiscuity.  However, it was also a time of great disease.  Syphilis was sweeping the population, and every country was pointing the finger at each other for the source.  The English and Italians called it “the French disease”, the French called it the “Disease of Naples”, the Russians called it the “Polish disease”, the Polish and the Persians called it the “Turkish disease”, the Turkish called it the “Christian disease”.  In India it was called the “Portuguese disease”, in Japan it was called the “Chinese pox”, and there are some references to it being called the “Persian fire”.  Supposedly, it was brought from the New World to the Old by Columbus’ sailors after returning from their 1493 voyage.  However, later studies have led to conflicting evidence about this.

It was so deadly that smallpox, which is a terrible disease in itself, was called “small” as syphilis as “the Great Pox”.  The term “syphilis” comes from an epic poem written in Latin called Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus, ‘Syphilis, or the French disease’, published in 1530 by Girolamo Fracastoro.  Syphilis was the main character of the poem and the mythical patient zero.  The name stuck.

Today, Syphilis can be cured by a round of antibiotics.  Not so in the Renaissance.  The epidemic started in 1494 when Charles VIII of France invaded Naples in the Italian Wars with a force of 50,000 soldiers and a large artillery train.  The soldiers were mercenaries from all over Europe- Flemish, Gascon, Swiss, Italian and Spanish.  The conquest was complete by early 1495, and the French led forces began to celebrate as victorious soldiers are wont to do.  Soon they returned home, and realized they brought with them more than tales of battle.

Cesare Borgia, who contracted syphilis in 1497 when he was 22. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

The disease started with genital ulcers, then a fever with a rash and joint and muscle pains.  Then once this was gone, large abscesses developed all over the body.  These pocks were foul-smelling and extremely painful, and could develop into ulcers that could eat into bone.  These sores would destroy the nose lips and eyes.  It was not uncommon to see noblemen and peasant alike on the streets of Venice missing parts of their face, with rotting flesh and exposed muscle and bone.  Patients would drag themselves around and body parts would literally drop off them.  The famous and rich were not spared as even Cesare Borgia came down with the dreaded disease.  His personal doctor, Gaspar Torella, carefully recorded his symptoms and attempted cures.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many of those around.  The mercury cure was the most popular, but while it could work it also poisoned the patient.  In the end, Cesare Borgia was forced to wear a mask to cover his once handsome face as it was disfigured by rotting flesh and bone.  Like many others, the disease ate away at him for months and years before his death.  Truly making it a death in life.


Sources available on request