CSI: Italian Renaissance

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tags: skeletons, Renaissance, Smithsonian Magazine, CAT scans

High on the facade of Santa Maria Antica, among soaring Gothic spires and forbidding statues of knights in armor, pathologist Gino Fornaciari prepared to examine a corpse. Accompanied by workmen, he had climbed a 30-foot scaffold erected against this medieval church in Verona, Italy, and watched as they used hydraulic jacks to raise the massive lid of a marble sarcophagus set in a niche. Peering inside, Fornaciari found the body of a male in his 30s, wearing a long silk mantle, arms crossed on his chest. The abdomen was distended from postmortem putrefaction, although Fornaciari caught no scent of decomposition, only a faint waft of incense. He and the laborers eased the body onto a stretcher and lowered it to the ground; after dark, they loaded it into a van and drove to a nearby hospital, where Fornaciari began a series of tests to determine why the nobleman died—and how he had lived.

The victim, it appeared, had suffered from several chronic and puzzling conditions. A CT scan and digital X-ray revealed a calcification of the knees, as well as a level of arthritis in elbows, hips and lumbar vertebrae surprisingly advanced for anyone this young. A bronchoscopy showed severe anthracosis, similar to black lung, although he hadn’t been a miner, or even a smoker. Histological analysis of liver cells detected advanced fibrosis, although he had never touched hard liquor. Yet Fornaciari, a professor in the medical school at the University of Pisa, saw that none of these conditions likely had killed him.

Of course, Fornaciari had heard rumors that the man had been poisoned, but he discounted them as probable fabrications. “I’ve worked on several cases where there were rumors of poisonings and dark plots,” Fornaciari told me later. “They usually turn out to be just that, mere legends, which fall apart under scientific scrutiny.” He recited the victim’s symptoms in Latin, just as he had read them in a medieval chronicle: corporei fluxus stomachique doloris acuti . . . et febre ob laborem exercitus: “ diarrhea and acute stomach pains, belly disturbances . . . and fever from his labors with the army.”...

Read entire article at Smithsonian Magazine

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