Medicine in ancient art: this 14th century Italian fresco is the first to get leprosy right

If you were to visit Buonamico Buffalmacco’s “The Triumph of Death” in the Monumental Cemetery of Pisa, Italy, you would see an 18-by-50-foot wall taken up by a huge, panoramic fresco. Noblemen on horseback stand above three decomposing corpses. Horrified women turn away; others hold their noses in disgust (click the image to zoom).

Buonamico_Buffalmacco_001

The middle of the painting (on the bottom) has been badly damaged, but a reproduction from the photo library of the Federico Zeri Foundation shows what appeared in that spot: an image of a group of beggars, two of whom are very clearly afflicted with leprosy.

Buffalmacco lepers

What you might not realize is that you’re looking at the first truly accurate depiction of leprosy known to exist in Western art.

Traditionally, most medieval art took on a stereotypical depiction of lepers, who were shown grimacing with their bodies covered in red spots.

plague
Image credit: NPR

In reality, the disease is much more grisly. Because the mycobacterium responsible prefers cooler temperatures, extremities suffered the most. Infected people would lose noses, hands, and feet; many would go blind. The lepers in Buffalmacco’s fresco are missing hands and noses; one of them wears a blindfold and walks with a cane.

This is a startling intersection of medicine and art that allows us to get a true glimpse into the 14th century — to see clearly through the lens of the artist, who was likely an eye witness to the ancient disease.

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