A man in front of Raphaël's “Self-portrait” painting - ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP

No, the coronavirus is not just Covid-19, but a family of viruses. To say that it has existed for hundreds of years would be an understatement, and a new study provides us with proof. A popular myth is that the painter Raphaël, whose 500th anniversary of death is celebrated this year, died in 1520, at only 37, of syphilis after courting one lady too many. But experts agree that he died from an infection.

A feverish Raphael suffering from "coronavirus-like disease" died after failing to tell his doctors that he was secretly visiting his conquests on freezing nights, which led them to wrongly prescribe bloodletting, says a new study devoted to the master of the Renaissance. The fever that struck down the prolific painter and architect was cured by "the best doctors in Rome, sent by the pope" who feared losing this invaluable artist, said medical historian Michele Augusto Riva to AFP.

The diagnosis of a fever caused by an "excess of moods"

According to the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Raphael omitted to speak to doctors of his time about his "frequent nocturnal outings in the cold" to visit his lovers. "It was much colder in March at that time, and it is very likely that he had pneumonia," said Michele Riva.

Doctors diagnosed a fever caused by an "excess of moods" or blood and therefore carried out bleeding - via incisions or leeches - which mortally weakened the artist, a child prodigy belonging to the trio of masters of the Renaissance, with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Raphael was entitled to his grandiose funeral at the Vatican. His remains rest in the Pantheon in Rome where a red rose adorns his grave throughout the year 2020, marking the half-millennium of his disappearance.

The dangers of bloodletting

"At that time, doctors were aware of the dangers of bleeding in the treatment of infectious diseases, but they acted on the basis of false information," said Michele Riva, who co-signed the study with three fellow researchers from the University of Milan Bicocca. "A medical error, and his own error in not telling his story faithfully, contributed to Raphael's death," he said.

Researchers had prepared the short study, which was published this week in the journal Internal and Emergency Medicine , before the Covid-19 took over northern Italy in late February. "From what we know, Raphael died of a lung disease very similar to the coronavirus we know today," he said.

Contemporary accounts of his death reveal that the painter's illness "lasted 15 days, Raphael being calm enough to put his affairs in order, confess his sins and receive the last sacraments", according to the study. She indicates that it was an acute illness, characterized by a high and continuous fever.

A sexually transmitted infection put aside

"A recent sexually transmitted infection - like gonorrhea and syphilis - couldn't explain the incubation period." “An acute manifestation of viral hepatitis could not be considered without jaundice and other signs of liver failure. No epidemic of typhus or plague was reported in the city of Rome at that time, "said the study.

Despite his untimely death, Raphael produced a large quantity of major works, a large part of which is in the Vatican, whose museums include several rooms filled with his frescoes. Completed by Raphael's pupils after his death, these rooms known as "Raphael's Rooms" remain among the most popular of the Vatican museums.


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  • Culture
  • Italy
  • Coronavirus
  • Raphael
  • Painting