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A Different Way To Look at Great Art (a story found on the Web)

January 6th, 2010 (06:44 pm)

current mood: curious

Did High Cholesterol Dim Mona Lisa's Smile?

 Theunis Bates Contributor
LONDON (Jan. 6) -- When most people gaze on the Mona Lisa, they see a great beauty with a beguiling smile. Not Vito Franco, professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Palermo. He sees a woman with a dangerously unhealthy diet.

According to Franco, Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous subject suffered from worryingly high levels of cholesterol. He made that diagnosis after spotting signs of xanthelasma -- a build up of yellowish fatty acids under the skin -- under Mona's left eye, as well as subcutaneous lipomas, benign tumors composed of fatty tissue, on her hands.

And the Mona Lisa isn't the only great work showing signs of sickness. Over the past two years, Franco has scoured about 100 masterpieces for previously undetected maladies and found evidence of everything from kidney stones to hormonal woes in aristocrats, Madonnas, angels and legendary heroes -- or at least, the models that posed for the paintings.
Mona Lisa
An Italian pathologist has a belated diagnosis for Da Vinci's most famous subject: high cholesterol.

"I look at art with a different eye from an art expert," Franco told the London Times, "much as a mathematician listens to music in a different way from a music critic."

His medical background gives him a fascinating insight into the real people behind famous works. He has noted that two of the most famous figures from renaissance art -- long judged to be epitomes of elegance -- were probably afflicted with Marfan syndrome, a rare condition that affects the connective tissue and can result in a sudden, early death.

The first Marfan sufferer is the young nobleman in Sandro Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man (on display at the National Gallery in Washington), whose unnaturally long, thin fingers are a tell-tale indicator of the disease. The graceful, sinewy woman who posed for Parmigianino's 1530s work Madonna With the Long Neck also has similarly spider-like hands.

But the models weren't the only sick ones. Raphael's The School of Athens shows the artist Michelangelo with painfully swollen knees. Franco told Italian daily La Stampa that this swelling could "indicate an excess of uric acid," probably attributable to Michelangelo "living off nothing but bread and wine as he worked day and night on his masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel."

Other artists, such as Dutch magical realist Dick Ket, unwittingly traced the progression of their illnesses through their work. Ket, who died of a congenital heart defect at the age of 37 in 1940, left behind about 140 works, 40 of which were self-portraits. One of these, painted in the year before his death, shows Ket with swollen fingertips, a common side effect of several heart and lung complaints. "In a painting seven years before, his fingers are less deformed," Franco said. "But it shows an abnormal swelling of the veins on his neck -- a sign of the same syndrome, but in its initial phase."

This new field of research, which Franco calls "icono-diagnostics," has some obvious limitations. Exactly what ailed the models in Picasso's abstract-angular masterworks, for example, is unlikely to be diagnosed anytime soon.

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