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Art in the Time of Syphilis: A Digital Humanities Approach toward Considering a Medical Narrative in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography

Published onSep 14, 2021
Art in the Time of Syphilis: A Digital Humanities Approach toward Considering a Medical Narrative in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography

Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), an artist who worked across media as a goldsmith and sculptor, wrote an autobiography (Vita) narrating his experiences, health, and work. The aim of this analysis is to show conceptual complementarity across cultural productions by Cellini, reflecting the artist’s experience of cyclical “states of health” around his personal crisis when he suffered from “the French disease,” that is, syphilis, and later recovered from it.1 In particular, his physical and emotional health became a leading theme of his narration, as well as a key for interpreting nature through art. Through digital humanities (DH) methods and tools, this study shows Cellini’s medical narrative to be interconnected to his sculpture of Perseus. By tracing medical clues in Cellini’s autobiography and his statue Perseus in Florence (ca. 1545–1554; 1548–1552, according to Cole, Cellini p. 227), it outlines interpretive perspectives about material aspects of what Cellini represented in the Perseus statue: a symbolic victory and recovery from his own bouts with syphilis that he described in his autobiography. 

In the first lines in the autobiography, Cellini confessed that he wanted to “write about his troubled life […] to thank God, the creator of nature, who gave life […] and took care of it” while “accomplishing important feats and living.”2 This passage demonstrates perceptions about personal experiences that appear in Cellini’s writing and artwork. To discuss Cellini’s texts and artworks in the mid-sixteenth century, I expanded my analysis of cultural products related to syphilis to include medical texts by Andreas Vesalius, and poems on that disease by Antonio Cammelli. By assembling a corpus of autobiographical writing from syphilis survivors in the Renaissance, this analysis shows that features of Cellini’s colloquial language contribute to his understanding of nature, and to the human experiences of illness and health. 

The first text that I analyzed was the autobiography by Cellini, a first-person narrative that he dictated to one of his workshop’s helpers between 1558 and 1562. It contains more than 160,000 words (161,537 words total, and 99,997 occurrences of words).3 By counting word frequencies and a range of their co-occurrences, as words in close proximity to medical key terms, it has been possible to ascertain colloquial, less standardized vocabulary in the medical field. As Crystal Hall has discussed regarding methods at the intersection of Italian Studies and digital humanities, unresolved questions of digital methods for non-Anglo DH remain an important aspect to consider, addressing issues raised by Domenico Fiormonte on Anglo-, or non-Anglo digital humanities (Hall 98). This case study in Italian text analysis builds on statistical occurrences of words, in particular medical terms and action verbs that are traced and compared to the significance of the scientific terminology, in Italian and Latin respectively. In addition to highlighting vocabulary specific to syphilis, I also crafted a customized list of stop words for early modern Italian. The goal was to find a list of the most common words while also preventing stop words, i.e., terms that are fillers in syntactic structures, from impacting word counts and statistical considerations in the list of relevant words. Through text analysis, I searched for the most common words, as well as the least common words, and I extended my inquiries to also examine a sample of words that seem to be less representative statistically – since ranges of words without highest or lowest frequencies have been recognized as meaningful textual areas by David Hoover (2013). I have run quantitative text analysis in R, so I first tokenized the text into words.4 For the specific case of the Italian vernacular, tokenizing syntactic units based on sentence length (4,039 sentences) does not seem representative for Renaissance texts in Italian, prior to standardized punctuation and capitalizations, given that textual divisions differ in manuscript-based editions and revised editions (Arnold and Tilton).

To expand my corpus with a more specialized text from Cellini’s times, I analyzed a medical text by Andreas Vesalius, which he wrote as a letter to a colleague around twelve years before Cellini completed his autobiography. The letter by Vesalius, written in Latin, was translated into current European vernaculars, and I used the ancient Italian translation of the letter to retrieve textual proximities and retrace key terms related to syphilis as correlated to verbs, adjectives, and personal pronouns that are representative of medical viewpoints, as opposed to patients’ personal experiences (Epistola; Bertrandi; trans. Garrison). Including the autobiography by Cellini and a medical treatise by Vesalius into the corpus allowed me to compare different texts discussing syphilis in the same decades, though they vary in genre, scope, and intentions. The resulting text analysis can illuminate the type of synthesis in which Cellini’s physical experience found expression, as contrasted with the technical account in the letter by Vesalius (Bertrandi 340–343). 

Vesalius, a renowned physician, had written an open letter to his friend and colleague Joachim Roelants reporting his experience as the imperial physician to Emperor Charles V. The letter, titled The China-Root Epistle (Ratisbon, 13 June 1546), had two main goals: first, promoting his anatomical methods and theories, as described in his foundational anatomical atlas, De humani corporis fabrica (The Structure of the Human Body, 1543), and second, revising Galen’s classical notions of anatomy. Vesalius also described the clinical case of when the emperor had contracted syphilis, and he included a recipe for a new herbal remedy, the China root (Smilax chinae), that Vesalius recommended and endorsed as an effective treatment for the disease. The China root medication was a viable alternative remedy that did not cause the same terrible side effects as mercury, the most common remedy for syphilis.5 Since Vesalius tended to describe syphilis symptoms in general terms, he concentrated not on the patient or the patient’s experience, privileging instead a description and interpretation of current pharmaceutical remedies. For example, in the repeated occurrence of the word “aforementioned” (i.e., the China root), there is likely some intentional reticence and secrecy for a remedy that was new in the pharmaceutical and medical markets. While Vesalius would not mention the remedy directly, he also trusted his friend and colleague not to miss hints towards a confidential account of a disease affecting an emperor. Additionally, a medical-oriented audience is addressed implicitly, with verbs in the future tense being the most common ones, given the prescriptive message that Vesalius intended to communicate, and the prescriptive message to heal future patients. In addition to the recipe to prepare China root remedies for syphilis, Vesalius also described ways to recognize the new drug, and guard against possible adulterations.

The most frequent words in each text I considered is connected to their significance for a physical and psychological experience. High-occurrence words in Vesalius’ Epistola are “water” (“acqua”), “body” (“corpo”), “aforementioned” (“detta”), “root” (“radice”), and “days” (“giorni”). These words form a sequence of terms in pharmaceutical prescriptions: the body affected by syphilis would improve towards recovery, when physicians provided their patients with the root-infused water, or a distillation made from water and the aforementioned China root for approximately twenty-five days. Cellini, in contrast, used the first person to narrate his experience throughout his autobiography. This emphasis on the first-person experience is sustained throughout the autobiography, so that physical and psychological experiences are presented through the author’s narrating voice. Across personal and social experiences of syphilis, words such “corpo” (“body”), “disgrazia” (“suffering”), “medico” (“doctor”), and “medicaccio” (“bad doctor”) occur frequently in Cellini’s autobiography as correlated medical experiences of the artist as a patient. According to Paul L. Wolf, in the secondary stage of syphilis, characterized by what is known as a “vesicular rash,” Cellini refused mercury therapy for fear of side effects (1457). The artist, instead, took guaiacum, that he called “wood” (“legno”) as he translated the Latin terms “lignum vitae” or “lignum sanctum” (Vita I, 59). H. S. Carter, however, had reserves about Cellini ever contracting syphilis, on the argument that he reached old age (Carter 321). The final solution to Cellini’s problems with syphilis occurred accidentally, when some deceitful people conspired to poison him so that they could turn their temporary usufruct of the artist’s property into permanent land ownership. They served him a sauce containing sublimate, a dangerous, corrosive mercury compound (“silimato,” Vita II, 104–105), but instead of killing him, as they had planned, the amount of mercury was small enough to cure Cellini’s syphilis and let him survive.6 This poisoning episode resembles a resurrection and a return to life for the artist, as had occurred earlier during the Perseus and Medusa casting (Vita II, 77). After he was partially poisoned by mercury sublimate, physician Francesco da Monte Varchi and surgeon Raffaello de’ Pilli healed Cellini for six months, and saved his life, and within a year Cellini had recovered as well as he could (Cellini, Vita II, 104–105, Cellini asked for justice to the Grand Duke in Leghorn, II, 108; see Carter 326–327 and Wolf 1458).

Though the earliest descriptions of experiences with syphilis in the Italian vernacular are found in several sonnets and satirical poems written by the poet Antonio Cammelli in the first decade of his experience of the French disease around the year 1500, there was not a uniform vocabulary to discuss the disease until Girolamo Fracastoro, Niccolò Massa, and Gabriele Falloppio wrote their treatises in Latin and Italian (Cappelli and Ferrari, pp. xlix–xlli). When the French king Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, syphilis epidemics seemed to start in Italy. Before Fracastoro’s lexical normalization, the disease was known as the “French disease” among Italians, Cellini included (“morbo Gallico” Vita I, 59), in reference to when French soldiers captured Naples in 1495, allegedly bringing the disease to Naples, or back from Naples. Despite geographic differences in European languages, similar names were used for foreign disbanded soldiers accused of spreading syphilis.7 On a geopolitical level, xenophobic claims for syphilis have been discussed, among others, by Claude Quétel in a study of historical theories on the origin of syphilis.8 The word “syphilis” was introduced into Italian, from Latin, through Fracastoro’s poem in Latin, Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus (“Syphilis, that is, the French Disease,” 1530). Thus, the disease of Syphilus, a shepherd in Fracastoro’s epic poem in Latin, became a popular and common usage term also in Italian translations, as in other languages in Europe. 

During his work on the Perseus statue project, from 1545 to 1554, Cellini seems to have suffered from the French disease, which he claimed to have contracted when he was twenty-nine years old, in 1529, possibly from intercourse with a model (Vita I, 52, 59; Wolf 1457).  Symptoms of syphilis varied from patient to patient, but skin rash, vision impairment, breathing problems, lymphatic swellings, and joint pain would have been essential signs to look for when Renaissance doctors would diagnose it. Syphilis doctors were in high demand in Rome, and Cellini was prescribed ointments and leeches, remedies which helped momentarily with the skin rash. In Rome, Cellini had a chance to meet the famous physician Berengario da Carpi, a popular doctor specializing in syphilis, who had found himself forced to stay longer in Rome because of the plague.9 Medical studies by Carter and Wolf have documented the co-occurrence of malaria and syphilis, both of which caused Cellini to suffer fevers, rash, and megalomania.10 Cellini’s fever improved his symptoms, according to physician Wolf. When Cellini began work on his Perseus sculpture, his syphilis had become tertiary, according to Carter and Wolf. 

Other early texts discussing personal experiences of the French disease are found in the collection of poems by Antonio Cammelli, who claimed that he and his two sons had contracted syphilis in 1494.11 Cammelli wrote poems on the physical and psychological effects of the French disease. In one of those poems, Cammelli addressed the piercing pain caused by syphilis and the physician’s operating tools, both called “stilo” – the first meaning of which being a dagger or a blade, thus a synonym for a lancet, and the other one being a variant for “stile,” a writer’s style.12 Through that word, the poet found, and expressed meaningful affinities between writers’ literary styles, as rhetorical devices and genres, and physicians’ lancets, respectively.13 Statistical comparisons show that Cellini’s writings were more concerned about his disease than texts (letters and poems) by Cammelli. When Cammelli wrote a letter to the Marquis of Mantua on 10 January 1501 explaining his personal pain and distress, and that of his family (“la importunità de la mia galicha egritudine,” ‘the distress of my Gallic malady,’ Cappelli, ed. xlix–li), he confessed his family’s, and private, concerns as he demanded justice after a Spanish charlatan had failed to cure one of his sons. Personal and social agency are important textual markers for syphilis, a personal and a social disease with moral stigma, and the social shame soon associated with it impacted patients, their families, and health practitioners, while also bringing legal liabilities for charlatans. 

Through quantitative text analysis, it is possible to track human and non-human agents in verbal markers for syphilis, as an examination of the use of active and passive voices connects to concepts of personal and professional agencies. In my analysis, I investigated concepts such as the agency of human beings or syphilis itself, through verbal cues regarding syphilis signs, therapy, and contrasting experiences of disability and alleged normalcy. That approach allowed me to explore a research question that I extended from David Turnbull’s historical study of malaria, in which the historian argued that the condition of malaria is proven to exist by correlated diseases whose drug treatments can reverse malaria as well (Turnbull 168). The interaction between malaria and syphilis had been noted as early as 1539 by physician Roy Diaz De Isla, who noticed that malaria had a “minimal therapeutic value” on syphilis (Wolf 1458).14 The results of syphilis-related text analysis queries show that verbs used by Cellini and Vesalius describe early signs, treatment, and recovery in syphilis cases. Those verbs constitute formal features to track and analyze conceptual shifts typical of linguistic structures in Latin and Romance languages, regarding personal experiences of syphilis, including Cellini’s experience as a patient, and Vesalius’ experience as the physician to Emperor Charles V. As a professional medical observer, Vesalius used the third person and passive voice to describe his experience as a physician, so that he was attributing implicit agency to syphilis, a non-human agent, on the patient affected by it. Cellini, instead, used the active voice and first person to describe his experience as a patient, which corresponds to his assuming agency to himself as a human, and an artist representing both the struggle and the recovery in his Perseus statue, as much as in his own autobiography later. The link between that kind of autobiographical narrative styles and syphilis is evident in the coexistence of active and passive voices of verbs in the past tense (the Italian past tense being expressed, in Cellini’s autobiography, through “passato remoto,” a tense expressing completed actions in a distant past), as opposed to descriptions of physical and emotional states in which physicians cause an impression on the artist (“mi,” “me”). In the text by Vesalius, instead, impressions are recorded in more detached ways, in the third person, with health conditions described as static, more often than intense actions, feelings, and changes. Thus, syphilis can change the person affected, as is the case for Cellini, or the patient is affected by it, and that passive experience can be overwhelming.

Though the autobiography by Cellini is extant only in one manuscript that was never completed, ending mid-sentence, the text is an important source of medical information. It remained a piece of unpublished prose for over 150 years, until a physician named Antonio Cocchi published it in 1728 (Baldini 1982; Guerrini 2002). Cocchi, who was interested in the antiquarian book market and finding and purchasing textual and material sources for the history of science and medicine, edited and published a manuscript he had found, titled Vita di Benvenuto Cellini (“The Life of Benvenuto Cellini”). Like Cellini, Cocchi was a polymath and lifelong learner, and he taught himself ancient and modern languages. Cocchi appreciated Cellini’s autobiography as a primary source for learning about medical topics from pre-modern times, and his investigations inspired later medical and historical studies. Cocchi used his medical and philological knowledge to study Cellini’s physical and behavioural conditions. He became interested in the physical and psychological experiences that Cellini discussed in his autobiography, such as syphilis, malaria, recurring fevers, and injuries (Carter 317–319). Just as Cellini’s text was rediscovered by Cocchi, so was Vesalius’ Epistola on the China root similarly recovered and revived through printed, edited versions. It circulated for a few years after it was first printed in 1546, then was published once again in an anthology of sources on syphilis in 1728, the same year that Cellini’s autobiography was published (Luisini et al.).

This study’s connections across media and texts build on Michael Cole’s argument that studying sculpture and literature are comparable activities, as Cellini viewed both forms of expression equally (Cellini, p. 162).15 I find that Cellini’s seal project for the Accademia del Disegno is one example of how nature was revealed and understood through the language and tools of sculpture as interchangeable means of communication. In Cellini’s project, now at the British Museum, two sets of the Italian alphabet accompany a personification of Nature – one of them made of standard capital letters of the alphabet, and the second one represented through the instruments of painting, sculpture, and architecture taking the shapes of uppercase letters.

Figure 1: Project for a seal of the Accademia del Disegno by Benvenuto Cellini. Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The coexistence of visual and textual hints is traceable in the Perseus statue, as the artwork was made by the artist, and described at length in his autobiography. The Perseus statue was commissioned by the Medici family to be displayed in Florence in a central position across Palazzo Vecchio. In Florence, at the Loggia dei Lanzi, passers-by would see the prominent statue of the hero of Greek mythology, Perseus, holding the head of Medusa, at the centre of Florentine political and cultural life. When Cellini succeeded in casting his Perseus in a miraculous and childbirth-like event, that accomplishment parallels Cellini’s miraculous recovery from syphilis.16 The prevailing understanding in art history is that Perseus stands in victory, an allusion to the Medici family who commissioned the statue and insisted on their triumphal returning to power in Florence (Cole, Cellini 5–9). According to theories of the “markings in things” popular in the Renaissance (in Latin, “signatura rerum”), medical conditions such as health, illness, and recovery are visible in physical traits, both in the human face and in things, but also in remedies supposed to heal diseases. Allegorical layers of meaning are represented in the statue Perseus, and in the description of the extraordinary accomplishments to plan, cast, and complete it. 

The hero and the artist are two facets of the same survivor story, with Perseus surviving his battle with Medusa and the artist surviving syphilis. There is a conceptual link between the Perseus statue and syphilis through details of blood coagulation. Cellini believed that a miracle had occurred when he rescued the bronze alloy and saved the statue from overheating. In the furnace, there was a rumble and a lightning, which called for more metal to be added to protect the statue that was being cast. Cellini gathered approximately 200 metal items from his kitchen, and added them to the furnace (Vita II, 77). Then, he prayed to God and had dinner with his employees; as the statue was saved in a sort of “revivification” (Cole 221), so the artist later managed to recover his health (Vita II, 73–78).17 Cellini’s health, illness, and recovery were perceived by the artist as miracles, all of which are extraordinary to see. Starting with Medusa’s head, and the Perseus statue casting in general, a remarkable accomplishment was a single-piece bronze (Cole 219–222), and Cellini regarded the furnace night “cosa miracolosa” (Vita II, 78; “miraculum” being a thing to see, “mirare,” in Latin). Furthermore, the casting of Perseus, in Cellini’s words, bears resemblance to child-bearing, and scholars have discussed the role of bronze as an alchemical metal, and an element that carries life within it.18

Figure 2: Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa, ca. 1545–1554. Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (

Statues, however, can also be analyzed as long as there are images of them, so I have compared statues and paintings on the theme of Perseus and Medusa, blood and coagulation in anatomical treatises, and coral which would arise from the contact of Medusa’s blood with seaweed. The detailed representations of blood, according to Cole, show that “its flow could become the origin of art itself.” Furthermore, blood from Cellini’s Medusa also hints at a mythological message, since its coagulations are called “gorgoni” in Cellini’s inventory, and the term was another word for corals (Cole 227–230; Trottein 141). In addition to analyzing textual accounts of Cellini’s illness, I used digital tools to examine and compare images of Cellini’s sculptures. The sculpture of Perseus represents a universal, atemporal ideal encompassing all ages of man, according to Gwendolyn Trottein.19 A similar piece, a statuette of Ganymede with Eagle and Eaglet (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), expresses ideals of male youth, beauty, and seduction.20 These sculptures also reveal autobiographical dimensions, which I have examined by analyzing images of the sculptures using the webtool ARIES (ARt Image Exploration Space) developed at The Frick Collection in New York City.21 The ARIES tool has allowed me to search for and compare images based on visual traits and associated metadata. I collected open-access images found in Wikimedia Commons, the Frick Digital CollectionsPHAROS, and the New York Art Resources Consortium. To analyze the similarity of these images, those digital collections are projects using automated matching through the unsupervised recognition of flat and textured objects. Such built-in computer vision analysis allows scholars to explore sets of images assembled by topic or author, as well as details in those images. In particular, PHAROS has provided computer vision support relying on the probabilistic identification of semantic entities within images, and I have explored this type of technology for two-dimensional objects with the intention of supporting accessible resources and methods for the Perseus statue.22 Thus, quantitative text analysis and the analysis of images using digital tools have expanded this investigation’s scope in ways that would not be possible manually.

Though every artistic work may be considered autobiographical to some degree, Cellini’s depiction of Medusa seems influenced by his sufferings from a disease such as syphilis, as a radical reaction to an unnatural condition. In the theme of Medusa, Victoria C. Gardner Coates has found an allegory that inspired Cellini for many statues and objects.23 An artwork by another artist, Piero di Cosimo’s painting of the mythological story “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” (tempera on wood, circa 1510–1515, currently at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence), shows Perseus leaving Medusa’s severed head on some seaweed. From Medusa’s severed head, coral would originate, according to a reading of Ovid’s passage in the Metamorphoses about Perseus, a known theme among readers in Tuscany thanks to the Italian versions circulating in the Renaissance. Passages from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, a popular source for encyclopedic information in the Renaissance and early modern period, mentioned the supposed therapeutic powers of coral for a variety of diseases, as well as its magical uses. In addition to classical knowledge and mythological explanations of nature, in the mid-sixteenth century, collections of coral had a remarkable position in the Medici “guardaroba,” a storeroom or cabinet of artifacts and natural wonders (Archivio di Stato di Firenze); later, when it was moved to Palazzo Pitti, one room today displays part of the coral collections (Cole, “Cellini’s Blood” 229).24 Coral collections seem to reinforce a sense of permanence for the Medici return to power after the Florentine republic, so that the Perseus statue and the coral iconography convey a message of energy that is both physical and political (Alberts 5). 

I have run comparisons through ARIES of various photographs of Cellini’s Perseus in Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air gallery of statues, with slightly different angles and cropping settings. Such digital approach had not been designed expressly for analysis of statues in ARIES, however, the method I adapted allows to avoid the necessity of creating 3D scans of sculptures or seeking legal authorizations from cultural deputies at the Italian government to study the Perseus statue in downtown Florence with drone technologies for 3D analysis of sculpture surfaces without getting too close. Analysis of 2D images makes the digital analysis of statues and other 3D visual sources more accessible for art history and medical humanities.

Analyzing the facial traits of the Perseus statue and a self-portrait by Cellini reveals connections between the mythological hero and Cellini’s authorial self-fashioning. Cellini, who had started his career as a goldsmith, made coins, medallions, seals, and customized objects such as surgical tools. I interpret the facial traits in the Perseus statue as a first-person portrait, drawing on the reflections of Cole and other art historians who showed that there is a hidden self-portrait of the artist, Cellini, sketched on the helmet, in the back of the head of Perseus (Cole 215–218).25 Using the “Rect” function in the ARIES tool, I could select areas in the image, to compare images of Perseus’s face and the back of the helmet to scale. Cellini had discussed the unveiling of Medusa’s and Perseus’ heads once he opened the furnace after casting the statue (Vita II, 78). These revealed similarities between the face of the Greek hero and the artist’s self-portrait that one can see on the back of the hero’s head, as if the images were two sides of a coin, as has been argued by scholars interested in Cellini’s Perseus

Figure 3: Comparing the face of Perseus and the back of his helmet using the ARIES tool. 

The accurate knowledge of anatomy was a way to match, and thus replicate nature, and to express what the artist observed and represented truthfully, so that precision became a criterion that would increase or decrease an artist’s reputation. Medicine is an underlying theme of Cellini’s work, acting as a filter through which he discussed his own identity and career. In that sense, Cellini may have felt it necessary for pursuing his artistic interests (Medusa’s head being detailed, “come di notomia” Vita II, 61). Such synthesis of textual and artistic work by Cellini can set relevant cultural backgrounds for early modern epidemics. Grammar markers such as active or passive voices and the use of past and present tenses demonstrate how verbs are important carriers of meaning in the Italian and Latin texts I compared and integrated, in addition to conceptual words being captured in nouns. Through quantitative text analysis and analysis of 2D visual images, the numerous views of syphilis that circulated in the mid-sixteenth century emerge as coexisting theories marked by lexical and conceptual distinctions. Being a reliable observer of nature meant expressing accuracy in anatomy, a point that became clear after he received criticism about the precision and accuracy of his anatomical details from fellow artist Baccio Bandinelli and the Perseus commissioner, the Medici Grand Duke. Cellini, however, argued he could represent nature better, as he could see it better.26

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