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Titian portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (c.1528) that was recently discovered in London’s National Gallery (via IBT, photo by National Gallery)

It seems like ever other month a new painting by an Old or New Master is being rediscovered after a stint of obscurity in someone’s palazzo, basement, yard sale, or, in this case, in museum storage. London’s National Gallery, which you’d think would know exactly what it had, has discovered what they believe to be a painting of Girolamo Fracastoro, the man who “discovered” syphilis, by the great Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. The painting was long attributed to the Master but no one has gone out on a limb to say it is most certainly by Titian.

Now, this news may be fascinating in and of itself, but the reason why Titian painted Fracastoro is more curious and Jonathan Jones of The Guardian offers this take (emphasis and link ours):

A visitor to Titian’s studio by the Grand Canal in the 1520s claimed the painter was exhausted from sleeping with his models – a claim that seems to fit the sheer enthusiasm of his paintings of women. But now his name can be linked with another, more painful aspect of sexuality in Renaissance Italy.

Glaring back proudly from a portrait newly attributed to Titian stands a famous doctor who gave the most terrifying sexually transmitted disease of those times the name “syphilis”.

Girolamo Fracastoro analysed the pox in an epic poem in which he coins its modern medical name. The searing infection that he was one of the first to study probably came to Europe from the Americas soon after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. Italians also called it the French disease, because French soldiers carried it into Italy in 1494. It ravaged faces and bodies, and another painting of a doctor in the National Gallery was done by the artist Lorenzo Costa as a thank you for curing his dose.

Is it just possible that Titian paid for a syphilis cure with a portrait? If so, it would not be the only astonishing thing about this painting, which has just been rediscovered in the basement of the National Gallery.

Well, that’s all the evidence Jones offers, but it does bring up the funny reality that Fracastoro is best remembered for his poem on syphilis, which seems like a rather odd fate in history.

But is the painting really of Fracastoro? You’d be right to question that fact as the real Dr. Syphilis (catchy, no?) is normally portrayed with a sharp bony nose, but, according to the experts, Titian often “flattered and regularised” his sitters features. Wait, Titian lied!?!? I’m crushed … but I’ll survive.

Now back to syphilitic poetry … curious what Fracastoro wrote about that dreaded New World STD? Here’s an excerpt of “Syphilis” (1530) translated into English from its original Latin about the symptoms of the disease:

Immediately unsightly sores broke out over all the body and made the face horrifyingly ugly, and disfigured the breast by their foul presence: the disease took on a new aspect: pustules with the shape of an acorn-cup and rotten with thick slime, which soon afterwards gaped wide open and flowed with a discharge like mucous and putrid blood.

Moreover the disease gnawed deep and burrowed into the inmost parts, feeding on its victims’ bodies with pitiable results:  for on quite frequent occasions we ourselves have seen limbs stripped of their flesh and the bones rough with scales, and mouths eaten away yawn open in a hideous gape while the throat produced feeble sounds …

[W]here this disease holds sway a mucus usually flows all over the body:  then at last it solidifies into an ugly scab. So someone sighing over the springtime of his life and his beautiful youth, and gazing with wild eyes down at his disfigured members, his hideous limbs and swollen face, often in his misery railed against the Gods’ cruelty, often against the stars’.

Ok, it’s not as catchy as a limerick, but it made me wonder what would’ve happened if the scientists at the Pasteur Institute decided to record their ability to isolate the HIV virus back in 1983 in verse rather than the prose of a scientific report.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.