A pain in the arts: How syphilis affected creativity

History doesn’t recount who gave Cesare Borgia syphilis, but we do know  when and where he got it. In the summer of 1497, he was a 22-year-old cardinal, sent as papal legate by his father, Pope Alexander VI, to crown the king of Naples and broker a royal marriage for his sister, Lucrezia. Naples was a city rich in convents and brothels (a fertile juxtaposition in the male Renaissance imagination), but it was also ripe with disease. Two years earlier a French invasion force, including mercenary troops back from the New World, had dallied a while to enjoy their victory, and when they left, carried something unexpected and deadly back home with them.

His work accomplished, Cesare took to the streets. After the coupling, first a chancre appeared on his penis, then crippling pains throughout his body and a rash of itching, weeping pustules covering his face and torso.

Fortunately for him and for history, his personal doctor, Gaspar Torella, was a medical scholar with a keen interest in this startling new disease and used his patient (under the pseudonym of “Niccolo the young”) to record symptoms and attempted cures.

Over the next few years, Torella and others charted the unstoppable rise of a disease that had grown men screaming in agony as their flesh was eaten away, in some cases down to the bone.

I still remember the moment, sitting in the British Library, when I came across details of Torella’s treatise in a book of essays on syphilis. There is nothing more thrilling in writing historical fiction than when research opens a window on to a whole new landscape, and the story of how this sexual plague took Europe by storm during the 1490s was one of the turning points in my construction Blood and Beauty, the novel I was writing on the rise and fall of the Borgia dynasty.

The horror and the agony
By the time that Cesare felt that first itch, the French disease, as it was then known, had already spread deep into Europe. That same year, the Edinburgh town council issued an edict closing brothels, while at the Italian university of Ferrara scholars convened an emergency debate to try to work out what had hit them. By then the method of the contagion was pretty obvious.

“Men get it from doing it with women in their vulvas,” wrote the Ferrarese court doctor baldly (there is no mention of homosexual transmission, but then “sodomy” as it was known then was not the stuff of open debate).

The horror and the agony were indisputable. The German humanist Joseph Grunpeck, who, when he fell victim, bemoaned how “the wound on my priapic gland became so swollen, that both hands could scarcely encircle it.”

It got its name in the mid-16th century from a poem by a Renaissance scholar: its eponymous hero Syphilus, a shepherd, enrages the Sun God and is infected as punishment.

Amid all this horror there were elements of poetic justice. In a manifestly corrupt church, the giveaway “purple flowers” (as the repeated attacks were euphemistically known) that decorated the faces of priests, cardinals, even a pope, were indisputable evidence that celibacy was unenforceable.  

And then there are the artists: poets, painters, philosophers, composers. Some wore their infection almost as a badge of pride: the Earl of Rochester, Casanova, Flaubert in his letters. In Voltaire’s Candide, Pangloss can trace his chain of infection right back to a Jesuit novice who caught it from a woman who caught it from a sailor in the New World.

Others were more secretive. Shame is a powerful censor in history and,  in its later stages, syphilis, known as the “great imitator”, mimics so many  other diseases that it’s easy to hide the truth. Detective work by writers such as Deborah Hayden (The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis) count Schubert, Schumann, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Flaubert, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Wilde and Joyce, with contentious evidence around Beethoven and Hitler. Her larger question — how might the disease itself have affected their creative process — is a tricky one.

Tumbling into insanity
Van Gogh paints skulls and Schubert’s sublime last works are clearly suffused with the awareness of death. But in 1888 Nietzsche, tumbling into insanity, wrote work such as Ecce Homo. Is his intellectual grandiosity genius, or possibly the disease talking? There is a further layer of complexity to this. By the time Nietzsche lost his wits, tertiary syphilis had undergone a transmutation, infecting the brain and causing paralysis alongside mental disintegration.

But many of its sufferers didn’t know that then. Guy de Maupassant, who started triumphant (“I can screw street whores now and say to them ‘I’ve got the pox.’ They are afraid and I just laugh”), died 15 years later in an asylum howling like a dog and planting twigs as baby Maupassants in the garden.

“It’s just as I thought. I’ve got it for life,” says the novelist Alphonse Daudet after a meeting with the eminent French physician Charcot in the 1880s.

In his book In the Land of Pain, translated and edited by Julian Barnes in 2002, the writer’s eye is unflinching as he faces “the torment of the Cross: violent wrenching of the hands, feet, knees, nerves stretched and pulled to breaking point,” dimmed only by the blunt relief of increasing amounts of morphine: “Each injection [helps] for three or four hours. Then come ‘the wasps’ stinging, stabbing here, there, everywhere followed by Pain, that cruel guest … My anguish is great and I weep as I write.”

Of course, we have not seen the end of syphilis. But the vast majority will be cured by antibiotics before it takes hold. They will never reach the point, as Cesare Borgia did in the early 16th century, of having to wear a mask to cover the ruin of what everyone agreed was once a most handsome face. What he lost in vanity he gained in sinister mystery.

How far his behaviour, oscillating between lethargy and manic energy, was also the impact of the disease we will never know. He survived it long enough to be cut to pieces escaping from a Spanish prison. Meanwhile, his beloved sister Lucrezia, then married to a duke famed for extramarital philandering, suffered repeated miscarriages — a powerful sign of infection in female sufferers.

For those of us wedded to turning history into fiction, the story of syphilis proves the cliché: truth is stranger than anyone could make up. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

Blood and Beauty is published by Virago

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