The Medici family children suffered from rickets
How rickets affected even the wealthy in the 17th Century: Bones from Medici children show they suffered from malnutrition
Bones from nine Medici children have been found to have signs of rickets
Despite all their riches, a poor diet is blamed as one of the prime factors
Archaeologists make their discovery after secret entrance to tomb is discovered
By LEWIS SMITH
PUBLISHED: 16:49, 10 June 2013 | UPDATED: 17:35, 10 June 2013
Being rich and powerful was little protection to the children of the Medicis who, to the astonishment of scientists, appear to have suffered from rickets.
The Medicis were among the most powerful families of the Renaissance, being patrons to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but their children still suffered malnutrition, research has indicated.
Rickets is closely linked to malnutrition and poverty yet the bones of the remains of nine Medici children analysed by osteoarchaeologists reveal that they also fell victim to the condition.
He was the seventh child of Francesco I and Giovanna of Austria. The circular cut around the skull was from an autopsy soon after his death.
Researchers made the discovery after analysing bones taken from under the floor of the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.
The tomb of Giangastone, the last Medici Grand Duke (1671–1737), was selected for study because it was still intact, despite previous investigations of Medici tombs, some from before the Second World war.
A secret entrance to the tomb was discovered when a marble disc, previously believed to be just decorative, was removed from the floor of the chapel, revealing a set of stone steps that led to a hidden crypt.
A large sarcophagus contained the remains of the Grand Duke but on the floor were a series of small coffins and several loose bones which had all been moved about when the River Arno flooded in 1966.
Bones from children in the crypt, aged from newborn to about five years old, showed classic signs of rickets, including bow legs and bent arms, scientists from the universities of Pisa and Siena concluded.
The lack of vitamin D that caused the condition was attributed by the research team to the Medicis’ desire to protect their offspring.
Scientists who analysed the remains suspect the swadling of babies and extended weaning were the most likely causes of the vitamin D deficiency.
One of the children’s body’s was identified as that of don Filippino (1577-1582) who was known to have had a slightly deformed skull. The researchers suggest rickets was the cause.
‘Diagnosis of a metabolic disease linked to vitamin D deficiency would appear unexpected in children brought up at the court of a Renaissance high social class family, like the Medici of Florence,’ the researchers wrote.
Previous studies have already shown that the Medicis continued weaning their children until they were two, with the addition of ‘pap’, probably made from bread and apple or cereal.
This diet lacked the essential vitamin D that the children needed and meant that when they learn to crawl and walk their weight bent their leg and arm bones.
Babies that were found in the crypt also showed early signs of rickets with lesions to their skulls.
Portrait of Francesco I D’Medici (1541-1587) was the father of at least one and possibly three of the children in the crypt.
Cosimo I (1519-1574) fathered three of the children and perhaps a fourth.
Two of the Medici clan, (left) Francesco I (1541-1587) and his father (right) Cosimo I (1519-1574) who between them fathered at least four of the children in the crypt and perhaps seven. The remains of the children analysed by scientists show they suffered from rickets thought to have been caused by poor diet and being kept indoors
The Medicis, in common with many other wealthy families, kept their young children indoors which could have prevented them from absorbing enough vitamin D from sunlight.
Swaddling babies was also commonplace and this would also have reduced their expose to sunlight.
The research team wrote: ‘The present study clearly demonstrates how, even in the high social classes, children were at the risk of developing rickets as a result of prolonged breast-feeding and inadequate exposure to sunlight.
‘With this prolonged breast-feeding, vitamin D deficiency is highly expected to rise, in particular if the other main risk factor, inadequate sunlight exposition, is associated with this diet based on maternal milk.
The Medici family rose to power in the 13th century in Florence and Tuscany through banking and commerce.
Their patronage of the arts made the region the cradle of the Renaissance. Among the artists and scientists they supported were Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Benvenuto Cellini.
Popes Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI were all Medicis.
In 1737 the dynasty ended when the last Medici ruler died without a male heir.
‘Two hours per week is the required minimum period of exposure to sunlight for infants if only the face is exposed
‘During the spring and summer months, infants were likely to be exposed to sufficient sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency, but during the colder winter months, they probably spent less time outdoors and were bundled in several layers of protective clothing, especially when they presented frequent health problems.
‘For example, according to historical sources, Filippo was a weak and unhealthy child, suffering from recurrent illness episodes and likely to have been frequently kept indoors.
‘Furthermore, in the Renaissance period, non-ambulant children were swaddled, leaving very little skin exposed.’
Newborn babies should have enough vitamin D from their mothers at birth but, researchers suspect, the mothers may also have suffered from vitamin D deficiency, perhaps as a result of being kept indoors or their practice of wearing thick make-up to prevent them getting a tan.
‘A pale ivory skin was considered a sign of health and elegance, which distinguished noblewomen from peasants engaged in field work,’ the researchers reported in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
‘A white skin was highly desired so that women avoided exposure to sunlight and used white powder to achieve it; one of the most popular and well-known lightening creams was Venetian Ceruse, a white powder obtained by mixing vinegar with lead, which remained popular for about 300 years.’
The Medici women were also likely to have suffered low levels of vitamin D because of repeated childbirth.