Breast Cancer Revealed on Renaissance Paintings

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( — November 2, 2019) — Cancer is often considered a modern disease, fueled by our choices in nutrition and life. However, the latest study shows that we are in the wrong.

Whether you are a fan of Renaissance art or not, there is one thing that everyone can agree on: naked women’s breasts predominate in paintings. And while art is the reason for the depiction of breasts in the Renaissance, scientists have now used precisely these images to analyze the history of breast cancer.

Raffaella Bianucci and Antonio Perciaccante, co-authors of a new study published in The Lancet, say that there are clues that breast cancer is not a modern-day disease. However, the latest findings show that the disease has been quite common in the past.

By studying the prevalence of breast cancer in the past, scientists have discovered two works of art from the Renaissance that depict the signs of this vicious disease.

The first character appears in the painting “Allegoria della notte”, by the Italian painter Mikela Tozini, dating from 1553 to 1555. In the picture we see a woman whose left breast is smaller than her right and her nipple is retracted, which are exactly the symptoms of cancer.

Another painting, “The Allegory of Fortitude,” the work of Italian painter Maso da San Friano, depicts a female figure sitting above a lion. Her left breast looks swollen around the nipple – the area where the tumor has penetrated through the skin.

These characteristics are consistent with those of ulcerated, necrotized breast cancer and are associated with lymphedema, the study said.

“We’re pretty sure these women were suffering from malignant breast cancer” the authors of the study said.

The fact that both works of art date from the 16th century is not accidental. As Bianucci and her colleagues explain in the study, the Renaissance was marked as a period of innovation in the field of medicine, and one of those innovations was breast surgery. French surgeon Barthelemy Kebrol (1529-1603), who served King Henry IV and taught at the University of Montpellier, was one of the first practitioners of mastectomy, the surgical removal of the breast.

However, radical mastectomy was not a very common practice at the time, primarily because of the lack of general anesthesia, aseptic techniques, and the fact that breasts were considered a symbol of femininity at the time, and many surgeons considered the practice inhumane.