The Italian Zombies

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Ah, the High Renaissance in Italy. The sweet side of the Middle Ages, when Europe classed itself up with some nice artwork and architecture, started thinking about humanism, and reacquainted itself with classical philosophies.

Italy, in particular, served as the petri dish for a lot of this cultural rebirthing. A peninsular lump of competing cities and territories, ruled by mercantilism and warfare, it was like a violent melting pot that churned out murder and cool paintings. There may have been new ideas and puffier pants, but things were still medieval.

The southern city-state of Naples, in the late 15th century, acted as another kind of petri dish. In 1495, Naples came down with a case of super syphilis—an early iteration of the disease that left the infected with ghastly lesions down to the bone, yet still living, for a time. The result: shuffling, contagious victims wandering the streets in various states of decay.

That’s How You Get Super Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, so you might be thinking, “Sure, Italy makes sense, but I’m a little surprised syphilis wasn’t born in France.” Well, just hold on.

Let’s tick the old clock back a year to August 1494. A fella named King Charles VIII was running the show in France, and he decided to do a bit of invading across the Italian peninsula in what would become known as the Italian Wars. He had around 30,000 soldiers and a big artillery train. The soldiers were mostly mercenaries from all over the continent: lots of Spanish, Swiss, Gascons, Flemish, and Italians willing to sell their time and sharp objects to the highest bidder. Renaissance Italy was big on mercenary wars, and Charles VIII wanted to get in on that sh*t. Mostly, though, he wanted to make his way to Naples, take the city, and use it as a launch pad for some Crusading.

Here’s a 1496 woodcut about syphilis, in which the Christ-child cures the sick with force lightning.
Today, we use penicillin.

Charles VIII’s merc parade wasn’t all about soldiering types, however. In those days, armies were like little marching economies, and attracted a lot of groupies. About 800 camp followers hitched their proverbial wagons to Charles’ war caravan, and provided non-military services: cooks, medics, and, most importantly, prostitutes.

Charles’ army, led by General Louis II de la Tremoille, met resistance from each city on their way south to Naples. The French crushed them all. In February of 1495, they took Naples. After seven months of fighting their way across Italy, Charles’ mercenaries were ready for a little self-indulgence.

Think: fleet week, but if the fleet was a bunch of foreign mercenaries, and they brought prostitutes with them. I wasn’t there, but I bet there was a lot of drinking and fighting and nudity.

Anyway, they partied too hard. Soon enough, it became clear that a terrible disease was spreading through the city. The disease would become known by many names, including the “Disease of Naples” and the “French Disease,” which apportion blame to the city and to its invaders, respectively. But this was really an all-European-hands-on-deck disease, given the wide range of nationalities involved in its creation. It was like a little, bacterial proto-European Union. Except it made your skin fall off.1

Tell Me More About Super Syphilis

You got it. First, the “super” part.

Based on what we know from contemporary accounts—descriptions and woodcuts left to us by scholars who witnessed the outbreak first hand—the syphilis that hit Naples may have been an earlier, way more severe variant of the bacterial venereal disease we know and love today.

Granted, the Neapolitans in 1495 had rudimentary knowledge of medicine by today’s standards. But, if we take them at their word, then we don’t make syphilis today like they used to in the Renaissance. Late 15th-century syphilis may have had a higher, more rapid mortality rate, and was more contagious than it is now. This could indeed be true—syphilis was a new disease, and its victims hadn’t yet developed any natural immunity to infection, so it’s possible they were more susceptible, and symptoms were worse.

Another syphilis piece from 1496, by Albrecht Dürer. This poor son of a bitch doesn’t just have syphilis. He’s also wearing Renaissance Crocs.

Anyway, syphilis—whether it’s super or the normal kind you’re more familiar with—has a couple of stages: First, you contract the disease from coitus with, let’s say, a Longobardi prostitute. You’ve not worn a condom, because it’s 1495, and you decide to wash up a couple days later. You remove your codpiece and—sh*t—you’ve got genital ulcers. But at least they don’t hurt (yet).

Do not panic. Soon a bad fever will take your mind right off those ulcers. Then come the rashes and joint and muscle pain. This will last weeks, maybe months. Meanwhile, you’re probably drinking and sleeping with more prostitutes to take your mind off of your misfortune, because you’re still about 400 years out from the discovery of germ theory.

Phase two is worse. Large abscesses and sores form all over your body. They’re painful, they look bad, and they smell worse. As time goes on, these sores turn into large ulcers that eat into your bones and deteriorate eyes, nose, and lips—basically, all the coolest parts of your face.

At this point, your joint and muscle pain has gotten worse, and especially bad at night. And the facial infection would often extend into the mouth and throat, which could lead to death.

But the disease could also take years to kill the victim. Naples, then, saw the infected walking or crawling the streets, faces rotted, bone exposed. For the George A. Romero-inclined, this is about as close as you can get to a historical zombie outbreak. Minus the cannibalism.2 3 4

First Naples, then the World

Charles VIII’s army wore out its welcome soon enough. An Italian league joined together to expel the French king and his soldiers from Italy. After some bloody fighting—in which many of Charles VIII’s soldier were too syphilitic to fight—the French managed to make their way through enemy territory in the north and returned to France. His mercenaries, their jobs done, returned to their homelands. Everyone brought syphilis with them. 5

Great. So we know that’s at least, in part, how the outbreak in Naples made its way to all corners of Europe. Syphilis had spread to France, Switzerland, and Germany before the end of 1495. By 1497, England and Scotland had caught the bug; by the 1500s, Scandinavia, Hungary, Greece, Poland, and Russia. European explorers brought the disease with them. Calcutta was infected in 1498. By 1520, Africa, the Middle East, China, Japan, and Oceania were suffering from “the French disease.”

Another one by Albrecht Dürer, called “Death and the Landsknecht,” 1510. A landsknecht was a type of Germanic mercenary soldier, which saw heavy use during the 15th and 16th centuries. Note his lumpy—perhaps poxy—thighs.

But where’d it come from? That’s debatable—it’s still unclear if the disease was first contracted by European explorers in the New World, or if it, in fact, originated in Europe as a lesser disease, which mutated into something more severe. Old medical records weren’t specific enough in their diagnoses to differentiate between a range of similar, poxy diseases, so syphilis may have been hiding in plain sight all along, waiting for the right conditions to mutate and really come out of its shell.6

What is clearer is who its Renaissance victims blamed: each other. Wherever you were from, syphilis came from somewhere else, which you can tell from the various names of the disease. The French liked to call it either the “Neapolitan disease,” given the locale of apparent origin, or the “Spanish disease,” blaming it on their own foreign mercenaries.

Italians preferred “morbus Gallicus,” or the “French disease,” since it appeared to have arrived with the French military host (despite it being constituted of a number of peoples, including Italians). The Germans followed suit, naming it the “French evil.” The Scots went with “grandgore,” derived from French terminology. Meanwhile, the Russians named it the “Polish disease,” while the Polish and Persians preferred the “Turkish disease.”

The Turks called it the “Christian disease,” the Tahitians called it the “British disease,” the Indians had the “Portuguese disease,” and the Japanese blamed the “Chinese pox” on the, uh, Chinese.7

Memento Mori

While folks across the known world were arguing over whose fault super syphilis was, the disease itself was settling in. After the first few years of epidemic, the disease chilled out a little, and the symptoms got a bit less severe. This was still a terrible disease, and the cure—penicillin—wouldn’t be discovered until 1928. But perhaps some herd resistance had begun to take hold.8 Markel, Howard. (2013, September 27). The real story behind penicillin. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic /note]

This is all to say that the sores, ulcers, rashes, and pain didn’t go away—nor did the dementia—but the disease looked a bit different. The streets of Naples in 1495 appeared to be infested with the walking dead. By the later 1500s, the image of a syphilis victim became a bit more posh: makeup covering sores; a powdered, scented wig to conceal hair loss and odor. Sickly, sure, but not quite the Dawn of the Dead.

A famous memento mori statue from the 1520s, attributed to Hans Leinberger.

I can’t help but think of the Latin tradition of the memento mori. These were reminders of death and mortality, typically presenting the human form half alive, and half decayed or skeletal. They could be a statue kept on a clerk’s desk, or a pendant worn around the neck, and were popular throughout the middle ages and Renaissance in Italy. Mostly, the memento mori were artistic renderings but, for a time, they walked the streets of Naples.You know what they say about the Neapolitan syphilitic zombie outbreak of 1495: if you remember it, you weren’t there.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Frith, John. (2012). Syphilis—Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20 (4). Retrieved from https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
  2. Frith, John. (2012). Syphilis—Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20 (4). Retrieved from https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
  3. Tognotti, Eugenia. (2009). The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe. Journal of Medical Humanities, 30, 99-113. Retrieved from https://cuwhist.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/the-rise-and-fall-of-syphilis-in-renaissance-europe.pdf
  4. Naked History. (2016, August 18). Renaissance Zombies. Retrieved from http://www.historynaked.com/renaissance-zombies/
  5. Encyclopedia.com. (2004). Charles VIII (France) (1470-1498, Ruled 1483-1498). Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/french-history-biographies/charles-viii
  6. Tognotti, Eugenia. (2009). The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe. Journal of Medical Humanities, 30, 99-113. Retrieved from https://cuwhist.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/the-rise-and-fall-of-syphilis-in-renaissance-europe.pdf
  7. Frith, John. (2012). Syphilis—Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20 (4). Retrieved from https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Encyclopedia.com. (2004). Charles VIII (France) (1470-1498, Ruled 1483-1498). Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/french-history-biographies/charles-viii
  • Frith, John. (2012). Syphilis—Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20 (4). Retrieved from https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
  • Markel, Howard. (2013, September 27). The real story behind penicillin. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic
  • Naked History. (2016, August 18). Renaissance Zombies. Retrieved from http://www.historynaked.com/renaissance-zombies/
  • Tognotti, Eugenia. (2009). The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe. Journal of Medical Humanities, 30, 99-113. Retrieved from https://cuwhist.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/the-rise-and-fall-of-syphilis-in-renaissance-europe.pdf

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