Genetic Disorder Found in 15th Century Painting

A Reconnaissance painting in Mantua, Italy contains the portrait of a multisystem genetic disorder that was first described more than 80 years later, says new research into the work.

Published in Lancet Neurology, the study diagnosed a case of neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) in the portrait of a maidservant affected by dwarfism. Caused by the mutation of a gene on chromosome 17 that is responsible for control of cell division, the disorder is associated with decreased production of the protein neurofibromin and is characterized by the growth of tumors on the nerves.

The woman diagnosed with the disease is portrayed alongside Ludovico Gonzaga, the ruler of the Italian city of Mantua from 1444 to his death in 1478, his family, courtiers and a pet dog.

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Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), painted the work between 1465 and 1475 as part of a series of frescoes in the Bridal Chamber in the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua.

"Mantegna is painting for us in images that are almost alive and breathing, so that the subject seems not to be represented, but actually to exist," Francesco Gonzaga, the artist's patron, wrote.

It turns out Mantegna's portraits are so realistic that they also depict pathological disorders.

According to Raffaella Bianucci, Legal Medicine Section's anthropologist and paleopathologist at University of Turin, there is little doubt that the maidservant was affected by NF1.

The neurological disease today affects one in 3,000 births.

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"The symptoms appear during childhood, usually with flat and pigmented birthmarks commonly referred to as café-au-lait spots," Bianucci told Discovery News.

Subcutaneous or cutaneous neurofibromas develop over time, as well as orthopedic problems. Dome-shaped gelatinous masses, known as Lish nodules, commonly appear on the surface of the iris.

"The servant has five neurofibromas on the face and one on the hand, five caféau lait spots on the cheeks and one on the chin, several Lish nodules in the left and right irises, a larger than average head, short stature and a deformed right index finger," Bianucci and colleagues Otto Appenzeller, at New Mexico Health Enhancement and Marathon Clinics Research Foundation, and Antonio Perciaccante, at the Department of Medicine of Gorizia Hospital, wrote.

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The researchers concluded the signs are a clear manifestation of neurofibromatosis type 1.

The disease was painted roughly 86 years before the first medical description in 1592 by the physician and naturalist Ulisse Aldrovrandi. It was then officially recognized in 1882 by German pathologist Friedrich Daniel von Recklinghausen.

SEE PHOTOS: Animal Picassos Take to the Canvas

This week WTSP-TV reported on Jacob, a police department horse in St. Petersburg, Fla. that has taken to painting in his idle hours. But the 10-year-old budding artist isn't the only animal that will take to the canvas, as you'll see in the coming slides.

Animal Picassos at zoos abound, with many species sticking their paws, claws and more into non-toxic paint to create unique works of art. "Primates are among our most experienced painters," Heidi Hellmuth, curator of enrichment and training at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, told Discovery News. This golden lion tamarin, a small monkey native to Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil, would appear to prove the point.

Painting is one of many activities that fall under what's known as animal enrichment, a program at zoos providing physically and mentally stimulating activities and environments. Christine McKnight, coordinator of animal enrichment and training at the Minnesota Zoo, told Discovery News that most species can paint in some way. "But some individuals take to it, while others don't," she said. Most primates, such as this golden-headed lion tamarin, are at least curious about the process.

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Elephants are curious about creating as well. Here 14-year-old Asian elephant Karishma takes up her brush and paints on a wooden elephant at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in the United Kingdom.

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For its part, the list of animal artists at the Smithsonian's National Zoo includes some surprises, including this three-banded armadillo.

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Clark, a porcupine at the Smithsonian, paints with his feet, as he participates in some enrichment of his own. Every time he strolls across the canvas, he gets grapes or a banana.

For some animals, such as the naked mole-rat, painting is an all-body experience. Both Hellmuth and McKnight assured that every paint is non-toxic and water-based, with many products donated by supporters. The mole-rat's works have a Jackson Pollock look. "The animals enjoy the process more if it taps into a natural behavior and if they use a part of the body that mirrors a skill set from the wild," Hellmuth said.

Even hissing cockroaches and other insects can create works of art. From a professional standpoint, it may be difficult to value the skill, especially if the "artist" just runs across the canvas with paint-covered limbs. But McKnight said that "cockroach paintings can go for a high price. They are extremely popular."

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Potentially dangerous predators, such as lions, can show interest in painting. McKnight said even grizzly bears at her zoo have created works of art. "They will put their full body in the paint and roll, rub and sit on the canvas," she explained.

Animal artworks have led to a reliable source of income for zoos. Like true museum pieces, often copies are made of the originals, which may be stored. Paintings by rare animals, like Tian Tian the giant panda, can be quite valuable. "Painting provides great mental exercise," McKnight said. "If an animal doesn't want to participate, it's their choice. Among wolverines, for example, some want to paint while others don't."

Human artists may invest tremendous energy and emotional effort into their works. The same appears to be true for certain non-human painters. Kojo the western lowland gorilla at the Smithsonian's National Zoo seems to put a lot of thought into his efforts.

Enrichment activities at zoos and aquariums provide an integral part of an animal's care. This leopard gecko at the Minnesota Zoo seems to be enjoying the messy undertaking.

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Zoo animals have been painting for over a decade now, but the activity has grown yet more in popularity in recent years, and there's sure to be more animal art in the years to come.

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