Famed Warrior Medici Died From Gangrene

The 16th-century army commander died from a blood infection, not a botched amputation, research shows. ->

The legendary Renaissance warrior Giovanni de' Medici did not die from an improperly amputated leg, as widely believed, but an infection.

Also known as "Giovanni dalle Bande Nere" for the black bands of mourning he wore after the death of Pope Leo X, the 16th century army commander was exhumed last November from his tomb in the Medici Chapels in Florence. Researchers also exhumed the bones of his wife, Maria Salviati.

The couple married in 1516, when she was 17 and he was 18. The marriage produced only one child: Cosimo I, who reigned as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, creating the Uffizi and the magnificent Boboli Gardens as well as finishing the Pitti Palace.

Led by Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, the exhumation aimed at establishing whether the surgery carried on the celebrated condottiero (mercenary soldier) was improperly performed.

Although he had acquired a reputation for invincibility, Giovanni of the Black Bands (1498-1526) died at only 28 after being hit by a cannon ball, in a battle in Lombardy on Nov. 25, 1526. He was fighting the Imperialist troops marching to the sack of Rome.

As the ball crashed the right leg above the knee, the condottiero was taken to the palace of marquis Luigi Alessandro Gonzaga in Mantua. Gangrene soon set in, and Gonzaga's surgeon Maestro Abram decided to intervene by amputating the leg.

"It was believed that the amputation was not carried above the wound, but slighly above the ankle. This would have meant a death sentence for Giovanni, " Fornaciari told Discovery News.

The surgeon was unfairly accused, Fornaciari explained. Giovanni's tibia and fibula were sawed off, but the researchers found no signs of lesions above the amputation. Neither they noticed any damage at the knee and the femur (thigh bone).

"The leg was already partially amputated by the cannon ball, so the surgeon simply completed the amputation by cleaning the wound and smoothing the stump," Fornaciari said.

According to a report by the poet Pietro Aretino, Giovanni's close friend and eyewitness to the surgery, 10 men were summoned to hold down the warrior during the procedure.

"‘Not even 20,' Giovanni said smiling, ‘could hold me,' and he took a candle in his hand, so that he could make light onto himself," Aretino wrote.

Despite his stoic behaviour during the agonizing procedure, Giovanni died five days later, on Nov. 30, 1526.

"Maestro Abram did all he could, but the gangrene infection was at a too advanced stage," Fornaciari said.

Anthropological investigations also established that the warrior was about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and very sturdy.

"We found many vertebral hernias, a consequence of wearing heavy armors," Fornaciari said.

The researchers also discovered that Maria Salviati, Giovanni's wife, suffered from a serious parodontal disease, an abscess and 10 cavities.

But the cause of her death was probably a tertiary syphilis of the bone as shown from cranial lesions.

"At that time it was a very common disease. Most likely she contracted the disease from her husband," Fornaciari said.

Image: 1. A portrait of Giovanni de Medici. Credit: Getty Images 2. Giovanni de Medici's ehumed body. Credit: Gino Fornaciari