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Earliest Images of Breast Cancer Found in Renaissance Paintings

The signs of illness in the paintings illustrate that breast cancer is not just a modern malady

"The Night," Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio, oil on panel, Galleria Colonna, Rome, Italy (The Lancet Oncology, Bianucci, et al)

Whether you like Renaissance-era art or not, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: there sure are a lot of breasts. While the preponderance of nude figures are there for totally artistic reasons, the catalogue of naked humans turns out to be a pretty good representation of people from the past. In fact, as Vittoria Traverso at Atlas Obscura reports, in a new study researchers have used these paintings to get a handle on the prevalence of breast cancer.

Raffaella Bianucci and Antonio Perciaccante, two co-authors of a new study published in the journal The Lancet: Oncology tell Maarten Rikken at ResearchGate that there's a perception that breast cancer is a modern disease. As the thinking goes, lifestyle, longevity and other factors have made the cancer much more prevalent in the industrial age. But recent research is showing that the disease was quite common all the way back to antiquity.

While looking at breast iconography while working on a larger study of breast cancer's prevelance in the past, the researchers came across two particular Renaissance paintings with figures displaying signs of breast cancer. These are believed to be the earliest known depictions of breast cancer found so far.

Traverso reports that the first depiction appears in the painting "The Night" by Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, likely painted between 1553 and 1555 and based on a sculpture by Michelangelo. In the image, a nude woman is reclining and sleeping in a dream world which includes a cherub, an owl, flowers and various masks. Her left breast is smaller than the right and her nipple is retracted, all signs of cancer.

The second painting, "The Allegory of Fortitude" by Maso da San Friano, depicts a female figure sitting on top of a lion. Her left breast seems to show swollen tissue around the nipple and an area where a tumor has broken through the skin. “These features are consistent with those of an ulcerated, necrotizing breast cancer and associated lymphoedema,” the researchers write in the study. “We are very confident that these women suffered from malignant breast cancer,” they tell Rikken. “The features displayed by of 'The Allegory of Fortitude' in particular are typical of breast cancer.”

Helen Thompson at Forbes reports that the appearance of images of breast cancer in the 16th century is no coincidence. Interest in medicine and human anatomy began to flourish during the time and artists strove to create more and more realistic images of the human body. Artists and physicians also began to collaborate on artwork and scientific illustrations.

But it’s unlikely that the artists painting the malignancies knew what they were. The researchers tell Rikken that the artists just painted what they saw. “More generally, Renaissance women had many pregnancies, and breast anomalies due to mastitis or other conditions, like breast rhagades,” they say. “Artists would have seen these maladies but were not necessarily in a position to distinguish between each specific medical condition.”

Though it’s hard to give statistics about the prevalence of cancer, the researchers say that the number of treatises and other works on breast cancer throughout antiquity show that the disease was not uncommon, and that artists would have encountered women who developed malignant cancers.

But the politics of Renaissance models also complicate matters. Renaissance scholar Jill Burke explains that it was culturally taboo for upstanding women of the day to undress for a painter. That meant artists would either pay women of a certain sort to model for them or they would use men as models and tack on breasts and a female head. That, plus a strong feeling that the male body was the ideal image of beauty, led to many paintings of women that look like “men with breasts.” That seems to be the case in both of these paintings. In "The Night" the breasts are unnaturally spaced as they are in the Michelangelo sculpture. So it’s difficult to confirm the images were drawn from a single model or from a live female model at all.

Still, the researchers say the works can help in the larger project of using art to help train medical students to look for different diseases and illnesses. In fact, diagnosing conditions in paintings is something of a cottage industry, and some medical schools even offer courses to train students to employ a clinician's eye to the masterworks.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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