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Florence’s Powerful Medici Family Suffered from Rickets Because of Too Much Time Spent Indoors

Study of the Medici’s children shows that they suffered from rickets, or the bone softening affliction caused by a lack of vitamin D from sunlight or food

Five-year-old don Filippino’s abnormally swollen skull. (Giuffra et al, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology)

Money can’t buy happiness or—if you’re a wealthy, 16th-century Tuscan—health. The Medicis, known as the “first family” during the Italian Renaissance, could afford to fund Galileo and da Vinci, but their privilege ultimately damaged their children’s well being, Nature reports. A new study of the Medici’s nine children shows that they suffered from rickets, or the bone-softening affliction caused by a lack of vitamin D from sunlight or food.

An examination of the bones, both visually and by X-ray, showed that six of the nine children bore convincing signs of rickets, including curved arm and leg bones — the result of trying to crawl or walk on abnormally soft bones. One of the children, Filippo (1577–1582), known as don Filippino, had a slightly deformed skull.

Rickets tends to be a disease of the poor, caused by malnutrition and a life spent in crowded, polluted urban centers. The Medici kids obviously did not have this problem, so the researchers turned to nitrogen isotopes left in their bones to figure out what was to blame for the disease. The kids, they found, were not weaned until they were about 2 years old, and breast milk contains little vitamin D.

Sixteenth-century thinking also dictated that infants be heavily swaddled. The Medici children, wrapped in many heavy layers and cocooned in large, grand houses, probably didn’t get the same amount of sunlight as their less fortunate peers.

The Medici infants, too, showed low levels of vitamin D, Nature reports, indicating that their mothers probably didn’t spend much time in the sun, either, or else were depleting their own vitamin levels due to frequent child bearing.

In recent years, rickets have been on the rise in cloudy Great Britain, where everything from an excess of sunscreen use, a lack of outdoor play and malnutrition have been blamed for the disease’s recurrence.

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