Published by the University of Milano-Bicocca, the study claims that a feverish Raphael suffering from “a coronavirus-like disease” died after failing to tell his doctors he had been secretly visiting lovers on freezing cold nights, leading them to wrongly prescribe bloodletting.
Previous studies cite syphilis, typhus and malaria among the possible causes of the death of the Urbino-born artistic prodigy in 1520.
But the new study, published in Internal and Emergency Medicine, rules all three out.
“Raphael was killed by pneumonia aggravated by the medical error,” the report says.
According to art historian Giorgio Vasari and his 1550 masterpiece on the lives of painters, Raphael failed to tell the physicians of his “frequent night outings in the cold” to visit lovers.
The Milan researchers compared the information in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists with evidence from Raphel’s contemporaries in Rome at the time of his death, including Alfonso Paolucci, ambassador of the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I d’Este.
They also used documents rediscovered in the 19th century by art historian Giuseppe Campori.
“The progress of the illness, together with other symptoms, would lead to the conclusion that it was a case of pneumonia,” Augusto Riva, who co-authored the study with three fellow researchers from the University of Milano Bicocca, said.
Contemporary accounts of his death reveal the painter’s disease “lasted 15 days; Raphael was composed enough to put his affairs in order, confess his sins, and receive the last rites”, the study says.
It says it was an acute disease, characterised by high and continuous fever.
“A recent sexually transmitted infection – such as gonorrhoea and syphilis – could not explain the incubation period,” the study concludes.
“An acute manifestation of viral hepatitis could not be considered without jaundice and other signs of liver failure.
“No epidemics of typhus or plague were reported in the city of Rome at that time.
“Then, the practice of leeching was absolutely not helpful in cases of pneumonia, indeed it probably killed Raphael.
“[Vasari] tells us that the painter hid to his doctors the fact that he had often gone out on previous nights on amorous pursuits.
“The doctors, since they were not aware of the patient’s conduct and as they were unable to get a better picture of where the fever originated, made a major error in insisting with the leeches.”
The artist, a child prodigy and part of a trinity of Renaissance greats along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, died aged only 37.
Raphael was sent off with high honours at a grand funeral at the Vatican, and his remains rest in Rome’s Pantheon.
A red rose graces his grave all the year round.