Traces of 17th-Century Medicine Found in Embalming Jar

The dried intestines of a Grand Duchess are offering some surprising clues to her final moments.

Published 25 Sept 2018, 09:57 BST
The Medici remains were interred in Sagrestia Vecchia, also known as Old Sacristy, Basilica of San ...
The Medici remains were interred in Sagrestia Vecchia, also known as Old Sacristy, Basilica of San Lorenzo.
Photography by B.O'Kane

What is your deathbed drink of choice? For the the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere, it was all about the spices. Analysis of dried bits of her intestine stored in a ceramic embalming jar shows that she consumed a striking amount of cloves in the days before her death.

The Medici noble probably wasn't savouring spiced wine just for the joy of it. The clove-infused liquid was most likely an attempt to treat her failing health, according to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. This analysis gives researchers an unexpected peek into the moments before Vittoria's death—and her attempts to treat the many ailments that eventually took her life in 1694.

“Examination of viscera stored apart in jars is not common, because such remains are rarely discovered,” Rémi Corbineau of Aix-Marseille University, who was not involved in the study, says via email. “The data presented here provide a new insight in history of medicine using palynology,” or the study of pollen grains and spores.

Elite Life and Death

Vittoria della Rovere was a member of the Medici family, which rose to power during the 14th century thanks to their success in commerce and banking. They ruled for three centuries, first commanding Florence and later Tuscany. (Peek inside a secret room in a Medici chapel where Michelangelo scribbled on the walls.)

A portrait of Medici noble Vittoria della Rovere by Sustermans Justus.
Photography by Sergio Anelli, Electa, Mondadori Portfolio, Getty

As each noble died, they were embalmed to prevent the inevitable perfume of decay before the funeral, which often took place months after their passing, study author Donatella Lippi of the University of Florence says via email. Their viscera was removed and the body cleaned and stuffed with antiseptic resins, gums, balsams, and fragrances. Each body was then re-dressed so people could pay homage.

As the practitioners carefully progressed through each step of the process for the Medici family, they placed the internal organs—along with cloths and sponges likely used to clean the body—in large terra cotta jars, securing a lid on top.

Such jars were not a new practice. In Ancient Egypt, similar containers were known as canopic jars, and they stored the internal organs for the afterlife. When the practice of embalming rose again around the 12th century, the preservation of nobles and their viscera served as a demonstration of the monarch's power and virtue, showing the royal “could survive the death and disintegration of the physical body,” according to a study in the journal Nuncius.

Listening to Medici Voices

After the embalming of the Medici noble was complete, the jars were stowed in a small hole in the floor under an alter, along with the coffins of Medici nobles, in the middle of the Old Sacristy church of San Lorenzo, says Lippi. There they lay for centuries.

That is, until 2010, when researchers exhumed the jars as part of a larger project investigating the life and death of the Medici family. The team hopes to use scientific evidence to strengthen historical accounts of early medicine and correct any “rose tint” gleaned from those records. (Find out how early Islamic scientists advanced medicine.)

“I dare to say that the aim of the Medici Project was to go back in time and listen to the voices of the Medicis, Grand-dukes of Tuscany, when they were ill,” Lippi writes via email, “in order to initiate a dialogue between a modern physician and a Renaissance one.”

Of the 10 jars that the researchers found stored in the hole, only two sported prominent labels. One was Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, who was the final Medici descendant. The other was her grandmother, Vittoria della Rovere. The researchers took samples of the dried viscera—the colour and texture of thin pieces of jerky—and transported them to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for analysis.

Consuming Cloves

Using light microscopes, the researchers found an abundance of pollen, some 20,574 grains per gram. But they weren't initially sure what it was, says Karl Reinhard of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who led the pollen analysis of the remains.

“The cloves family produces pollen that is really, really, really small,” says Reinhard. Less than 30 micrometres across, the pollen could easily fit on the tip of a human hair and is at the edge of what can be seen with a standard microscope. To precisely identify the plants, Reinhard turned to the scanning electron microscope, which creates stunningly detailed images using a beam of electrons. (See pictures of the microscopic wonders of the plant kingdom.)

What did it show? The grains were definitely cloves.

But the cloves remained in pollen only—there were no woody fragments from the dried buds. This suggested that they were not applied as a possible perfume, symbolic additive, or preservative, as was common for embalming during this time, notes Corbineau, who has studied this practice during the Middle Ages. What's more, her gut was largely devoid of food, suggesting she wasn't feasting on spiced hams before her demise.

Together, this evidence suggests Vittoria drank a clove-rich beverage in the days leading to her death, the authors conclude. But was it for medicine, or was it for culinary purposes only?

Vittoria's Final Days

Historical accounts suggests Vittoria della Rovere was never the picture of health. She was lethargic and “loved sleep since the early days of her youth,” according to the new study. In her final days, she suffered from heart issues and renal failure, which led to abnormal swelling, known as edema, in her lower limbs that confined her to her bed.

It was most likely Vittoria's doctors attempted to treat these ills. Medical practice during this time centred around the four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The key to good health was to balance these humours, and digestion was vital to this balance, explains Anne Stobart, author of the book Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England.

“If the digestion was insufficient ... then there would be putrefaction or corruption, leaving possibly poisonous substances in the body,” she says.

Because of this, spices were a common remedy. Cloves could treat a range of ailments, including problems with the stomach, liver, and heart, explains study author Dario Piombino-Mascali, a bioarchaeologist at Vilnius University and a National Geographic Explorer. But cloves were a pricey treatment, Stobart adds. Imported from Indonesia, they would have been too exotic and expensive for many of the common people at the time, she says, but not out of the reach of the affluent Medici family.

There's no way to tell exactly what drink delivered Vittoria's therapeutic cloves. But such spices were commonly mixed in as a powder in a drink like wine, says Stobart. And when it comes to deathbed drinks, spiced wine is not a bad way to go.

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