Using modern forensic techniques, a team of archaeologists have conducted an autopsy on the naturally preserved mummy of Cangrande della Scala. As suspected, the researchers have confirmed that the medieval Italian warlord was in fact assassinated.
Cangrande died suddenly in 1329 at the age of 38. He was a big deal at the time, the most celebrated member of the Scala dynasty which ruled Verona from 1277 to 1387. In addition to being the leading patron of the poet Dante Alighieri, he was known as a great warrior and an important autocrat. In 1314 he brought the city of Vicenza under his control, followed by Padua and Treviso in 1328 and 1329 respectively.
But on July 18th, 1329 — four days after his triumphal entrance in the city of Treviso — he became violently ill. He started vomiting and suffered from fever and diarrhoea, eventually dying on the morning of July 22nd. Some said he had become ill after drinking from a polluted spring, but rumors started swirling that he was poisoned.
A Machiavellian Demise
Thanks to the work of Gino Fornaciari and his colleagues, we now know this to be true. His natural mummy, which was exhumed from its tomb in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Verona in 2004, was very well preserved, allowing the researchers to perform palaeopathological, palynological, and toxicological tests, along with archaeological and historical investigations.
Toxicological tests performed on various samples taken from the mummy, including fecal samples, showed that Cangrande consumed chamomile, black mulberry and pollen spores of Digitalis, a poisonous plant otherwise known as foxglove. Taken at high enough concentrations, Digitalis is lethal, and its deadly effects are often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhoea.
"The multidisciplinary study performed on the natural mummy of Cangrande della Scala supports the hypothesis that Cangrande was victim of digitalis poisoning," conclude the authors. "Palynological analyses demonstrated the presence of foxglove as pollen grains in the rectum content and toxicological analyses confirmed the presence of two active principles of Digitalis, digoxin and digitoxin, present in toxic concentration in the liver and faeces."
Now, it's possible that Cangrande accidentally ingested the Digitalis, but as the researchers point out, the most likely hypothesis is that of "a deliberate administration of a lethal amount."
While the cause of death has been pinpointed, the exact murderer has not. Suspects do exist, as the researchers point out:
The principal suspects are the neighbouring states, the Republic of Venice or Ducate of Milan, worried about the new regional power of Cangrande and Verona; at the death of Cangrande also his ambitious nephew Mastino, who became ruler of Verona in association with his brother Alberto, cannot be totally excluded as instigator.
Interestingly, the autopsy also showed that Cangrande suffered from mild osteoarthritis of the column, elbows, and hips, with a meniscus calcification of the knees, likely the result of the strong intense physical activities endured by the Prince.
Check out the entire study at the Journal of Archaeological Science: "A medieval case of digitalis poisoning: the sudden death of Cangrande della Scala, lord of verona (1291 - 1329)".
Images: Gino Fornaciari.