A Renaissance warlord poison mystery

Cangrande mounted statue. Image:By Eggbread [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cangrande mounted statue. Image:By Eggbread [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Cangrande della Scala (1291-1329), lord of Verona and a Renaissance warlord who had conquered large parts of Northern Italy, suddenly died of acute diarrhoea and vomiting on 22 July 1329, after taking the city of Treviso. Poison was suspected but not confirmed, but now a 700 year old mystery may be solved by further examination.

In February 2004 Cangrande’s tomb was opened to allow the palaeopathological study of his remains. When the very heavy stone lid of the sarcophagus was raised, the researchers were amazed at a well preserved body, wrapped in precious silk textiles and still wearing his clothes.

Tomb of Cangrande. Image: Lo Scaligero [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb of Cangrande. Image: Lo Scaligero [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Toxicological tests performed on various samples taken from the mummy during an autopsy, including faecal samples, showed that Cangrande had consumed chamomile, black mulberry and 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. Chamomile was largely used as a sedative and antispasmodic drug, while black mulberry was used as an astringent.

Cangrande in his tomb. Image: Gino Fornaciari [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cangrande in his tomb. Image: Gino Fornaciari [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A murder cover up

Further examination of his liver found concentrations of digoxine and digitoxine at lethal levels. The suspicion that deliberate poisoning took place under the guise of medical treatment (perhaps for a gastrointestinal problem) is likely.

A physician of Cangrande’s was hanged by his successor Mastino II, adding more weight to the possibility that foul play was at least suspected, although who was ultimately behind the killing is likely to remain a mystery. One of the principal suspects at least in terms of motive seems to be Cangrande’s nephew, the ambitious Mastino II himself.