Feedback
Science

Mummy Murder Mystery: How Was Italian Warlord Poisoned?

Forensic scientists in Italy have uncovered a mummy murder mystery.

A Renaissance-era warlord who dropped dead in 1329 wasn't killed by a nasty stomach illness, as had been previously suspected; he was actually poisoned, an autopsy of his corpse reveals.

Scientists say they've found traces of digitalis, or foxglove — a beautiful but potentially heart-stopping plant — in the digestive tract of Cangrande della Scala of Verona. [Image Gallery: 7 Potent Medicinal Plants]

At the time of his death, Cangrande had a grip on an impressive chunk of northern Italy. He ruled Verona, and through successful military campaigns, he conquered the nearby cities of Vicenza, Padua and Treviso. And Cangrande wasn't just a powerful leader in battle; a true Renaissance man, he was also the leading patron of the poet Dante Alighieri.

On July 18, 1329, Cangrande made a triumphant entrance into Treviso, months after taking control of the city. But days later, he fell ill, with symptoms that included vomiting, fever and diarrhea. He died on July 22, 1329, at the age of 38.

Image: Body of Cangrande della Scala of Verona
Even after nearly 700 years, Cangrande's body was relatively well preserved. Some of his clothing even survived. Courtesy of Gino Fornaciari

The study, which appears in the February issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, doesn't completely solve the mystery of Cangrande's death. It is still possible that Cangrande's consumption of foxglove was a terrible mistake, Gino Fornaciari, a paleopathology researcher from the University of Pisa, and his colleagues wrote. But if the nobleman was intentionally poisoned with foxglove — perhaps disguised in a mixture of chamomile and black mulberry — there are a few likely suspects. Rival seats of power in the region, including the Republic of Venice or Ducate of Milan, may have been behind the murder. Or perhaps Cangrande was killed by someone even closer to him: Mastino II della Scala, his ambitious nephew and successor.

— Megan Gannon, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.