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Syphilis in art: an entertainment in four parts. Part 1.
  1. R S Morton
  1. Department of the History of Medicine, University, Sheffield, UK.


    It is widely recognised that the history of art reveals the contemporary attitudes of societies and artists to changing patterns of social and sexual behaviour. This collection of artistic creations shows that representations of syphilis in art, over more than five centuries, are consistent with this view. The first quarter century of the morbus gallicus in Europe, starting in 1493, coincided with the spread of Renaissance influence, including printing. A host of pamphlets with woodcut illustrations reflected public alarm at the epidemic proportions and severity of the new disease, with its disabling and sometimes deadly consequences. Also revealed in these early works are the astrological and theological beliefs of disease causation as well as identifiable and serious attempts at public education. These twinned themes of understanding and educational endeavour recur together throughout the centuries and take many forms as man attempts to outline and influence attitudes and so improve his medico-social health. Attitudes to causation changed with experience so that by the beginning of the 17th century the morbus gallicus is no longer a mere contagion but recognised socially and represented artistically, as a morbus venereus. Its clinical presentation had changed remarkably from the alarming early days; and so too had its prevalence--from epidemic to endemic proportions. We find that the artists of both the 16th and 17th centuries, while somewhat reticent about syphilis, are nonetheless at pains to suggest that sex is not without its serious side effects. Their artistic exhortations suggest women as the source of the disease, so that we find Venus shown as both ideal love and the source of contamination. Such attitudes contrast strikingly with what follows. The 18th century is characterised by the sophisticated elements of European societies taking an irreverent or satirical view of sex and syphilis. In England this is reflected in the works of Hogarth and other notable caricaturists. The fierce castigation of men and their follies is matched by more understand and rational attitudes towards women. But it does not last. Indeed it seems almost to invite the studied censoriousness of the 19th centrury with women again stigmatised as a source of degradation and disease. In essence this collection of examples of syphilis in art illustrates wide variations in attitude and behaviour from alarm to tolerance and from intolerance through liberality to licence and much the same again, over nearly five centuries. Just occasionally an artist seems to be ahead of his times.

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