History is not static; it is possible to find information that sheds new light on stories from the past. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the correct technology.
Cangrande I della Scala (1291-1329) was a nobleman and ruler in the fourteenth century city-state of Verona in modern day Italy. His family ruled Verona, in northern Italy, from 1277 until 1387. He married Giovanna of Antioch in 1308, when he was about 17, and remained married to her until his death. They had no heirs, but he had several illegitimate children. After the death of his brother, Cangrande became ruler in 1311, at the age of 20. Because the city-states were always warring with each other, he already had military experience.
Verona remained almost constantly at war during his rule, and although Cangrande was the type of military leader that led from the front, he still had time to handle legislative issues. He was a patron of the arts in general and the poet Dante Alighieri, author of Divine Comedy, in particular.
Cangrande died in 1329, at the age of 38. He was very ill before he died, which was attributed at the time to drinking from a polluted stream. According to contemporary sources, his symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Because he had no legitimate heirs, his nephews inherited. In the aftermath, one of his physicians was hanged by Cangrande’s successor, Mastino II. This seemed to validate suspicions that Cangrande had been killed and there was a cover up. But anyone who knew what really happened wasn’t talking.
At the time of Cangrande’s death, there were rumors that he had been poisoned, but nobody knew for sure for almost 700 years. In 2004, Cangrande’s stone sarcophagus was opened, 675 years after his death, to use modern technology to solve the mystery of his death. The body had been naturally mummified, to the point that the liver and fecal matter could be examined and tested.
In what scientists call a paleopathological study, they found lethal amounts of digitalis, poison from the foxglove plant. And this does indeed solve the mystery of how Cangrande died. However, it does not solve the actual murder mystery.
First of all, there is the possibility that the ingestion of that much digitalis was accidental. Not likely considering the number of suspects, but still a possibility. That suspect pool includes the nephews who inherited, people in Verona who didn’t appreciate the way he ruled their city-state, anyone from the neighboring city-states who wanted a change of ruler in Verona. And we still have the doctor who was hanged. In small doses, digitalis has medicinal uses. Was the doctor treating Cangrande and accidentally gave him too large a dose? Did Mastino II want Cangrande dead and enlist the aid of the doctor, killing him when he was no longer needed? Was the doctor uninvolved but suspicious and was killed when he confronted Mastino II?
So exhuming the body solved the centuries old question of how Cangrande died. But some mystery remains. Maybe someday we’ll have the technology to answer the rest of the questions.