Saturday, 23 August 2014

Lead Poisoning - the Threat from Everywhere!

An 18th century French courtier was constantly exposed to the dangers of lead poisoning. Lead was everywhere particularly in the daily-applied make-up and symptoms of lead poisoning was common. So, how did lead poisoning effect the French court?

The Fountain of Saturn is gilded with lead

Not only make-up was filled with lead, medicine too was no safer; French doctors were notorious for using lead to "cure" their patients. For example a doctor in Montpellier used lead against inflammations, stiffness in the joints and gun wounds! The strange thing is that people knew that lead was dangerous to use but it nevertheless remained in common use.

Lead is easily absorbed by the body and the usage would have led many courtiers complain of head aches, bowel problems, dizziness, nausea etc. It was also normal that the skin would become inflamed and red which the courtier would then cover up with yet more lead-based make-up. Baldness was yet another common side-effect and because the problem was so rife it became fashion to shave the hairline back. In the most extreme cases people died from the lead-exposure - the English Countess of Coventry was a said to be the most beautiful woman at the English court but her massive use of Venetian ceruse led to her death at just 27 years old.

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin who had eye issues
due to lead poisoning

The Château de Versailles was in itself a hazardous place to be. In 1660 Louis XIV had ordered a round of alterations which included decorative lead-roofs. The gardens were no safer with the countless statues and fountains often gilded with lead or made out of lead entirely. It is a wonder that the Sun King did not succumb to lead poisoning! The artist Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (who created the firework display for the birth of Louis XV's son and restored the frescoes in the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau) was one of the men at court who suffered from lead poisoning. In 1770 he suffered from an eye affliction due to lead poisoning which he got not from make-up but from the white-pigmented oils that were favoured by painters of the time.

No comments:

Post a comment