An article published this week by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggests that Michelangelo Buonaroti suffered from osteoarthritis for the last 15 years of his life. Miraculously, though the researchers claim that this was why the Renaissance master could not write his own letters toward the end of his life, it did not affect his art practice, which remained prolific up to the week of his death.
The research — an Italian-Australian collaboration between Roman plastic surgeons Davide Lazzeri and Manuel Francisco Castello, University of Florence faculty members Marco Matucci-Cerinic and Donatella Lippi, and George M. Weisz, a humanities professor at the University of New South Wales and the University of New England — draws on close analysis of three portraits of the elderly Michelangelo, with a particular focus on the rendering of his left hand. (Though still the subject of some debate, it is widely believed that Michelangelo was a lefty.) The paintings, Jiacopino del Conte’s 1535 portrait, Daniele Ricciarelli’s 1544 portrait, and Pompeo Caccini’s posthumous portrait of Michelangelo in his studio (1595), show signs of degenerative arthritis in the smaller joints of his hands, but none of the swelling characteristic of gout, with which many subsequent observers have diagnosed Michelangelo. (In 2014, a similar project revolving around Auguste Rodin’s renderings of hands, sought to retroactively diagnose the medical conditions of Parisians in the 19th century.)
“[T]he hypothesis of gouty arthritis of the hands as the main cause of the pain in his hand can be dismissed, mainly because no signs of inflammation and no tophi can be seen on his extremities,” the researchers write. “More likely, his suffering may be due to a degenerative modification of the small joints of his hands which may be interpreted today as osteoarthritis.”
This new diagnosis may not seem especially revelatory, but it does reaffirm Michelangelo’s incredible skill and determination. In 1552 he wrote to his nephew that “writing gives me a great discomfort” and by late 1563, just two months before his death, his hand was causing him so much pain that he couldn’t write at all. “I have received several letters from thee of late to which I have not replied because my hand refused to write,” a letter from December 28, 1563 quoted in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine article explains. “In the future, therefore, I shall get others to write for me and will sign the letters myself.” Despite the pain in his hand he continued to work, chiseling away at his final, incomplete sculpture, the “Rondanini Pietà.”
The article’s most illuminating passage may actually be its introduction, which features a very concise and morbidly entertaining recap of the various conditions and ailments with which Michelangelo was diagnosed in his lifetime and subsequently. They include “repeated expulsion of stones, and one dramatic acute obstruction,” severe pain in one of his feet due to “tophus arthritis,” “a deformed right knee with excrescences,” lead poisoning and intoxication, dizziness, involuntary eye movements likely caused by staring up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling for so many hours, depression, high-functioning autism, and Asperger’s. So, next time you’re having a bad day, stiffen your upper lip and think of poor Michelangelo.