Michelangelo, the mastermind behind the Sistine Chapel’s meticulously painted frescoes and such intricately carved sculptures as the Bandini Pietà, was undoubtedly a towering figure in art history. But a new analysis of shoes believed to belong to the artist suggests he may have actually been short in stature—at least by today’s standards, reports Elena Percivaldi for BBC History Italia.
For the study, scholars from the Forensic Anthropology, Paleopathology and Bioarchaeology Research Center (FAPAB) in Avola, Italy, examined three shoes found in Michelangelo’s home following his death in 1564. As the team writes in the journal Anthropologie, the pair of leather flats and single leather slipper (its companion was stolen in 1873) are now housed in Florence’s Casa Buonarroti Museum.
The project is the first to estimate Michelangelo’s physical attributes through personal belongings like footwear, notes Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. After analyzing the shoes, the researchers determined that their owner was no more than 5 feet 2 inches tall.
As Angel Gomez Fuentes writes for Spanish newspaper ABC, study authors Francesco M. Galassi and Elena Varotto dated the shoes to Michelangelo’s lifetime based on their style and material. (Radiocarbon dating would’ve offered a more precise timeframe, but the tests might have damaged the footwear.) Because the shoes were roughly the same size, the team argues that one person probably wore all three—and, presumably, the missing slipper as well.
Today, the average height of an Italian man is just over 5 feet 8 inches tall. But 500 years ago, European men were, on average, slightly shorter than their modern counterparts, meaning the shoes’ owner was likely not considered diminutive by the standards of the time.
The team’s findings appear to be supported by a passage in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Per Artnet News, Vasari’s famed biography describes the artist as being of “middle height, wide across the shoulders, but the rest of his body in good proportion”—in other words, fairly average.
It’s worth noting that the researchers were unable to examine Michelangelo’s remains, which rest in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Instead, they relied solely on the shoes, which could, of course, have belonged to a relative or someone else in the artist’s household.
“An exhumation inclusive of a full anthropological and palaeopathological analysis of Michelangelo’s remains … might at last verify the accuracy of several hypotheses on his bodily features and pathological traits,” write the authors in the study, as quoted by the Daily Mail’s Ian Randall. But this kind of assessment is unlikely to happen any time soon, making it difficult to confirm theories like the one posed by the new paper.