Michelangelo was known for his gorgeous interpretations of the human body. Among his greatest triumphs are hands—like the hands of David (which has generated its own controversy among certain circles) and the hand of God reaching out to man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But are the later works of Michelangelo great because of—or in spite of—his own arthritic hands? New research suggests that the sculptor suffered from osteoarthritis, and that his work with the hammer and chisel may have allowed him to keep the use of hands until his death.
In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, a group of plastic surgeons, rheumatologists and other scholars posit that the great master was “afflicted by an illness involving his joints.” They used portraits of Michelangelo and his correspondence to examine the small joints of his left hand.
During his life, the sculptor complained of what he called “gout” to his nephew. At the time, the disease was a sort of catch-all diagnosis that included everything all kinds of joint pain, inflammation and arthritic complaints. These days, the condition is tied to a buildup of uric acid that causes painful crystallization in the joints. But during Michelangelo’s life, it was a way to indicate that you were sore and stiff.
Late in life, Michelangelo complained to his nephew that his hands were sore and stiff—no small crisis for a man whose livelihood depended on his handmade art. The doctors found corroboration of those claims in portraits of the artist that show a hanging left hand with both degenerative and non-degenerative changes. They attribute the pain not just to arthritis, but to the stress of hammering and chiseling and note that though the master was seen hammering days before his death at age 89, he did not write or sign his own letters (which he wrote with his left hand) before his death.
In recent years, it’s become quite the trend to retroactively diagnose famous artists and public figures with diseases that weren’t known during their time. Take Emily Dickinson—though she died of “Bright’s disease,” scholars now think she had hypertension. Some researchers think Frederick Chopin had cystic fibrosis.
The practice raises plenty of questions for researchers: What’s the point of diagnosing someone who’s long dead with few certainties? What are the ethical considerations? How should a retroactive diagnosis influence the way scholars think about a beloved public figure? The new study on the master’s hands doesn’t answer any of those questions, but researchers think it adds a masterful flourish to their understanding of the artist.
In a release, the lead researcher says that the new theory “emphasizes [Michelangelo’s] triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days.” Perhaps, researchers say, his work helped Michelangelo use his hands even longer—and give the world even more of his landmark art.