An intriguing new medical history of Michelangelo Buonarroti suggests the famed Italian artist’s greuling life-long work ethic may have helped him combat his well-documented struggles with what we now know to be osteoarthritis.
The prolonged hammering and chiseling required to produce his greatest works probably accelerated degenerative arthritis in the hands of the sculptor and painter. But that intense physical work may also have helped him keep the use of his hands right up until he died.
That’s the upshot of a new analysis published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by a team of doctors who analyzed three of his own self-portraits to make their diagnosis.
All three paintings are of Michelangelo between the ages of 60 and 65 and show that the small joints of his left hand appear to have been affected by degenerative changes likely to have been caused by osteoarthritis. In earlier portraits of the artist his hands appear with no signs of deformity.
"It is clear from the literature that Michelangelo was afflicted by an illness involving his joints," said lead researcher Dr. Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic in Rome. "In the past this has been attributed to gout but our analysis shows this can be dismissed."
There are no signs of inflammation in the artist's hands and no evidence of any tophi, the small lumps of uric acid crystals that can form under the skin of people with gout, Dr. Lazzerie noted.
According to letters written by Michelangelo, problems with his hands appeared later in life and by 1552, caused him great discomfort. Yet he continued to create masterpieces — working right up until six days before his death in 1564, at the age of 88. By then Michelangelo was unable to write and only signed his letters.
"The diagnosis of osteoarthritis offers one plausible explanation for Michelangelo's loss of dexterity in old age and emphasizes his triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days," Dr Lazzeri said. "Indeed, the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible."
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