Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Reading between the lines

One of Michelangelo’s most controversial sculptures may reveal a startling diagnosis

Michelangelo was a masterful artist, no doubt about that. To achieve the breathtaking perfection he coaxed out of a block of stone using only a chisel and hammer seems almost impossible, even today. However, the understanding and respect he showed for the human form did not come easily. Indeed, the Italian Renaissance genius learned the intricacies of the body in much the same way his medical contemporaries did: through anatomy and dissection.

Many mysteries surround the works Michelangelo produced in his lifetime. In particular, his masculine and in some ways unorthodox treatment of women’s bodies has provoked both curiosity and confusion among art historians, physicians and lay people alike. How is it possible that a man responsible for such perfect representations of the human form — the ultimate example being his statue David — could make mistakes in proportion or symmetry in other works? The debate swirls, pointing to his sexuality, style and subtexts as possible explanations.

Physicians might be most interested in Michelangelo’s alleged missteps as they relate to the health of his models. Could their strange physical anomalies be a representation of disease?

Artistic beginnings

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti di Simoni was born in 1475 in the Tuscan town of Caprese. After his mother died when he was five, Michelangelo’s father sent him to live with the family of a stonecutter who was in his employ and it was there that the boy learned to use a chisel and hammer. He claimed sculpture as his true passion, despite his talent in painting, and even poetry and architecture.

As a teenager, Michelangelo’s passion for art was undeniable and his skeptical father eventually relented, allowing him to apprentice as a painter. The young man’s talents quickly became apparent and he soon found himself under the patronage of the Medici family.

In Florence in 1492, he studied human anatomy by dissecting corpses in a church hospital, which inspired his awe of the human form. Even his architectural works were influenced by this; he believed that buildings should be constructed to mimic the body with a central head and torso flanked by axillary limbs.

By the end of the 15th century, he was in Rome where he carved his first masterpiece, the Pietà (1499), of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. From then on, the commissions came fast and furious.

Michelangelo, the man

As for his own health, Michelangelo lived a long life, compared to most of his contemporaries, dying in 1564 at the age of 89. Despite his longevity, he was physically quite weak, always in pain, and not much to look at either... a fistfight with a friend ended with his nose being broken when he was 17. The years Michelangelo spent on scaffolding, painting, lying on his back and contorting into awkward positions during countless hours of carving were not kind to him.

His personality troubles were worse, and his antisocial nature and family history have led some medical historians to believe he may have suffered from Asperger Syndrome. Aside from being incredibly gifted, Michelangelo has been described by those who knew him as having a uniformly flat affect and an often ornery disposition. He displayed bizarre behaviours and reclusive tendencies, and was extremely critical of himself. When working, he devoted himself obsessively to the task at hand.

Although no stranger to pain and suffering, Michelangelo portrayed the most beautiful expressions of the human body, believing it to be, as the Bible states, made in the image of the divine.

In Notte, or Night, which flanks the entrance of the Medici Chapel at the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, this perfection is oddly coupled with distortion, asymmetry and quite possibly disease. One physician recently noted that Michelangelo’s sculptural skills may allow for a modern diagnosis of an age-old killer: breast cancer.

A modern diagnosis

The disease was recorded as far back as the 16th century BCE when ancient Egyptian physicians reported treating breast tumours with cauterization techniques in the Edwin Smith Papyrus. And breast cancer has been seen in the arts elsewhere. A torso found in Turkey dating from around 150 BCE reveals what is almost undoubtedly a case of advanced breast cancer. In a painting called La Fornarina (circa 1518) by Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), aka Raphael, the model is also likely suffering from the disease.

But Night, at first glance, portrays a model who seems as perfect as the piece itself. Upon closer examination, however, the left breast is oddly misshapen, somehow off. The suggestive, dark name of the piece, and the fact that the statue was commissioned for the tomb of Giuliano de Medici, may also point to the macabre possibility that Michelangelo intended to demonstrate how death can lurk in what is young and lovely, too. Other death-like elements such as poppies, an owl and a grotesque mask flank the statue’s form.

It was a modern oncologist from Virginia who was the first to associate the seeming imperfection with breast cancer. When Dr James J. Stark visited the statue on a trip to Florence in 1999, he was struck by what to him was painfully obvious: “There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple – areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple. These features indicate a tumor just medial to the nipple, involving either the nipple itself or the lymphatics just deep to the nipple and causing tethering and retraction of the skin on the opposite side.”

He reported his findings in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, inspiring others to agree. In fact, the possible discovery reopened the debate surrounding Michelangelo’s treatment of the female form.

Medicine in a masterpiece

Night is one of the only nude sculptures Michelangelo created of women. As in most of his works, the female form seems extraordinarily masculine and muscular, the breasts slapped on almost as an afterthought. During the Renaissance, there was a neoclassical reverence for the male form that could explain this to some degree, though some point to Michelangelo’s uncertain sexuality as a reason for his worshipful representations of male bodies and the stronger-looking females he portrayed. Other art historians assert that the reason Michelangelo (and many of his contemporaries) depicted women in masculine ways was because there was a shortage of female models and because artists only had access to male bodies for anatomical study.

Given Michelangelo’s considerable talent and his gentler treatment of women in his paintings, such as those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it seems unlikely that the artist was unfamiliar with women’s bodies. In fact, his sense of perfection and accuracy means that the anomalies in Night’s left breast suggest a real underlying pathology in his model.

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On April 11, 2010, trlkly said:
    I wonder if you might answer a question from someone who does not know the subject: What in Rafael's La Fornarina suggests the lady has breast cancer?

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