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Michelangelo battled through painful arthritis to design St Peter’s Basilica

Pictures of Michelangelo in later life show that the artist’s hands were severely damaged through excessive hammering and chiseling.

The Renaissance artist and architect continued to sculpt, paint and event drew up the plans for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome while suffering the effects of chronic osteoarthritis which left his fingers twisted into bony protrusions, a new study suggests.

Italian scientists believe that extensive hammering and chiselling carried out by Michelangelo when creating masterpieces, like David, was responsible for leave his hands deformed in later life.  Yet it was his refusal to give up work until just days before his death which kept his fingers flexible, according Dr Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic, Rome.

Dr Lazzeri studied paintings of Micaelangelo throughout his life, noticing how his hands degenerated as he grew older, until it was clear from their claw-like posture, that he was suffering from arthritis. However letters reveal that he was still seen ‘hammering’ six days before his death.  “The diagnosis of osteoarthritis offers one plausible explanation for Michelangelo’s loss of dexterity in old age and emphasises his triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days,” said the academic.

“Indeed, the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1474 in the town of Caprese.  He apprenticed under the Renaissance master, Ghirlandaio, then studied in the court of Lorenzo il Magnifico.  He came to Rome, where he sculpted his first ‘Pieta’ for a French cardinal, before returning to Florence to work on his ‘David’.  Despite his misgivings, he was persuaded by Pope Julius II to go back to Rome to start work on the pontiff’s’ own monumental tomb, which was destined for the choir of the old St Peter’s.  The Pope then changed his mind, insisting that the young sculptor should instead paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Despite complaining that he was ‘no painter’, Michaelangelo spent four years covering the ceiling in frescoes, standing on 60ft high scaffolding with paint dripping into his eyes, finishing it in 1512.  The project was interrupted by another spell in Florence, before he was able to return to Rome once more, dragged back at the age of 60 by Pope Paul III.  There he painted the Last Judgment (1534-41), on the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel.

Worn out by the commission, he painted his own miserable-looking face on the wrinkled human skin held by St Bartholomew, one of the main figures in the painting.  But unwilling to give up working, he went on to paint the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter for the Catican.

In 1546, Michelangelo was asked to take over as architect of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a project which had been floundering for 50 years. The dome, which was not completed until after his death has been called ‘the greatest creation of the Renaissance.’  In December 2007, a red chalk sketch for the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, possibly the last made by Michelangelo before his death, was discovered in the Vatican archives. He died in Rome in 1564 at the age of 89, still working.

Three paintings of Michelangelo between the ages of 60 and 65 and show that the small joints of his left hand were affected by non-inflammatory degenerative changes that can be interpreted as osteoarthritis. In earlier portraits of the artist his hands appear with no signs of deformity.

Dr Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic, Rome, said: “It is clear from the literature that Michelangelo was afflicted by an illness involving his joints. 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. According to letters written by Michelangelo his hand symptoms appeared later in life and in 1552, in a letter to his nephew, he wrote that writing gave him great discomfort. Despite this he continued to create one masterpiece after another and was seen hammering up to six days before his death in 1564, three weeks before his 89th birthday. By then Michelangelo was unable to write anymore and only signed his letters.

The research was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

One Comment
  1. News editor

    Arthritis commonly affects the joints of the fingers, hand and wrist. The arthritis of the fingers may be a feature of a systemic generalised arthritis affecting many different joints of the body, an inflammatory condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or a degenerative localised worn joint. An accurate diagnosis is essential in order to identify the future course and most appropriate treatment.

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