Artists’ Diseases

Artists are not free of illness and this can be noticed in their artworks. Lately, more doctors were interested to discover the artists’ diseases: in the volume “The Artists’ Eye” (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), Dr Michael F. Marmor, an ophthalmologist at Stanford University, and Dr. James G. Ravin studied the eye’s diseases and how it can affect the artistic creation process. Why Georges Seurat’s paintings seem to have movement? Is the yellow in Van Gogh’s paintings due to drug use? Are the big coloured brushstrokes of Monet’s waterlilies due to cataracts the artist suffered from? This book had an important contribution to the art history starting from reference artworks and using innovative illustrations which stimulate the artistic vision.

Michelangelo suffered from osteoarthritis and kidney’s stones

A group of doctors (Davide Lazzeri, Manuel Francisco Castello, Marco Matucci-Cerinic, Donatella Lippi și George M. Weisz) have researched Michelangelo’s work and life and concluded that he suffered from osteoarthritis in the last 15 years of his life. They cited a letter to his nephew, Lionardo di Buonarroto Simoni, in 1552, in which the almost 80 years old sculptor was complaining of great discomfort when writing. By the end of his life, the pain was so great that he could not write at all: I have received several letters from three of which I have not replied because my hand refused to write. In the future, therefore, I shall get others to write for me and I will sign the letters myself. (Rome, December 1563)  The five doctors studied two portraits of Michelangelo, for supporting their thesis with regard to osteoarthritis. In the first artwork done by Jacopino del Conte, in 1535, the 60 years old artist’s left hand already showed the osteoarthritis symptoms. The second painting was done after Michelangelo’s death (1595) by Pompeo Caccini. The Michelangelo’s hands study revealed that he was left-handed.

Jacopino del Conte, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s portrait (detail); Pompeo Caccini, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s portrait (detail)

But osteoarthritis was not the only illness that upset Michelangelo. In his correspondence with his younger friend Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo describes the symptoms of nephrolithiasis he suffered, with repeated expulsion of stones from his kidneys: Messer Giorgio, Dear Friend, … my health is in the condition, what with renal and urinary calculi, and pleurisy, that is the common lot of all old people. Maestro Eraldo can bear witness to this, for I owe my life to this skill. (Rome, 1557) After 1547  Matteo Realdo Colombo, anatomist, took care of Michelangelo’s renal crisis, prescribing to the sculptor a daily cure with Viterbo mineral water.

Another doctors’ assumption (Dr J. Montes-Santiago și Dr Paul Wolf) was that Michelangelo was suffering from lead poisoning, caused either by solvents and the colours he used or by wine consumption (in this epoch, it was stored in lead containers). It is possible that the depressive episodes, visible from his correspondence, have also been caused by lead intoxication.

If for Michelangelo was a pain to write, it was definitely painful to work. Despite all his suffering, he worked until the end of his life (February 18th, 1564), six hours a day, leaving only one unfinished work (Pieta` Rondanini).

Leonardo da Vinci had strabismus

In the study conducted by Christopher W. Tyler, ”Evidence of strabismus at Leonardo da Vinci”, were examined six portraits and self-portraits of the artist, in which the eye direction can be identified. Among the studied works were the paintings Salvator Mundi and St. John the Baptist, the drawings L’Uomo Vitruviano and a Self-portrait, and  Andrea del Verrocchio’ sculptures David and Young Fighter (which are supposed to have been modelled by Leonardo himself ).

Their examination revealed that the Renaissance artist suffered from ”exotropia, a type of strabismus, in which one or both eyes are directed outward”, the presence of this condition is much more pronounced in his portraits than in the self-portraits. So, Leonardo suffered from ”intermittent exotropia” (in the examined papers the strabismus indicators ranged from −13.2° to 5.9°): more severe exotropia has been perceived in relaxation moments while focusing on an object has led to the exotropia’s correction.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Saint, John the Baptist, Sursa

Christopher W. Tyler noted that this deficiency of Leonardo’s eyesight “contributed to his extraordinary ability to transpose landscapes (especially mountain scenes) and objects in a three-dimensional manner”. And if the artist’s strabismus was intermittent, he could get stereoscopic visualization of the environment.


Davide Lazzeri, Manuel Francisco Castello, Marco Matucci-Cerinic, Donatella Lippi și George M. Weisz, “Osteoarthritis in the hands of Michelangelo Buonarroti”, in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2016, Vol. 109(5), pp. 180–183.

Christopher W. Tyler, PhD, “Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus”, in JAMA Ophthalmology, 18 October 2018.

Author: Silvia Suciu

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