Who would not want the hands of Michelangelo, one of the greatest painters and sculptors in history? Now it seems that those hands were working through the pain of degenerative arthritis to create masterpieces until the artist was nearly 89 years old. These are the findings of a recent study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

[Michelangelo]Share on Pinterest
Analyses of paintings of Michelangelo have led to the conclusion that he had osteoarthritis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), degenerative arthritis, or osteoarthritis, affects 13.9% of American adults aged 25 years and older and 33.6% of those 65 years and above.

Osteoarthritis involves a loss of joint cartilage, causing friction in the joints and damage to the bones. It is associated with disability and excess mortality.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, who lived from 1475-1564, was the first artist to be recognized as a genius in his own lifetime. Prolific during the Italian Renaissance, the crowds still flock to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà in St. Peter’s, in Rome, Italy, among many other works of sublime beauty.

However, Michelangelo is thought to have had a number of diseases and various psychological or behavioral disorders.

Dr. Davide Lazzeri, of the Villa Salaria Clinic in Rome, and colleagues analyzed three paintings of Michelangelo to find out more about his health.

The paintings depict the artist aged 60-65 years and reflect his progressive aging.

The first, dated 1535, is by Jacopino del Conte. It was painted when Michelangelo was over 60. His left hand is shown hanging, with apparent signs of a non-inflammatory articular disease, which could be osteoarthritis.

The second, by Daniele Ricciarelli (better known as da Volterra), is dated 1544 and is thought to be a copy of the first painting.

The third, by Pompeo Caccini, was painted 36 years after Michelangelo’s death in 1595.

In the paintings, the artist’s left hand shows signs of non-inflammatory degenerative changes that can be interpreted as osteoarthritis.

Earlier portraits show him with no apparent signs of deformity in his hands.

The researchers conclude that the artist’s condition was probably made worse by prolonged hammering and chiseling. They add that continuing to work intensely may have enabled him to keep the use of his hands until his death.

Lead author, Dr. Lazzeri, who is a specialist in plastic reconstructive and esthetic surgery, says:

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.”

The exclusion of gout was based on the fact that the hands show no signs of inflammation, nor was there any evidence of tophi. Tophi are small lumps of uric acid crystals that form under the skin of an individual with gout.

Fast facts about osteoarthritis
  • 80% of patients with osteoarthritis experience some movement limitation
  • 25% need help with the major activities of daily life
  • Deaths in the US related to osteoarthritis are rising.

Learn more about osteoarthritis

Letters written by Michelangelo suggest that his hand symptoms appeared later in life. In 1552, he told his nephew, in a letter, that writing was painful.

He described his problem as “gout,” which, in those days, referred to arthritic conditions in general. He did also mention “cruel pain” in one foot, which could have been what we know now as gout.

In spite of these setbacks, Michelangelo continued to produce masterpieces, and he was seen hammering up to 6 days before he died, 3 weeks before his 89th birthday. At this point, he was no longer able to write, and instead he only signed his letters. Dr. Lazzeri believes this could be because of the osteoarthritis.

Other afflictions are said to have included depression and dizziness, possibly resulting from lead poisoning, either because of the dyes and solvents that dripped onto his face or from drinking wine stored in lead containers.

The findings, says Dr. Lazzeri, highlight Michelangelo’s “triumph over infirmity.” Perhaps it was his very perseverance which enabled him to use his hands until the end.

The researchers mention that the lack of access to technology such as X-rays in those days means there are limited sources to work from. They also say that the deformity could have been caused by a metabolic disease.

Medical News Today reported recently that the risk of osteoarthritis is lower if people keep moving.