Michelangelo's years of sculpting resulted in many incredible works that are still treasured some 500 years later. They also really took a toll on his hands
, according to a recently published paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Researchers analyzed portraits of Michelangelo, as well as writings from the artist about the pain he endured late in life. They concluded that while he may have suffered from a host of other illnesses and conditions (including gout and lead poisoning), it is likely that osteoarthritis is what affected the artist's hands.
In explaining their methodology, the authors of the study write that "there are no spectroscopic or X-ray images available, and for this reason, the careful observation of the portraits is the only method available today to interpret hand deformities." There were three oil paintings of the artist—between the ages of 60 and 65—used in the analysis: the first two were painted during his lifetime by Jacopino del Conte and Daniele da Volterra (circa 1535 and 1544, respectively), while the third by Pompeo Caccini was completed in 1595—36 years after Michelangelo's death.
Portrait by Jacopino del Conte // Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
From their study of Michelangelo's left (dominant) hand in each of the paintings, the team writes:
"The portraits show Michelangelo’s hand to be affected by degenerative arthritis, in particular at the trapezius/metacarpal joint level, as well as at the metacarpo/phalangeal joint level, the interphalangeal joint of the thumb, the metacarpo/phalangeal joint and the proximal interphalangeal joint of the index finger levels. These are clear non-inflammatory degenerative changes, which were probably accelerated by prolonged hammering and chiseling... Michelangelo’s difficulties with tasks such as writing may have resulted from stiffness of the thumb and the loss of the ability to abduct, flex and adduct it."
Letters indicate that Michelangelo's symptoms arrived late in life, and in 1552 correspondence with his nephew, he wrote that writing itself caused discomfort. By the time of his death, he could no longer write and only signed his letters.
But even then, Michelangelo continued making art—he was seen hammering up to six days before his death—and that might have actually helped him. Lead author Davide Lazzeri said in a statement: "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. Indeed the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible."