Michelangelo is widely regarded as the most famous artist of the Italian Renaissance. Among his works are the “David” and “Pieta” statues and the Sistine Chapel frescoes. It is now thought that he had many features of high functioning autism or Aspergers syndrome.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy. Born to a family of moderate means in the banking business, Michelangelo became an apprentice to a painter before studying in the sculpture gardens of the powerful Medici family. What followed was a remarkable career as an artist in the Italian Renaissance, recognized in his own time for his artistic virtuosity. His works include the “David” and “Pieta” statues and the ceiling paintings of Rome’s Sistine Chapel, including the “Last Judgment.” Although he always considered himself a Florentine, Michelangelo lived most of his life in Rome, where he died in 1564, at age 88.
Painter, sculptor, architect and poet Michelangelo, one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy. Michelangelo’s father, Leonardo di Buonarrota Simoni, was briefly serving as a magistrate in the small village when he recorded the birth of his second of five sons with his wife, Francesca Neri, but they returned to Florence when Michelangelo was still an infant. Due to his mother’s illness, however, Michelangelo was placed with a family of stonecutters, where he later jested, “With my wet-nurse’s milk, I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues.”
Michelangelo unveiled the soaring “Last Judgment” on the far wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1541. There was an immediate outcry—that the nude figures were inappropriate for so holy a place, and a letter called for the destruction of the Renaissance’s largest fresco. The painter retaliated by inserting into the work new portrayals: Of his chief critic as a devil and himself as the flayed St. Bartholomew.
Though Michelangelo’s brilliant mind and copious talents earned him the regard and patronage of the wealthy and powerful men of Italy, he had his share of detractors. He had a contentious personality and quick temper, which led to fractious relationships, often with his superiors. This not only got Michelangelo into trouble, it created a pervasive dissatisfaction for the painter, who constantly strived for perfection but was unable to compromise.
He sometimes fell into spells of melancholy, which were recorded in many of his literary works: “I am here in great distress and with great physical strain, and have no friends of any kind, nor do I want them; and I do not have enough time to eat as much as I need; my joy and my sorrow/my repose are these discomforts,” he once wrote.Described by A. Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, bizzarro e fantastico, a man who “withdrew himself from the company of men.
“I am here in great distress and with physical strain and haver no friends of any kind, nor do I want them and I do not have enough time to eat as much as I need, my joy and my sorrow my repose are these disappointments.”
A report, which appears in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2004 , provides a synthesis of new evidence about the famous 16th century artist, renowned for painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
“He was a loner, self-absorbed, and gave his undivided attention to his masterpieces — a feature of autism,” writes lead researcher Muhammad Arshad, PhD, a psychiatrist“Michelangelo met the criteria for Asperger’s disorder, or high-functioning autism,” Arshad adds.
In his report, Arshad outlines research into the great artist — taken from numerous works, including notes from the artist’s assistant and his family. It all points to high-functioning autism, he says.
Autism is a complex disorder that does not affect intelligence. But it does impact how people perceive and process information. Difficulty communicating, social isolation, a need for control, and obsession with very specific interests are hallmarks of autism. For some people, all this makes daily functioning quite difficult. Others get along fairly well, even attend regular schools.
Michelangelo likely suffered from high-functioning autism, called Asperger’s syndrome, says Arshad. Some of his evidence:
- The men in Michelangelo’s family “displayed autistic traits” and mood disturbances. His family described him as “erratic” and “had trouble applying himself to anything.” As a child and young man, he did not get along with his family and suffered physical abuse.
- The artist was aloof and a loner. The artist’s mentor described Michelangelo as being unable to make friends or to maintain any relationship. He did not attend his brother’s funeral, which underlined “his inability to show emotion,” writes Arshad.
- He was obsessed with work and controlling everything in his life — family, money, time. Loss of control caused him great frustration. He was able to generate, in a short time, many hundreds of sketches for the Sistine ceiling — no two alike, nor any pose similar. He gave his undivided attention to his masterpieces.
- He had difficulty holding up his end of a conversation, often walking away in the middle of an exchange, writes Arshad. He had a short temper, a sarcastic wit, and was paranoid at times. He was bad-tempered and had angry outbursts.
- He rarely bathed, and often slept in his clothes including his boots. “He has sometimes gone so long without taking them off that then the skin came away, like a snake’s, with the boots,” wrote the artist’s assistant.
“Michelangelo’s single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills, and various issues of life control appear to be features of high-functioning autism,” Arshad concludes.
In addition, in his youth, Michelangelo had taunted a fellow student, and received a blow on the nose that disfigured him for life. Over the years, he suffered increasing infirmities from the rigors of his work; in one of his poems, he documented the tremendous physical strain that he endured by painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Political strife in his beloved Florence also gnawed at him, but his most notable enmity was with fellow Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci, who was more than 20 years his senior. Micelangelo will have studied human anatomy and visited public dissections such as featured below.