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Was Michelangelo's artistic genius a symptom of autism?

James Burleigh
Tuesday 01 June 2004 00:00 BST

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Pietà, the statue of David - Michelangelo's works have long been recognised as the creations of a true genius. But two medical experts now claim the renowned Renaissance artist could have suffered from a form of autism.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Pietà, the statue of David - Michelangelo's works have long been recognised as the creations of a true genius. But two medical experts now claim the renowned Renaissance artist could have suffered from a form of autism.

Dr Muhammad Arshad, staff psychiatrist at Whiston Hospital in Prescot, Merseyside, and Professor Michael Fitzgerald, from Trinity College Dublin, have concluded that the Italian artist may have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. The claims, however, have been rubbished by art historians.

Outlining their evidence in the Journal of Medical Biography, Dr Arshad and Professor Fitzgerald said: "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 or Asperger's syndrome."

But James Hall, an art historian and the author of Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, dismissed the claims. He said: "There is simply no evidence [Michelangelo] had any medical problems of this nature. He wrote poetry, was extremely articulate and worked to an extremely high level well into his eighties.

"The character traits they are referring to - obsessional behaviour, fiery temper, propensity to be a loner - could be linked to many artists. Or newspaper editors for that matter. This deconstruction of artists along medical lines seems to be a sort of vogue among certain doctors. One recently said El Greco's distinctive painting style was the result of a squint."

People with Asperger's syndrome have difficulties with communication and social interaction but can show an unusual, often obsessional, talent or skill in a particular area. Some sufferers display remarkable abilities in music, drawing or mathematics. According to Dr Arshad and Professor Fitzgerald, their research into the sculptor and painter's life - taken from numerous works, including notes from the artist's assistant and his family - all pointed to Michelangelo suffering from high-functioning autism.

Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni, born in 1475, had a troubled childhood, being frequently beaten by his father, the pair noted. Aged 14, he began a three-year apprenticeship with the famous artist Domenico Ghirlandaio.

However, his dexterity with brush and chisel contrasted with his inability to conduct normal human relationships. Dr Arshad and Prof Fitzgerald said: "Michelangelo was aloof and a loner. Like the architect John Nash, who also had high-functioning autism, he had few friends." His failure to attend his brother's funeral demonstrated that he was unable to show emotion, the two experts claimed.

Michelangelo was also obsessive and followed repetitive routines. Loss of control caused him "great frustration", the report said, and he focused so much on his work that he toiled eight years over The Last Judgement. His highly retentive memory also allowed him to generate, in a short time, many hundreds of sketches for the Sistine ceiling.

The report also said Michelangelo found communication and conversation difficult. "He was bad tempered and had anger outbursts," it added. He had a sarcastic wit and was "paranoid at times, narcissistic and schizoid". He was also described as "strange, without affect, and isolated" as well as being "preoccupied with his own private reality".



Suffered from astigmatism and cataracts. Fitted with glasses, he proclaimed: "If the world really looks like that I will paint no more." When painting the Water-lilies sequence he is reported to have told a friend: "My poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog."


After deciding art was his vocation and "the means by which he could bring consolation to humanity", Van Gogh was poverty-stricken and in hallucinatory depression in 1888. He painted more than 200 canvases in 15 months then cut off part of his left ear.


After the onset of deafness in 1812, Beethoven became chronically depressed. This gave way to a period that produced Hammerklavier Op106, Choral Symphony No9 in D minor and seven piano sonatas, works considered by some as his "profoundest music".


When ill health prevented him from serving in the French army in the Second World War, Debussy became depressed and unable to compose - until his second sonata, dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma. He said it was "terrible melancholy - should one laugh or cry?"


Since his death, experts have diagnosed the poet with manic depressive illness, an affective disorder characterised by a proximity of highs and lows. Statements such as "I shall get over my indolent fits" seem to suggest this predicament.


Fell under a dark spell of depression after the death of her infant daughter. The feelings paved the way for her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, published in 1818, which was to become the most widely read novel for three decades.

by Yvonne Gavan

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