Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti (1475-1564) was considered to be ‘one of the greatest artists of all time.’ Dr Muhammad Arshad presents new evidence in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Biography, published by the Royal Society of Medicine Press, suggesting he suffered from Asperger’s disorder, or high-functioning autism.
Characteristics of high-functioning autism
Asperger’s is similar to autism but sufferers can function better than autistic individuals and have normal intelligence. The disease is characterised by communication problems, difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviours, a limited range of interests and coordination problems. These symptoms are sometimes accompanied by a talent or skill in a particular area.
Michelangelo, the second oldest in a family of five boys, did not get along with his family and suffered physical abuse by his fathers and uncles. He was ‘erratic’ and ‘had trouble applying himself to anything’, and was very insecure but ambitious. The men in his family ‘displayed autistic traits’ and ‘features of mood disturbances’ were common in his entire family.
Evidence of criteria
Impairment of social interaction
Michelangelo was ‘aloof, a loner and had few friends.’ He found it difficult to maintain relationships. although, the article says, this was perceived at the time as a necessary condition to being able to create works of art. Dr Arshad writes that even when Michelangelo needed help on a project he always ‘preferred to work independently’ but, when he did hire an assistant, he refused to nurture their own talents and hired those that did not threaten his ‘supremacy.’ Michelangelo’s failure to attend his brother’s funeral underlined ‘his inability to show emotion’ and he was a boy who was unsure about himself outside his talent as an artist. In 1505, he wrote, ‘Anything might happen to shatter my world.’
Control issues and obsessive routines
Michelangelo was obsessed with work and controlling everything in his life – ‘family, money, time and much else.’ Dr Arshad writes, ‘He was a loner, self-absorbed and gave his undivided attention to his masterpieces – a feature of autism.’ He was also obsessed with money and nudity and was focussed so much on his work that he toiled eight years over The Last Judgement.
Michelangelo was ‘not a great public speaker’ and had difficulty holding up his end of a conversation, often walking away in the middle of an exchange. He had a short temper, a sarcastic wit and was ‘paranoid at times, narcissistic and schizoid.’ The author claims he ‘was strange, preoccupied with his own reality and almost always worked alone.’
Was Michelangelo homosexual?
The categorisation of sexual tendencies was not as defined during the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the same way it is today. Speculation about whether Michelangelo’s homosexuality rests on his relationship with a young nobleman with which he developed a deep infatuation in 1532. Although a biographer claimed that Michelangelo was ‘impotent, a paedophile, or a homosexual and had contracted syphilis,’ it was his anxieties about sex that lead to this belief.
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