Jacopo del Conte - Portrait of Michelangelo
Jacopo del Conte - Portrait of Michelangelo CC

Michelangelo suffered from arthritis in his later years, with doctors studying portraits of the sculptor and painter finding deformities in the joints of his left hand consistent with osteoarthritis. Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic, Rome, also said his intense work likely helped him keep the use of his hands until he died in 1564.

The team looked at three paintings of Michelangelo between the ages of 60 and 65. In all, the small joints in his left hand appear to be affected by degenerative changes. Earlier portraits of the artist show no signs of any deformity.

Previously, it was thought he could have been suffering from gout, but researchers say that theory can now be dismissed. This is because there are no signs of inflammation in the hands and no evidence of the small limps of uric acid crystals that can form under the skin of people with gout.

Their analysis, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, notes that there have been several diseases and behavioural disorders attributed to the artist, but "from the analysis of the literature, it is now clear that Michelangelo was afflicted by an illness involving his joints".

The authors say that all three paintings - by Daniele Ricciarelli (or da Volterra), Pompeo Caccini and Jacopino del Conte - analysed show the left hand has "non-inflammatory degenerative changes, which were probably accelerated by prolonged hammering and chiselling". Specifically, they say Michaelangelo's arthritis appears to have been affected at several locations in the joints.

Letters written by Michelangelo say the problems with his hands appeared later in life. In one letter to his nephew he said it caused him great discomfort. By the time he got to his final days– at the age of 89 – he could not write any more. "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," the team wrote. "The swellings at the base of the thumb and the swellings of the smaller joints of the thumb and index are not gouty in origin; they may be interpreted as osteoarthritic nodules."

Although unable to write, he did however continue to work on his sculptures and was seen hammering away just six days before he died. This work, Lazzeri claimed, might have been what allowed him to keep using his hands for so long.

"The diagnosis of osteoarthritis offers one plausible explanation for Michelangelo's loss of dexterity in old age and emphasises his triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days," he said. "Indeed, the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible."