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Did Michelangelo Have Autism?

Aloof, Obsessed, Self-Absorbed -- Yet One of History's Greatest Artists
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WebMD Health News

May 26, 2004 -- Classic tortured genius: The great artist Michelangelo may have suffered from autism, new research shows.

The report, which appears in the Journal of Medical Biography, 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 at Five Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust in Great Britain.

"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.

SOURCES: Arshad, M. Journal of Medical Biography, June 2004: vol 12, pp 115-120. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise, "What is autism?"

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