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Did pain add power to great works of art?

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The notion of the "suffering artist" has long been a potent one, and a new examination of masterpieces from the past suggests it may not be far off the mark.

A California pathologist believes that illness, environmental poisons and drug use may have colored the creations of Michelangelo, Raphael and Vincent Van Gogh and left their impression on the work of Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.

"Their inspiration may have been shaped by their human condition," concludes Dr. Paul L. Wolf, a professor of clinical pathology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of an article on the subject in the November issue of Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine.

People living centuries ago were plagued by ailments that might be easily treated or even cured today. Syphilis was one of the most widespread illnesses to plague people of the Renaissance, including one of its most renowned sculptors, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).

His enormous bronze masterwork, "Perseus With the Head of Medusa," stands in Florence's Uffizi Gallery today.

To Wolf, the sculpture's scale and grandiose subject matter -- the mythological Perseus single-handedly slaying the snake-headed monster -- is in keeping with the megalomania that often accompanies syphilis.

"When syphilis gets into the brain, it causes a condition called paresis," a mental condition characterized by megalomania, he says.

In fact, Cellini's overbearing personality may have gotten him into trouble: According to his diary, business associates tried to kill him with a high dose of mercury slipped into his salad dressing at lunch.

Luckily for the sculptor, the mercury didn't kill him, although it did make him very sick. The element was one of the few "medicines" thought to cure syphilis, however. In Cellini's recounting of the tale, it did just that -- his symptoms disappeared.

The California pathologist next turns his eye to perhaps the leading light of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), whose Sistine Chapel fresco "Creation of Adam" depicts God and his angels giving the "spark of life" to the first man.

A "nimbus," or cloud, surrounds the heavenly grouping. Various experts have speculated that the cloud is drawn in the shape of either the human brain (signifying intellect) or the heart (the Renaissance home of the soul). "Michelangelo was good at anatomy, and performed over 1,000 dissections," Wolf pointed out, so he would certainly have understood the structure of these two organs.

A visual comment on Michelangelo's own health appears in a painting by his contemporary and friend, Raphael (1483-1520).

Raphael includes a portrait of a pensive, seated Michelangelo in his masterwork now in the Vatican, "The School of Athens" (1510-11).

According to Wolf, a close-up look at the figure's knee reveals the ravages of gout: an arthritic condition caused by a buildup of uric acid.

"His right knee is extremely swollen," Wolf says. Many experts believe Michelangelo -- like many of his contemporaries -- contracted gout via lead poisoning, a condition known as saturnine gout.

"Remember, wine in those days came in containers with a high lead content (in the glaze), and the acidity of wines would leach out this lead," Wolf explains.

Even centuries later, artists still had few options to relieve their physical pain. And perhaps no one better personifies the tortured, suffering artist than Vincent Van Gogh (1878-1909), who experts now believe was plagued by bipolar mental illness and epilepsy and was also addicted to the hallucinogenic liqueur absinthe. Van Gogh scholars have long noted that the painter's canvases show a preference for the color yellow, and Wolf believes the painter's illnesses may have influenced that predilection.

"There are two possible explanations," Wolf says.

First, Van Gogh's portrait of his last physician, Dr. Paul Gauchet, clearly shows the doctor holding the plant from which 19th century chemists derived the drug digitalis, which Gauchet probably prescribed to the artist to control his epileptic seizures.

A yellow or greenish haze around objects is a characteristic symptom of digitalis overdose, Wolf points out. "Look at his wonderful painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 'Starry Night,"' he says. "There are yellow circles around the stars, and people with digitalis overdose often see a yellow corona around stars."

An alternate, darker explanation is Van Gogh's possible addiction to absinthe, widely used by Belle Epoque Parisians. "One of the effects of absinthe's active ingredient, thujone, is to cause yellow vision," Wolf says.

Not everyone agrees with Wolf's theories of art imitating life, however.

Dr. Philip Mackowiak is vice chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and has also written numerous papers on historical clinical pathology. He stresses that "it's very hard to go back in time, with limited records, and make a diagnosis."

He found fault with some of Wolf's theories.

Mackowiak points out that the article mentions a "vesicular (blistered) rash" in connection with Cellini's syphilis.

"Syphilis is a great imitator and can appear as just about anything, but it does not cause a vesicular rash," he says. In fact, such a rash "would actually be a good diagnostic marker in excluding syphilis."

Mackowiak also says there's no convincing evidence -- outside of folklore -- that high doses of mercury can rid the body of syphilitic infection.

The arguments for Van Gogh's love of yellow is "more plausible," he adds, but notes that they were not fully convincing. Digitalis overdose is often accompanied by serious illness, such a gastrointestinal upset, he points out.

"Would that necessarily make you more attracted to yellow? Or would it make yellows and greens more repelling?" he says. "You could have a Pavlovian conditioning against yellows."

He also believes the interpretation of Michelangelo's "gouty" knee in "The School of Athens" is questionable.

"It looks normal to me," he says.

(The HealthDay Web site is at

c.2005 HealthDay News

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