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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Diagnosing Dead Artists

One of the things I find most interesting as I continually probe the lives of famous artists is the amazing range in ages when they died. Of course as little as a century ago the average life span even here in the U.S. was a mere 47 years. Today, we routinely expect people to live well into their 70's, so the numbers are naturally skewed lower in the distant centuries, all of which makes some of the very long life spans of certain artists hundred of years ago all the more remarkable. Raphael was a mere 38 years old when he died. His contemporary, Michelangelo, lived to be 89. Among the Mannerist painters from about the same period, Giorgione and Titian present a similar range. Giorgione died at the age of 33, while Titian, born in 1478, died in 1576 (his birth date is somewhat uncertain) making him around 98 years of age, probably a record for famous painters.

Rembrandt Self-portrait, 1859,
ten years before his death,
Washington National Gallery of Art
Detail of the artist's
left temporal artery

This Rembrandt self-portrait
 (detail) dating from 1669,
said to be his last before he
died, shows no indication
of an enlarged artery on
his right side.
Some time ago, a Dr. Carlos H. Espinel, a professor at Georgetown University, was wondering through Washington's National Gallery of Art when he came upon one of Rembrandt's many self portraits (above, left). His doctor's trained eye noticed something unusual. It would seem that Rembrandt's left temporal artery was enlarged. Through this and the study of several other late self-portraits by the seventeenth century master, he has diagnosed Rembrandt as having died from temporal arteritis. Later research from non-pictorial sources have tended to confirm this. A study of Leonardo's Mona Lisa has led Espinel to believe her mystical smile may have been the result of partial paralysis of a branch of a facial muscle.

A detail from Raphael's
School of Athens, 1509-10,
depicts Michelangelo at age 35,
apparently already suffering from gout.
From a portrait of Michelangelo by Raphael, painted as part of his School of Athens (detail at left), fresco in the Vatican, Espinel has zeroed in on some prominent bumps on the sculptor's exposed right knee. He categorizes them as "tophi"--deposits of uric acid salts. Letters and poems by Michelangelo indicate he suffered from kidney stones, all of which has led the doctor to postulate Michelangelo probably died of gout (not an uncommon ailment at the time). He pictures Michelangelo, a confirmed workaholic all his life, as living off a diet of bread and wine (processed by Italians at the time in lead containers) as well as the likelihood he was exposed to lead based paints; all confirmed causes of the typical hunchback indicating gout, precisely as depicted in Raphael's painting. As for Raphael's early death, Espinel speculates it may have resulted from the dashing young artist's penchant for sexual excess carried to unhealthy extremes. Contemporary writings and letters suggest various venereal diseases may have led to the weakening of his heart, which would account for the surprising suddenness of his death.

Raphael da Sanzio, sexual
excesses and venereal diseases?
Espinel writes regularly on the subject of "ArtMedicine" for the British medical journal The Lancet. His studies have also centered on artists of this century, particularly the Dutch-born abstractionist, Willem DeKooning, who suffered from Alzheimer's toward the end of his life, though Espinel has found evidence in his painting that he may have enjoyed a surprising remission, at least in the physical debilitation of the dread disease, for up to a year. DeKooning died in 1997. Espinel considers art to be a valid tool for studying dementia, a framework for studying the mind itself, as well as a means toward gaining a better understanding of the lives and deaths of the great artists of the past.

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