Cancer in Michelangelo’s ‘Night’? The Use and Misuse of Retroactive Medical Diagnoses

In recent years, several physicians have identified the physical signs of cancer in the left breast of Michelangelo’s Night, on the Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici in the New Sacristy (Florence, San Lorenzo). How should Renaissance scholars approach such retroactive diagnoses? This paper presents a new methodological approach to the observations about art often found in medical journals, and generally dismissed by art historians. By considering a woman’s diseased body as a potential visual source for the artist, we can explore some familiar questions: if, how, when, and why Michelangelo borrowed and transformed his source. Such borrowing undermines the widespread belief in Michelangelo’s lack of interest in or familiarity with the appearance of nude women. The path to understanding why Michelangelo might have included a diseased breast in a tomb figure lies in the understanding of unnatural swellings in 16th century Italy. Pre-modern beliefs about the cause of infirmities, as the result of humoral imbalances, lead to a new interpretation of Michelangelo’s representation of not only the Night, but of all four Times of Day represented in the New Sacristy.

Jonathan K. Nelson is an Associate Professor at Syracuse University Florence, Jonathan Nelson has published extensively on Italian painting and sculpture in the late 15th and 16th centuries. His books include The Patron’s Payoff: Economic Frameworks for Conspicuous Commissions in Renaissance Italy, with Richard Zeckhauser (Princeton UP, 2008), monographic studies on Filippino Lippi, with Patrizia Zambrano (Electa, 2004), Leonardo da Vinci (Giunti, 2007), and Plautilla Nelli (Syracuse UP, 2008, 2000); he also co-curated exhibition catalogs on Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form (teNeues, 2009), Botticelli and Filippino (Giunti, 2004), and Venus and Cupid: Michelangelo and the New Ideal of Beauty (Giunti, 2002). He is currently working on two books: Filippino Lippi: Problem Solving in Renaissance Art (Reaktion Books) and, as co-editor and contributor, Representing Infirmity: Diseased Bodies in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy (Routledge); he is also co-organizing a workshop on “Bad Reception: Negative Reactions to Italian Renaissance Art” at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz.

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5:00pm, 8 Mar 2018

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London