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Doctor Says Michelangelo's Statue Depicts Woman with Breast Cancer (dateline December 8, 2000)

Art historians have longed been puzzled about Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s depiction of women. Some historians have suggested that Michelangelo (1475-1564) was not interested in the female form or that he used male models to create sculptures of women. James L. Stark, MD, medical director of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Portsmouth, Virginia has another theory: that the subject for Michelangelo’s sculpture, "Night," had advanced breast cancer.

Dr. Stark contemplated his "diagnosis" while visiting the Medici Chapel in Florence, Italy with art historian, Jonathan Nelson. According to Dr. Stark, "Night" has telltale signs of breast cancer. "There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple," wrote Dr. Stark in a letter published in the November 23, 2000 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Click Here To View Larger Image "Night," marble sculpture from the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo, 1520-34. Image courtesy of Click on image to view larger version.

Because of the large size of the tumor in the left breast, Dr. Stark believed the cancer was in advanced stages. Historians of medicine believe that physicians could accurately diagnose breast cancer in the sixteenth century, but without anesthesia or other medical advances, there was probably little that could be done to treat the disease.

Art historians have mixed reactions to Dr. Stark’s evaluation of Michelangelo’s work. William Wallace, the chair of the department of art history and archeology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is intrigued by Dr. Stark’s theory. According to Wallace, art historians have always said that "Night’s" breasts do not seem to fit with the rest of her body, which is very muscular. "Night" is one of four sculptures on the Medici family tombs. "Night," who is a depiction of an older woman who sleeps next to a death mask, is paired with another statue, "Dawn," a virginal figure who represents youth.

Other historians are less convinced of Dr. Stark’s suggestion. Paul Barolsky, an art history professor at the University of Virginia, says that while Dr. Stark’s theory should not be completely written off, he is cautious of artistic speculation. According to Barolsky, there have been some wild diagnoses of artwork lately. For example, a dentist recently claimed that Mona Lisa’s smile was caused by a facial deformity.

While no one can be sure whether Michelangelo intended to depict a cancerous lump in the woman’s breast, many historians do agree that Dr. Stark’s theory will add another dimension of study to an artist was has long been considered one of the greatest of all time.

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