Updated: Jan 29
"In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo."
(T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
While writing a presentation for a three-hours-seminar last semester I engaged in a casual conversation about the male-standard body with my friend Morgan with whom I share my working space. She showed me a Reddit post (2015) commenting on the fact that in Michelangelo's decorative sculpture inside the Sagrestia Nuova in San Lorenzo Church, in Florence, the shape of the breasts was quite odd.
Looking around for extra information about the statue realised between 1526-1531, I found the usual sources dealing with Michelangelo's aesthetic ideas probably influenced by Marsilio Ficino's Neoplatonic ideas about the struggle between actuality and potentiality, the divine and the matter throughout the muscular contraction, and the need for the artist to free the idea from the marble block; which are usually understood as a justification of the male-like Michelangelian figures. This was for the aims of my presentation more than sufficient.
Only recently I bumped into Vaidya's article, "Breast Cancer: an Artistic View" which discusses the artistic depiction of breast carcinoma. Among the various works, the author considers for his argument he reexamines a 1983 paper by Rosenzweig proposing that Michelangelo's "La Notte" could depict a woman with carcinoma of the breast.
Going deeper I have found out that, apart from Rosenzweig, this idea is only part of a long controversial debate made of scholars assuming that Michelangelo was very aware of the female body and of its pathological states being evidence of his proto-oncologist knowledge (Stark and Nelson 1983; Nelson 2020); while others contradict these hypotheses affirming that it must have been a defect of the marble (Landor 2006).
Conclusively, it is clear that the issue is a complex one, with many factors needing to be taken into consideration, and I believe that this issue is worth a more deep exploration and further research in order to shed some light.
Landor, John. “The Question of Breast Cancer in Michelangelo’s ‘Night.’” Notes in the History of Art, vol. 25, no. 4, 2006, pp. 27–29.
Nelson, Jonathan K. Representing Infirmity. Routledge, 2020, pp. 3–27.
Rosenzweig, W. “Disease in Art: A Case for Carcinoma of the Breast in Michelangelo’s La Notte.” Paleopathol Newsl, vol. 41, 1983, pp. 8–11.
Stark, J. J., and J. K. Nelson. “The Breasts of ‘Night’: Michelangelo as Oncologist.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 343, no. 21, 2000, pp. 1577–1578. doi:10.1056/nejm200011233432118.
TreeShoes. “Does Anyone Know the Reasons Behind Michelangelo’s Painting La Notte?” Reddit, 9 Oct. 2015, www.reddit.com/r/ArtHistory/comments/3o2rj7/does_anyone_know_the_reasons_behin/. Accessed 22 Jan. 2023.
Vaidya, J. S. “Breast Cancer: An Artistic View.” The Lancet Oncology, vol. 8, no. 7, 2007, pp. 583–585. doi:10.1016/s1470-2045(07)70200-0.