How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?

For masters who used lead paints, such as Michelangelo and Goya, art was literally pain.
A self-portrait of Goya being attended to by his doctor, 1820. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1713, Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini described in his De Morbis Artificum Diatriba a mysterious set of symptoms he was noticing among artists:

“Of the many painters I have known, almost all I found unhealthy … If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colorless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of, we should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments…”

He was one of the first to make the connection between paint and artists' health, but it would take centuries for painters to switch to less-harmful materials, even as medicine gradually clued into the bodily havoc “saturnism” could wreak.

The 1834 London Medical and Surgical Journal describes sharp stomach pains occurring in patients with no other evidence of intestinal disease, thus leading the authors to suspect that this “painter’s colic” was a “nervous affection” of the intestines that occurs when lead “is absorbed into the system.”

Paints weren’t the only source of lead overdose in past centuries, though. Through the 1500s, lead was a common sweetener in wine, in the form of “litharge,” causing periodic outbreaks of intestinal distress throughout Europe. Occasionally, lead was even used as a medicine; the 11th-century Persian physician Avicenna’s Canon mentioned its usefulness in treating diarrhea. In the Middle Ages, lead could be found in makeup, chastity belts, and spermicides.

Though typesetters, tinkers, and drinkers of lead-poisoned wine fell victim to saturnism, the disease was perhaps most widespread among those who worked with paint.

The symptoms of this “colic” ranged, but they often included a “cadaverous-looking” pallor, tooth loss, fatigue, painful stomach aches, partial paralysis, and gout, a buildup of uric acid that causes arthritis—all of which resemble the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning seen today. In fact, the ailments that many renowned artists experienced didn't just prompt their gloomy works—they might have been caused by them, too.

Lead poisoning among historical figures is famously difficult to prove, in part because the condition was not known or recognized in most of their lifetimes. We can’t know whether the delusions, depression, and gout many Renaissance masters experienced can be attributed to their paint or just their physiologies.

Julio Montes-Santiago, and internist in Vigo, Spain, recently evaluated the existing evidence of lead poisoning among artists across five centuries for a new paper in Progress in Brain Research. Based on the available descriptions of their materials and symptoms, history’s most famous sufferers of lead poisoning, he argues, likely included Michelangelo Buonarroti, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh. 

Michelangelo in The School of Athens, 1509.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo, for example, was painted into Raphael's fresco, The School of Athens, with a deformed, likely arthritic knee, according to the author. That, combined with letters from Michelangelo in which he complains of passing stones in his urine, suggests to Montes-Santiago that he might have suffered from paint- and wine-induced gout.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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