© 2013 Sonia M. Silva
Creativity dipped in madness seems to be the fuel that beautifully tortures the artist into producing breathtaking works of art.
Throughout history, many biographers and art historians have examined artists that seem to have suffered from a mental disorder, like depression.For example, Michelangelo was well-known to be a loner and temperamental, often described as melancholic.
© 2013 Sonia M. Silva
Can there be a link between creativity and mental illness? Let me tell you about good old Michelangelo…
Most famous artists never get to see the birth of their own myth, yet Michelangelo did. Michelangelo was almost eighty-nine years old when he died and unlike many of his contemporaries he already had several biographies, an abundance of admiring followers, and a never-ending demand for his work. Whether he was loved or not, it is undeniable that his myth thrived and flourished for hundreds of years, yet with the fame, his myth grew to unimagined proportions and the “real” Michelangelo was lost to history.
We all have heard of the cliché of the brooding artist and history tells us that Michelangelo was a one of those, that preferred to be alone, especially as he grew older. However through his own personal letters we are able to see a different Michelangelo than what is normally portrayed; a Michelangelo that has many close friends and cares about his family. Yet it is true that his contemporaries, and even Michelangelo himself, described him as melancholy.
The term melancholia was very common in the Renaissance. Scholar Piers Britton explains in an article “Mio malinchonico[…]”,[i] that there were three types of melancholy that were accepted at this time. They were the socially inept, hermits and monks, and the inspired genius.[ii] Nevertheless art historians now and then believe that it was an affectation of sorts that artists chose to adopt in order to perpetuate the myth of the tragic artistic mind. For example, Britton explains that biographers and contemporaries, in particular Giorgio Vasari*, described almost every artist as being melancholic or having melancholic characteristics to enhance their genius. In other words it was the belief that melancholia led the artist to produce awe-inducing work.
However, it was different for Michelangelo. ( I got you Michelangelo!)
Britton points out that Vasari was very careful to avoid the term when it came to Michelangelo, because he did not necessarily approve of it.[iii] He suggests that Vasari and others did believe that melancholy truly afflicted the artist, it was not an affectation but a malady he suffered from and one must put up with (he must have been testy and frustrating to work with!) Therefore Vasari would not and did not want to portray his hero with any negative remarks, hence the missing melancholic description of Michelangelo in his biography.
As we see, society most likely believed that Michelangelo suffered from this, but did Michelangelo himself? We have many personal letters to suggest that Michelangelo believed it to be true. For example in one letter Michelangelo explains that he managed to attend a dinner party because he was able to shake of his melancholy (even going as far as to call it madness) in order to attend. [iv] Philip Sohm, the art historian makes an important observation, “Beliefs create realities”, an idea that has been studied by psychologists for many years now and with much empirical data to back it up.[v] It is possible that Michelangelo suffered from depression by self-actualization? Nonetheless it can lead to very real feelings that can take a hold of the person.
© 2013 Sonia M. Silva
Michelangelo continuously felt he was old, even at the early age of forty-two. He always made references to his age, as if death was creeping up on him and robbing him of his youth. In fact Sohm says that Michelangelo often described his one defining attribute as “senility”.[vi]
Don’t even let me get started on his self portraits!
Well…long story short, I believe that Michelangelo had the art blues and i think there may be a link between creativity and mental illness.
*Vasari is generally considered the first Art Historian and was a contemporary of the masters of the renaissance and wrote many of their biographies*
[i]Piers Britton, “Mio malinchonico, o vero... mio pazzo”: Michelangelo, Vasari, and the Problem of Artists' Melancholy in Sixteenth-Century Italy,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 34, no. 3 (2003): 653-675.
[ii] Britton, ““Mio malinchonico, o vero... mio pazzo,” 656.
[iii] Britton, ““Mio malinchonico, o vero... mio pazzo,” 654.
[iv] Britton, ““Mio malinchonico, o vero... mio pazzo”, 662.
[v] Philip Sohm, “The Artist Grows Old: The Aging of Art and artist in Italy, 1500-1800” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1.
[vi] Sohm, “The Artist Grows Old,” 10.