Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began to place restrictions on people’s activities and way of life, the world’s media reported on a diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.
That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”
Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)
The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.
Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.
Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.
In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?
In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.
Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.
Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.
Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!
Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.
Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.
Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments; also observe the dissecting action of the man with the sword. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.
Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.
The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.
Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.
From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.