The Michelangelo Mystery Of The 33rd Tooth

An Italian art historian has pieced together a little-known element in the Renaissance master's portraits and sculptures that he believes may explain Michelangelo's deepest beliefs.

Michelangelo's "Sybil" in the Sistine Chapel (detail)
Michelangelo's "Sybil" in the Sistine Chapel (detail)
Alberto Mattioli

ROME — The sketch of The Damned Soul in Florence's Uffizi Gallery has it. The Grotesque Heads; Hercules and Antaeus in the British Museum have it too. There's also the "ugly Cleopatra" and the torturer raising the cross in The Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Vatican's Paolina Chapel, as well as many figures in the Sistine Chapel: Jonah, the Delphic Sybil, four Jews who inveigh against Moses and Yahweh in the Israelites and Bronze Serpent, the damned on Charon's boat, and a devil in The Last Judgment.

Renaissance art aficionados probably know by now that we're talking about Michelangelo, and some may even recognize the connection in this case — a small, strange characteristic that unites a certain type of character in his works: All these figures have a fifth incisor, or "mesiodens." This isn't something the artist invented, but an unusual anatomical feature.

The Sistine Chapel — Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Normally, we have eight incisors — four above and four below. But this abnormality, called hyperdontia, gives some people five top incisors; often they have three teeth at the front and the other two directly behind them.

Marco Bussagli, a prominent Italian art historian and Michelangelo specialist, realized that this anomaly occurs frequently in the maestro's work, and has found an explanation for it that can be fascinating even if you're neither an art historian nor a dentist.

Bussagli's new book, Michelangelo's Teeth, may be an investigation into medicine, art and theology, but it reads much more like a detective story.

Bussagli decided to explore whether hyperdontia was known to doctors in the 16th and 17th centuries. He found that, for example, the Practica Maior by Michele Savonarola mentions the "dentes dittos bastardi sic dicta" — the so-called teeth bastards. He also discovered that Savonarola wasn't just the personal physician for Lionello d'Este, the Marquis of Ferrara, but he was also the uncle of noted preacher Gerolamo, whose sermons touched young Michelangelo. Idem with De Re Anatomica by Realdo Colombo, which Michelangelo knew well: It becomes clear that the young artist had a passion for human anatomy.

Michelangelo left nothing to chance, so if he took the trouble to change the anatomy of his characters, there must be a reason for it, argues Bussagli. Having a fifth incisor breaks the human body's harmony by destroying the classical idea that symmetry equals beauty.

Beauty does not come with parts of the body, "but with the symmetry of limbs," is how this idea was once articulated by Galen, a Greek physician during the Roman Empire.

Michelangelo's "The Damned Soul" — Photo: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

In Christianity, the presence of a mesiodens represents violence, bestiality or lust. In fact, most of the characters listed at the beginning of this article are of a "negative" subject matter and were condemned to eternal damnation by the Church. Or, as in the case of Jonah and the Sibyl, because they belonged to humanity ante gratiam — living before the birth of Christ.

When it comes to The Last Judgment, Bussagli sensitively weaves his teeth theory alongside Catholic orthodoxy, until his theories become dangerously adjacent to those of the Reformation that weren't condemned by the Council of Trent.

These views are similar to those set out in the The Benefit of Christ by Benedetto Fontanini, a bestseller at that time. Of course, The Benefit of Christ was published two years after Michelangelo had begun painting the Sistine Chapel, but the ideas would have certainly been discussed around him. The dental anomaly would be, in Bussagli's words, "The physical refection of a lack of spiritual grace."

Surprisingly, one of his most famous works also has a mesiodons — Christ in the Pietà, that today is inside St. Peter's Basilica.

Michelangelo's Pieta — Photo: Stanislav Traykov

This is only visible by looking at the statue from above, or by zooming in on a photograph. For this sculpture of the Virgin holding the dead body of Christ, Bussagli proposes three hypotheses:

The first is that Michelangelo was wrong, and it was an "offensive gesture" by someone who knew a lot about anatomy.

The second is that the artist identifies Christ with evil — which is absurd, because we know his Catholic faith was deep.

The third is that Michelangelo actually wanted to represent the Savior's body like this, in accordance with the doctrine that Christ accumulated all the evil of the world upon himself. "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," says Isaiah 53:6.

"That tooth," argues Bussagli, "bears witness to the mercy of man's inability to understand even the gifts God has given us (including Redemption), for that stubborn short-sightedness to follow our apparent self-interest."

Of course, the path is long from a tooth-shaped piece of marble to the Redemption of man. But Bussagli has thought through his hypothesis with great care and a deep belief since 1996, now hoping to convince even those who had never noticed this abundance of teeth.

The emotions in that divine, compassionate image of Pietà are still questioned after five centuries, and probably always will be. Now that's something to sink your teeth into.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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