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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.