Thursday, June 10, 2010

Renaissance Art or Neuroanatomy (part 2)?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 06/10 at 10:36 PM

R. Douglas Field’s summary at Scientific American focused on an article by I. Suks and R.J. Tamargo just published in Neurosurgery, “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel.”1 Suks and Tamargo argue that Michelangelo cleverly hid in his fresco “Separation of Dark and Light” an anatomically correct brain stem, upper cervical spinal cord, medulla, pons, and sellar region in God’s neck—it seems remarkable that, as the authors point out, these structures were first described by the Swedish anatomists Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius 360 after Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.2 Flushed with this success, they press their interpretation further and claim that he disguised a cervical spinal cord and optic nerves and optic chiasm in God’s robes. Although they admit that these latter two claims run “the risk of stretching [their] neuroanatomic interpretation of this fresco too far,” they don’t seem deterred.2a

Pushing the interpretation too far (Source: Suk and Tamargo, “Concealed Neuroanatomy,” page 859)

While Suks and Tamargo do not commit egregious factual historical errors, their cavalier attitude toward historical method and tenuous conclusions drawn from insufficient or tangential evidence undermines their argument.

They open by trying to establish Michelangelo’s anatomical expertise, largely by highlighting Leonardo’s anatomical sketches. Yes, they point to Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari to show that Michelangelo performed dissections late into his life, but they cannot point to how many, when, or what he learned from them: “We can only guess as to the depth of Michelangelo’s anatomic knowledge …. It is reasonable to assume, however, that given his genius and intense interest curiosity, Michelangelo probably became thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the time ….” And later they claim:

We speculate that during his numerous dissections, Michelangelo possibly dissected the brain and spinal cord and that over the years he probably acquired a sophisticated understanding of gross neuroanatomy.3

Such speculation is not very convincing.

They also rely heavily on Meshberger’s article, first referring to it as plausible and then assuming it to be unassailable. So much so that they use Meshberger’s conclusions as evidence that Michelangelo had a sophisticated and detailed understanding of particular brain anatomy and that he intentionally hid that anatomy in his frescos in the Sistine Chapel:

In a provocative article published in 1990, Meshberger made the surprising but cogent argument that in the Creation of Adam … Michelangelo illustrated a human brain. … If one accepts Meshberger’s interpretation, one must conclude that Michelangelo had a profound understanding of the anatomy of the brain. … Given that Michelangelo linked God with the brain in the Creation of Adam, we hypothesized that he might have concealed images of the brain in other depictions of God within this set of 4 panels.4

A cogent argument does not constitute demonstration, especially in historical disciplines. Cogency is a necessary but insufficient condition. They seem to ignore the conditional nature of the protasis in their central statement. And then they base their hypothesis on a fallacious claim about what Michelangelo had represented. In three quick sentences, the authors move from possible to certain.

Then they find exactly what they are expect to find (at least they are honest about their hypotheses determining their findings): “Not surprisingly, we then found another even more sophisticated neuroanatomic illustration embedded in the image of God in the Separation of Light from Darkness.”5

Seeing what you want to see(Source: Suk and Tamargo, “Concealed Neuroanatomy,” page 856)

Their argument reduces to: Michelangelo was an artistic genius who did not make mistakes. God’s neck in his fresco the Separation of Dark and Light looks strange to us, and seems to be different from some others. It must mean something. Now that we know Michelangelo hid complex brain structures in his other fresco, these irregularities too must be brain structures. Knowing what we know now and having the training we have, we recognize in the shading the brain stem, cervical spinal cord, medulla, pons, and sellar region.

Suk and Tamargo assume that Michelangelo was depicting structures they would recognize, even when they admit that some of those strutters were not described until three centuries later. They imply that no 16th- or 17th- or even 18th-century viewer would have been able to recognize the neuroanatomy in the fresco. Yet somehow Michelangelo not only could recognize them but old also paint them. For some reason he thought it would be meaningful to do so. At no point do they explore other possible explanations—for example, their observation that God’s beard is unusually “rolled up” to expose the neck is probably better explained simply by pointing out that God’s head is looking almost straight away from the viewer, thus the viewer sees not the side of the beard but the very bottom.6

Their ability to find familiar anatomical structures is impressive, but their analysis does not demonstrate that those structures were intended or even could have been represented. As one of the commentators pointed out “the neurophysiological tendency of the brain to fill in or complete partial visual information so as to make sense of the world. … In support of this caution, [he] would remind the reader that nephrologists tend to see kidneys in the Sistine Chapel paintings, whereas neuroscientists tend to see brains.”7 There is no evidence to support their claim that Michelangelo could have had such detailed anatomical knowledge. As with Meshberger, Suk and Tamargo assume contemporary anatomical knowledge to evaluate an historical source. Whether such a project is intended to celebrate a historical figure by attributing to that person knowledge that she or he could not have had—as Meshberger, Suk, and Tamargo do—or to denigrate a historical actor for holding beliefs we now know to be wrong, it is a historically flawed effort.

Having read the Suk and Tamargo article itself, the redaction in Scientific American seems all the more problematic. Not only is historical methodology violated at nearly every opportunity, basic logic that undergirds science seems to have been suspended in order to see what the authors want to see. R. Douglas Field’s should have to highlighted the problems in this article, even if he found it suggestive or interesting.

In the end, Suk and Tamargo’s article seems to be a good example of Herbert Butterfield’s whig history.

1I. Suk and R.J. Tamargo, “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel,” Neurosurgery 66, No. 5(2010): 851–861.
7M. Salcman commenting on the article, page 860.

Tags: art history, historiography, michelangelo