Thursday, June 24, 2010

Renaissance Art or Neuroanatomy (part 3)

Posted by Darin Hayton on 06/24 at 10:42 PM

Both NPR and the NY Times recently reported on Suk and Tamargo’s “discovery” of neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. While the NY Times article is cautious (at times), the NPR report is credulous and careless.

NPR’s “Did Michelangelo Draw a Brain in God’s Neck?”:
Speaking to Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered,” Tamargo again makes claims that cannot be supported by the historical evidence. Tamargo claims

… I think he had a lot of anatomical knowledge that he wanted to express, but didn’t have a venue in which to do so. And by incorporating this image of the brain first, he was able to display his knowledge of anatomy and also sign the fresco, so to speak, in a unique way.

Tamargo is “convinced that this was Michelangelo’s intention.” So, according to this line of reasoning, Michelangelo intentionally distorted God’s neck to reveal neuroanatomy in order to “sign” his fresco? Why, exactly? To reveal that he “had a lot of anatomical knowledge”? But as the authors point out in their article, these structures were not described in any detail for another three centuries. So even if Michelangelo had identified them, nobody else would have recognized them. That seems an odd way to “sign” a fresco.

Fortunately, modern neurosurgeons can see this neuroanatomy. And their ability to see a brainstem in Michelangelo’s fresco confirms that Michelangelo could and did illustrate a brainstem in God’s neck. Tamargo summarized their logic in three sentences:

“Prior to the article, my colleague and I, Ian Suk, showed it to other neurosurgeons, neuroanatomists,” he says. “And without saying much, they spontaneously recognized the brainstem. So I think it’s real.”

Unfortunately, such an approach to history has been rejected for decades. A person’s scientific credentials do not change the fact that this is bad history. It is a shame that Robert Siegel and the producers of NPR’s “All Things Considered” validated this problematic scholarship.

NY TimesIn Vatican Fresco, Visions of the Brain”:
The NY Times article is simultaneously worse and better than the NPR report. The opening paragraphs endorse Tamargo and Suk’s basic claims about Michelangelo’s anatomical knowledge and his intention to depict a brainstem in God’s neck. Only toward the end does the article turn to art historians. The first one quoted claims that “the core of their piece [is] quite convincing.” The other two art historians are rather more skeptical: One says: “My initial reaction on looking at the illustrations is that this is complete nonsense, to put in politely.” The other writes: “I think this may be another case of the authors looking too hard for something they want to find. … sometimes a neck is just a neck.”

Finally, somebody points out the obvious.

Unfortunately, Suk and Tamargo’s article continues to attract attention, further reinforcing their implicit claims to expertise while rejecting the expertise of art historians, Renaissance historians, or historians of science. NPR did not even deign to interview any historians, taking Suk and Tamargo at face value. At least the NY Times consulted with some art historians, though their expertise was marginalized, relegated to the closing paragraphs of the article.

Tags: art history, historiography, michelangelo