The genius’ David features an anatomical detail that was going to be described only a century later

On a recent trip to Florence, cardiologist Daniel Gelfman, of the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis, noticed a detail of Michelangelo’s David that escaped 500 years of observation. Gelfman wrote about in an article published in the journal JAMA Cardiology. What he observed proves the  profound anatomical and medical knowledge of the Renaissance genius. Michelangelo includes in his masterpiece an anatomical detail that was going to be described in detail only 124 years later.

On living people, the jugular vein is not normally visible. However, in the Renaissance master’s work, the vein is swollen and visible above David’s collarbone. This is anatomically realistic, considering that the sculpture depicts the biblical hero about to battle the Philistine giant, Goliath; thus, in a state of fear and excitement. What is impressive is the fact that Michelangelo made this association 124 years before it was documented by medical science. Distension, or swelling, of the jugular vein can occur as a result of certain illnesses, including heart failure and elevated intracardiac pressures.

In a young man in his physical prime like David, however, a swollen jugular would only occur temporarily when in a state of excitation.

Moreover, David is not the only one of Michelangelo’s work to feature a swollen jugular vein. The same detail is present in the sculpture of Moses. This depicts him as having just returned from Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments. In contrast, the jugular vein of the recently deceased Jesus  is appropriately not visible in Michelangelo’s Pietà (‘The Pity’).

Michelangelo, like some of his artistic contemporaries, had anatomical training,” Gelfman wrote. “I realised that Michelangelo must have noticed temporary jugular venous distension in healthy individuals who are excited.” Adding that “At the time the David was created, in 1504, [anatomist and physician] William Harvey had yet to describe the true mechanics of the circulatory system.”

(Ilona Catani Scarlett)

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