(1475 – 1564) Italian Sculptor, Painter, Architect and Poet

The most important artist of the Italian High Renaissance, whose output spanned over seven decades, and a key figure within European art history, the ‘divine’ Michelangelo became the archetype of the artist as tragic and transcendent genius and was viewed by some contemporaries (such as his first biographer, Giorgio Vasari) not only as the culmination of artistic perfection but as a figure ‘beyond human experience’.

Despite occasional instances of gossip and innuendo (e.g. Pietro Aretino’s suggestions of pederasty), there is no clear evidence of Michelangelo’s homosexuality or, at least, none indicating overt sexual activity. Indeed, Condivi claimed that Michelangelo was chaste. None the less, the physical beauty of many of his monumental male nudes, such as the David, the Creation of Adam and the decorative male nudes (Ignudi) on the Sistine ceiling, gives a clear indication as to where Michelangelo’s erotic interests lay. In addition, in 1532 Michelangelo met and fell in love with a young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, described by the humanist Benedetto Varchi as possessing ‘not only incomparable physical beauty, but so much elegance in manners, such excellent intelligence, and such graceful behavior’. Tommaso married in 1538 and had two sons, but Michelangelo remained devoted for the rest of his life, dedicating numerous poems and several presentation drawings to him (e.g. The Rape of Ganymede, 1532). However, when Michelangelo’s nephew and namesake eventually published over one hundred poems in 1623, any suggestion of homosexuality was effaced by altering the gender of the poems’ subjects and addressees. John Addington Symonds‘s translation of a selection of the poems, together with his biography of the artist, sought to redress this suppression of Michelangelo’s homosexuality which, even if largely unknowable, was none the less a key aspect of his art.

Increasingly recognized as a notable literary achievement in their own right (despite their density of language and often complex construction), Michelangelo’s poems also provide useful insights into his beliefs and aesthetic precepts such as the broadly Neoplatonic notion that physical beauty could be a conduit to transcendent spiritual beauty, for example ‘beauty … moves and carries every healthy mind to heaven’. However, while Neoplatonism was part of the culture of the Medici circle, and of Michelangelo himself, and may also have fostered an emergent homosexual identity (see Saslow), claims that Michelangelo’s art illustrates a fully developed Neoplatonic system (see Tolnay) have been downplayed in recent scholarship. Neoplatonic influences upon Michelangelo should also be placed within a broader framework of Christian belief affecting his art, particularly from the late 1530s; indeed, the contrasting moral codes of Neoplatonism and Catholicism may partly account for Michelangelo’s ambivalent sexual feelings. In his later years Michelangelo also witnessed the emergence of the austere spirituality of the Counter-Reformation, especially in Rome, where he had settled permanently in 1534. His Christian faith was reinforced by his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, the Marchesa di Pescara, whom he met in 1536 and with whom he remained in close contact until her death in 1547. Her dedication to Catholicism strongly influenced his own devout religiosity as expressed, for example, in his sacred poetry that gave voice to a growing preoccupation with death and salvation.

In 1563 Michelangelo was elected an academician of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno and, despite his old age, he continued to work on a number of projects (principally architectural) until his death in Rome(“The Gay 100”, p68).

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