Excerpt from Gay Roots Vol 2
THE PASSIONS OF MICHELANGELO
Five hundred and some odd years ago, on March 6, 1475, a colossus was born: Michelagniolo di Lodovico Buonarroti-Simoni. The lofty plinth of his genius was a magnificent block of marble, but throughout his life he was steadily broken down: by the demands of corrupt popes, the petty thievery of workshop assistants, by the tempest of his times, by the fury of his ideals, and by his passionate love for young men.
Michelangelo's statue Genius of Victory, ca 1532. The face is modelled on that of the young Tommaso de' Cavalieri, with whom Michelangelo was in love and by whom he desired to be subjugated.
However one approaches this rough-hewn titan, it is a story of power. In the turbulent background are the financial empire of Florence and the Papal Throne in Rome dominated mostly by tyrants. It was an age that demanded giants. Public buildings were monumental, private homes were solid, city-walls were massive. It was an Age of Accomplishment: Pico della Mirandola at the age of eighteen spoke twenty-two languages. It was an Age of Magnificence: Lorenzo the Magnificent died drinking a medicine of powdered pearls, and Pope Julius II died drinking molten gold. It was an Age of Grandeur: in 1501 fifty courtesans danced naked in the Vatican in honour of Lucrezia Borgia.|
Yet the power of the age-like all power-was pre-eminently masculine. It was a phallic culture, with columns, columns everywhere; every available niche in every building was stuffed with an erect statue; every tomb was an assertion of virility. Pope Paul III dreamed of re-erecting the ancient obelisk of Heliopolis--though the pontiffs finally settled for Michelangelo's pagan temple of Saint Peter's.
Michelangelo towered far above his contemporary athletes of the imagination. He brought a supremely masculine passion to his sculpture to animate the stone with orgasmic thunder and lightning. He was a heroic masculinist in all things. He defined Art as that which has tumescent substance: "The closer you see painting approach good sculpture, the better it will be." Yet his figures, however cyclopean, are nevertheless fully human rather than divine or demonic: for the most part they are naked, with neither halo nor horns, neither wings nor cloven hooves.
And most of them are men, young men. He regularly employed male models even for his female figures, including the famous statue of Night on the Medici Tombs. In many of his drawings, the women are distinguishable from the men only by their longer hair. His twenty nude youths--or ignudi--in the Sistine Chapel outraged several pontiffs, for they were clearly more Greek than Christian. Most of these marvelous lads are weaving a huge garland of oak leaves, and clustered about them are thousands of acorns resembling the glans penis.
Michelangelo was probably anti-feminist; certainly he was sexist, and he believed wholeheartedly in male superiority. In one sonnet he declares that the highest form of love cannot be for a woman, because a woman "is not worthy of a wise and virile heart."
Broken-nosed, lean, with bushy black hair and piercing eyes, arrogantly confident yet hypersensitive, striving towards the perfection of an unbreakable column, producing a corpus of magnificent monuments for at least the base of that column, Michelangelo forever remains the epitome of a particularly masculine genius, which today we call machismo.
Michelangelo had a reputation for homosexuality. In a letter to Niccolo Quaratesi he humourously recalls how a father described his son to him in the hopes of the boy becoming the artist's apprentice: "Once you saw him, you'd chase him into bed the minute you got home!" Rumours about the master were already spreading by the early 1530s, and he bitterly denounced "the throng, malign and brutish, scoffing at what the few possess."
In November 1545 Pietro Aretino--himself a known homosexual--viciously attacked Michelangelo's "godlessness" displayed in the naked youths of the Sistine and said quite explicitly: "Even if you are divine, you don't disdain male consorts." He went on to identify two of these paramours, Gherardo Perini and Tommaso Cavalieri, nicknamed "Tomai".
The handsome model Gherardo Perini came to work for Michelangelo around 1520; their love flourished between 1522-25, and lasted until the mid-1530s. Whenever Perini failed to show up at the studios, Michelangelo's nights were wracked by dreadful anxiety. In such an anguish of loneliness he addressed his own daimon: "I beg you not to make me draw this evening since Perino's not here." This note was scrawled on a page bearing a drawing of a naked cherub urinating into a vase.
Again he wrote: "Only I remain burning in the dusk / After the sun has stripped the world of its rays: / Whereas other men take their pleasure, I do but mourn, / Prostrate on the ground, lamenting and weeping." This fragment is on a page containing a rear-view study of a nude man, two putti or cherubs, and a study of a leg; dated 1520-25, the drawings and verse almost certainly refer to his tormented love for Perini. The drawing of Venus, Mars and Cupid (1524) was presented as a gift to Perini, and well renders the onslaughts of the deities of desire that Michelangelo was experiencing.
The finest Michelangelo scholar--Robert Clements--believes this affair was overtly homosexual, and he pinpoints some of the verse of 1520-30 probably written to Perini, including Michelangelo's confession of conflict: "I had always thought I could come to terms with love, / Now I suffer, and you see how I burn."
In the early 1530s Michelangelo was also sustaining a relationship with his much younger model Febo di Poggio. He calls Febo "that little blackmailer," because Febo adopted Michelangelo as "my honorary father" and steadily demanded money, clothes, and love-gifts from him. On a page containing financial calculations, Michelangelo wrote: "Here with his beautiful eyes he promised me solace, / And with those very eyes he tried to take it away from me."
Their passion raged through 1533-34, but ended when Michelangelo discovered that the mignon had "betrayed" him--perhaps by actually stealing money or drawings from his sugar-daddy. The artist felt humiliated by his subservience to the model.
Several poems pun upon the boy's name-"Febo" equals Phoebus, and poggio is the Italian word for "hill"-and suggest physical consummation: "Blithe bird, excelling us by fortune's sway, / Of Phoebus' [Febo] thine the prize of lucent notion, / Sweeter yet the boon of winged promotion / To the hill [poggio]whence I topple and decay!" But such a topple was sweet: "Easily could I soar, with such a happy fate, / When Phoebus [Febo] brightened up the heights [poggio]. / His feathers were wings and the hill [poggio] the stair. / Phoebus [Febo] was a lantern to my feet.
Other of Michelangelo's lovers--not to mention unknown models and stonemasons--may have included his servant and constant companion Francesco Urbino; Bartolommeo Bettini, to whom he gave a drawing of Venus and Cupid; and Andrea Quaratesi, the eighteen-year-old boy with whose family he lived for several years. Surviving letters prove that Andrea was infatuated with Michelangelo, and he even expressed a desire to "crawl on all fours" to see the artist one night in 1532. On the back of a letter to Andrea, Michelangelo writes of himself being shot at by Cupid's arrows. His drawing of Andrea is his only finished portrait sketch.
In spite of numerous concurrent affairs--at least two, with Perini and Febo--Michelangelo in 1532 began wooing Tommaso Cavalieri, and even wrote to him: "May I burn if I do not love thee with all my heart, / And lose my soul, if I feel for any other"! Cavalieri was a Roman nobleman, forty years younger than Michelangelo, and a bit fearful of this barbarous sculptor who slept in his boots and rode a mule. Cavalieri was planning on a decent home and family life-he married in 1548--and he was frightened by the amorous insistence of the older man and the gossip concerning him.
They almost certainly never slept together, not that Michelangelo didn't want to, however: "What from thee I long for and learn to know deep within me / Can scarcely be understood by the minds of men." One poem clarifies his intense desire (perhaps the actuality?) to be the erotic prey of the aristocrat: "Why should I seek to ease intense desire / With still more tears and windy words of grief? / If only chains and bands can make me blest, / No marvel if alone and nude I go / An armed Cavaliere's captive and slave confessed" ('Cavaliere' or 'cavalry man' is a pun on Cavalieri).
The frankly erotic statue of Victory is a similar revelation of his desire for total subjugation: the standing figure is modelled on Cavalieri, and the kneeling figure is Michelangelo. But Cavalieri cancelled appointments and rejected the older man's advances. Their love probably remained "pure and unsullied," and Michelangelo sublimated his desires into some of the finest 'Platonic friendship' poetry ever written. It contains a strong mystical streak, in which Michelangelo transformed Cavalieri into the Saviour and himself into the "bride" (sposa) of Christ. It is believed that the face of Christ the Judge in the Sistine is Cavalieri's, and his upraised arm represents his rejection of his wooer.
Other lads did not similarly reject Michelangelo. There is little doubt that by 1542, at the age of sixty-six, he was sleeping with a thirteen-year-old boy named Francesco (Cecchino) de Zanobi Bracci. But in 1544 Cecchino died, cause unknown, and for a full year Michelangelo composed fifty four-line epitaphs for the boy's tomb, which he designed: "Buried here is that Braccio with whose face / God wished to correct Nature."
In a letter to the boy's uncle, Luigi del Riccio, Michelangelo speaks of the youth as "the flame who consumes me" and he relates a dream in which the boy "mocked my senile love," but alludes to a consummation: "My love has ratified the agreement which I made of myself to him." The most explicit proof is a quatrain to which Michelangelo appended a variant: "The earthy flesh, and here my bones deprived / Of their charming face and beautiful eyes, / Do yet attest that grace and delight was I / In what a prison here the soul doth live." OR "Do yet attest for him how gracious I was in bed / When he embraced, and in what the soul doth live." Whether these lines are meant to be spoken by Michelangelo or by Cecchino (as a tomb-inscription), the allusion to their common bed is clear. This is accompanied by a note advising Riccio to burn the variant "in the fire without witness." When Michelangelo learned that Riccio planned to publish all of the epitaphs unaltered, he begged him to destroy the prints, for "You certainly have the power to disgrace me." Riccio relented, but their friendship ceased.
Riccio had sent foodstuffs as 'bribes' for more and more quatrains, and Michelangelo returned each epitaph with an acknowledgment of receiving such delicacies as mushrooms, turtle or figbread: "This piece is said by the trout, and not by me; so, if you don't like the verses, don't marinate them any more with pepper." Such morbid jocularity diminishes the fervour of the epitaphs, but we should remember that the notes were written several months after each verse, and in response to Riccio's obnoxious behaviour. Many of the epitaphs are as genuinely heartfelt as the following: "I was only alive; but dead, I grew / Dearer to him who lost me when I died. /He loves me more that when I lay beside him; / Then good is death if love, for it, grows too."
Late in life--a life of eighty-nine years! --Michelangelo was deeply affected by the sober puritanism of the Counter Reformation. He genuinely feared for his soul and repented his past sins. The only way he could quench his raging desires was to transfer them to the saintly Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, a woman whose reputation for chastity was no threat to his natural instincts.
He met Vittoria around 1538 when he was sixty-three and she was forty-seven or forty-eight-and had been married for sixteen years and a chaste widow for thirteen. She had lived in a convent, wrote sad poetry, was a hard-thinking intellectual, and was politically active in the Counter Reformation movement. A contemporary called her "a looming column that stands firm amid the raging of a storm." How ironic that Michelangelo's own "broken column" now sought serene anchor in Vittoria Colonna, whose last name means "column." He placed her on a pedestal, but his love for her can hardly be called "heterosexual": he called her "a man in a woman" (un uoma in una donna).
Vittoria's unique combination of piety, beauty, goodness, and keen mind admirably cleared away Michelangelo's tendency towards excessive emotion. His poems to her are superb testimonials of Platonic affection, and fine reworkings of Dante's poems for the ideal Beatrice. They are difficult to distinguish from poems to Cavalieri, however, for it has been discovered that Michelangelo himself changed the word Signor to Signora before circulating his verse.
The incredible rigour of Michelangelo's art--the Herculean tasks of the Sistine paintings and the Julian and Medici tombs--demanded too much time and energy to leave room for the "ordinariness" of love: too much intensity was packed into each relationship. Instead of building a firm ground for love, he boldly rushed into the ambushes he set for himself. His furia and terribilita could never be matched by his merely-mortal partners. Instead of appreciating their individual personalities, he regarded them as mere rays of a titanic Apollo towards which his Dionysian energy contorted himself in the twisted spirals (technically: contraposto) and mammoth pyramids of his sculpture. He may never have possessed the social graces of a Leonardo da Vinci, yet the commonplace view of him as a man of frigid temperament who habitually philosophised his emotions is one of the great myths of art history.
The preceding essay from Gay Roots 2 appeared originally in the tabloid Gay News (London, 1975).