Michelangelo: Artist, Poet, Lover
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Was Michelangelo gay? It’s complicated. How does one say Michelangelo is gay when there isn’t even a word for it in the language of his time? The concept of gender identity, sexual orientation, or LBGTQ peoples in the ancient world or the Renaissance did not exist. A better question would be, who did he love? That we know. His art, letters, and poetry give us clues.
Michelangelo’s poems are sublime and beautiful, a striking contrast to his muscle-bound painted nudes and powerful statues. This strong and muscular stonemason with a broken nose and sometimes gruff personality wrote heartfelt and tender poems to his dearest friends, and many were young good-looking males. There has been much speculation about Michelangelo’s sexual orientation but there is little doubt he was very much attracted to young men. Most art historians agree his desire for men was well known within his circle of friends.
Dwelling on whether or not these attractions were consummated isn’t important, because we’ll never know. What happened in his bedroom isn’t the only way to understand his six decades of art. He regularly touted his chasteness and said he had no desire to marry because his sculptures and paintings were his children. However, his gift drawings to young men, along with the poems and correspondence he wrote, gives us insight to his love interests. I do not need to label Michelangelo as straight, gay, cis-gendered, bi, etc. It’s beside the point. Let’s look instead at who he loved.
Our twenty-first century notion of sexual orientation is completely foreign to the ancient, Middle Ages, and Renaissance eras. Classifying people as gay, lesbian, straight, trans, bisexual, etc. started in the nineteenth century and evolved. In the Renaissance there was no connection to a person’s identity or personality by means of their sexual gender preference.
It’s tempting but important not to impose our views of sex, gender, and orientation on someone who lived over six hundred years ago. Much has changed and what was considered normal then is rather shocking today. Let’s look at the world he grew up in and where he began his adult life.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) spent his formative years in Florence. His views on sex and morality were shaped by the cultural and societal practices of his peers and elders. Thanks to copious Florentine records of fines, court proceedings, and policing we know a lot about sexual behaviors and the efforts to keep citizens on the road to salvation. Florence appeared to hold a unique status as the capital of same sex male relations. No other city had such a claim to same sex activity as Florence. In Germany the nickname for someone who engaged in same sex male relations was known as a “Florenzer.” Sodomy was the official term for not only gay sex but practically any sex outside of marriage, beyond the purpose of procreation. Sodomy was part and partial of growing up male in Florence (Venice too).
The polite term for Florence’s male behavior was pederasty, an older man having sexual relations and love affairs with underage teenagers. We would call it pedophilia. Florentines did not invent pederasty as it was very common in Greek and Roman cultures as well. But it wasn’t a free for all. There were social rules and boundaries. Behaviors that were tolerated, at all social levels, were that of an older man prior to marriage, about twenty to thirty or thirty-five, engaged in sex with teen boys about thirteen to eighteen years old. While we have laws that establish a legal age for adulthood, it varied from region to region in Italy, changed historically over time, and was different for males and females.
Men married late in life, in order to establish their careers and acquire some wealth. In a testosterone filled city where women were sheltered until marriage, male partners were easy to find. The older men played the “active” role in sex (i.e., penetrator) and the younger males were “passive.” Sodomy included kissing, fondling, penetration, oral sex, or other types of sexual intimacy.
What wasn’t tolerated at all legally or socially was two older men as partners, long term relationships, or older men as passive partners. These same sex relations were woven into the social life of Florence as a rite of passage for adolescents as they first engaged in passive sex, became a man and took the active role, then married. After marriage same sex relations were unacceptable and uncommon.
Time and time again the Florentine government tried to control sexual activity, including harsh penalties such as being flogged naked through the city, death by burning, even castration, branding, or heavy fines. Florentine government officials realized they couldn’t eliminate same sex relations, but could only curb the quantity of activity. Some elected officials and all religious groups rallied together to stem the acts, mostly to no avail.
From 1432-1502 Florence entrusted the control of sodomy to the Office of the Night. Night Officers incriminated about 17,000 men during this time, and convicted 3,000, mostly with fines. The records tell us how common it was: bankers did it, merchants did it, bakers did it, shoemakers did it, fruit vendors did it, butchers did, and the elite families did it. Encounters between men and boys were brief and there was no subculture surrounding male sex. Older men would give gifts and court younger teens into engaging in sexual activity. Sex took place in alleys, dark corners, closed shops, sometimes homes, or taverns.
Denunciations occurred through eyewitness accounts and anonymous declarations submitted in boxes stationed in public areas. In 1476 Leonardo da Vinci was turned in to the Night Officers for relations with a seventeen-year-old boy, but was not convicted. Sandro Botticelli was denounced in 1502. Many times, the Office of the Night gave a fine and a hand slap, except when violent assaults occurred.
Social mores were particularly relaxed when Lorenzo de’ Medici ruled Florence. Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92) created a hotspot of intellectual and artistic activity. Michelangelo worked in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Florentine shop for about three years, from twelve to fifteen years old. His father secured an even better position for him in the household of Lorenzo from two to four years, at the tender age of fifteen until seventeen or so. There he hobnobbed with elite Florentine thinkers while he studied the Medici ancient art collection, their library of poetry or literature by the likes of Dante and Ovid, and Greek philosophy. He made some art, and developed deep connections to important or soon to be important men. There were a few Medici that went on to become popes, and his patrons. This was a far cry from grinding pigments as an assistant in a large studio. It was the equivalent of Harvard in Renaissance Florence. It is entirely conceivable he was sexually active as most males were at this age, albeit in a very politically and socially protected and exclusive environment. Michelangelo had no need to seek out partners in a dark alley.
Everything changed when Lorenzo died. Tumultuous years followed, including the rantings of Savonarola, the ousting of the Medici, and a harsh crackdown on sodomy. Michelangelo was at risk with his Medici associations and left Florence for Bologna, under the protection of Piero (the Unfortunate) de’ Medici. Meanwhile, back in Florence, the pro and anti-Medici and Savonarola factions resulted in riots and fear. Much of what Savonarola stood for was against vanity, displays of wealth, and sodomy. Conservative Savonarola gangs of twenty-five or more vigilantes roamed the streets dealing out their own punishments for immoral behavior.
The anti-Savonarola families, who tended to be pro-Medici, rose up and fought back, cumulating in a riot during one of the preacher’s fiery sermons, which frequently denounced same sex relations. Following Savonarola’s ex-communication and burning at the stake, Florentine men proclaimed, “We can sodomize again!” But that freedom didn’t last. In 1532 Duke Cosimo I began his reign and very harsh penalties were enacted. If convicted, shame was brought on the family, plus a lifetime of hard labor for the offender.
Michelangelo undoubtedly learned caution about personal relationships growing up in this political turmoil. Throughout his life he was infatuated with various young males. The need to be discreet was necessary for career and the Buonarroti family. He worked between Florence and Rome until his permanent move to Rome in 1534. He met a true love in 1532 in Rome, a young aristocratic nobleman forty years younger than himself. Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and Michelangelo clicked soon after meeting. They appeared to be either writing correspondence to each other or spending time together frequently. Michelangelo’s prose was over the top gushing and always recognizing Tommaso’s higher social status, although Michelangelo was more well-known.
At fifty-seven, Michelangelo began to seriously develop his poetic skills. At this point in his artistic life, he had finished the Sistine ceiling (1508-12) but had not yet painted the Sistine Last Judgement frescoes (1536-41). He was the most well-known artist in Western Europe. His poetic play on words, double meanings, and sometimes evasive language makes it a guessing game as to what exactly what he meant. He wrote about 600 poems and sixty of those are addressed to men. Tommaso was one of the recipients. These are the first modern love poems written by a man and intended for the man he loves.
Michelangelo wrote this to Tommaso regarding his beauty:
I see in your beautiful face, my lord,
what can scarcely be related in this life:
my soul, although still clothed in its flesh,
has already risen often with it to God.
Michelangelo wasted no time in presenting Tomao (Tommy) with three superb drawings. These are not sketches, but highly finished presentation or gift drawings of mythological subjects. Michelangelo was protective of his work and was not one to give away art unless he felt moved to do so. He was also pragmatic in his drawing habits, there was no fantasy doodling, or abstractness, rather he preferred drawing for specific projects and subjects. Michelangelo’s drawing techniques remained consistent over time with a preference for black and red chalk. He valued the craft of drawing as the foundation for visual arts.
The subjects of these gift drawings are representative of his desire, as well as his caution about pursuing desire. Visual images of mythological subjects were a vehicle for self-expression, in other words, a picture could express a thousand words. One drawing is about sexual lust, and the other two represent what happens when boundaries are broken.
The Abduction of Ganymede was the riskiest, so much so that the original was destroyed, but not before it was copied. A nude male is carried off by a large eagle. Ganymede is an innocent shepherd boy, who does not realize that the lustful god Jupiter has taken the form of a raptor to carry him away because of his beauty. Jupiter was smitten and made Ganymede his cup-bearer and lover. It’s not a bad love story for the Roman and the Renaissance eras. To live with the gods because of your beauty isn’t a tough life. It was a fairly common subject but usually Ganymede is a little less exposed. The full-frontal nudity, Ganymede’s legs pressed open by the eagle’s talons, and the rapturous embrace must have raised many eyebrows. Tommaso was much impressed with the drawings and attention. The drawings and poems were circulated amongst their inner circle, but it’s wasn’t long before copies and prints were made. There was talk in the elite Roman circles that their relationship was inappropriate.
Michelangelo’s letter accompanying the Ganymede drawing is ambiguous, but reading between the lines, he ends with a sonnet that smacks of attraction, while dancing around the topic of desire. “You know that I know, my lord, that you know that I come closer to take delight in you, and you know I know you know just who I am.” Is he Ganymede and Tommaso the eagle?
In another letter he writes of a “greatest, even unmeasurable, love that I bring to you” (grandissimo, anzi smisurato amore che io vi porto). Granted, some of this language is typical of the extravagant style of the time period. But it signals a deeper relationship. On July 28, 1533 Michelangelo wrote three letters to Tommaso. A friend who acted as go-between between the two men assured Michelangelo that the love was equally reciprocated from Tommaso. Michelangelo wrote to this friend that he had given his soul over to Tommaso, his very anima.
When Michelangelo sent Tommaso a drawing of the Fall of Phaeton, he ever so politely suggests that if the drawing is not up to par, he could make another one. This, from an artist known across Europe who has no lack of princes, dukes, elites, popes and cardinals asking, even practically begging, for a drawing or Michelangelo to engage in some project.
There are three levels in the drawing with Jupiter at the top, Phaeton in the middle, and the figures on earth. Phaeton nags his father Helios, the sun god, to drives a chariot in the sky. Helios relents, knowing the dangers. Phaeton takes the chariot on a joy ride and carelessly gets too close to the sun which brings fire to the earth. The only way to save earth from burning up is to stop Phaeton. Jupiter strikes a thunderbolt to send the chariot down to contain the fire, knowing that Phaeton will perish. A river god and his sisters await the fall.
I had the pleasure to see these drawings at the 2018 Metropolitan Museum exhibit in New York (“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”). The detail is amazing considering the black chalk medium. And drawings are hardly ever on display due to their fragile nature. Michelangelo had to imagine what horses falling out of the sky upside down would look like, since these are not poses one could draw from life in the studio.
If the Phaeton is ominous, the Punishment of Tityus is pure hell. Here we have yet another gory mythological subject, as Tityus is about to suffer eternal torture in the underworld for his crime of lust. Tityus tried to rape the mother of Apollo and Diana, Lato. He is chained to a rock in mythological hell, while each day a vulture, which looks more like Ganymede’s eagle, will peck out his liver, only to have it grow back, and be pecked out again. Renaissance physicians regarded the liver as an organ associated with desire and procreation. To the right of the drawing is a tree in the underworld with a soul trapped inside and screaming. This eternal damnation for wrongful lust is a direct juxtaposition to the ecstatic love of beauty represented by Ganymede. It contrasts divine rapture that is quasi spiritual in nature vs. unrestrained earthly lust. These are two themes frequently present in Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophical ideology, which influenced Michelangelo and he so distinctly depicted.
The Phaeton and the Tityus sent to Tommaso are mythological representations of desire gone too far because of impetuous acts. They are coded warnings about the consequences of questionable decisions and the fallout. Michelangelo’s poetry also revolves around tormented ideas of divine love, earthly passion, and death. The fear and condemnation of having done wrong are strong messages for two men that adore each other. Additionally, regarding the Phaeton drawing, Cavalieri means horseman in Italian and the double meaning is deliberate. One of his sonnets to Tommaso ends with the admission “I remain the prisoner of an armed horseman” (resto prigion d’un cavalier armato).
Tommaso and Michelangelo remained close friends for over thirty years. Tommaso married in 1545, thirteen years after meeting Michelangelo. Tommaso was well connected in Rome and held many important civic positions, and was well-regarded in Roman circles and amassed a huge collection of drawings. A true friend until the end, Tommaso was at Michelangelo’s bedside when he died in 1564. He was also the executor of Michelangelo’s estate.
Michelangelo’s poetry was published by his grand-nephew in 1623. He felt a need to sanitize the poems by removing all references to Tommaso. He also changed genders on many poems so as to appear Michelangelo wasn’t writing anything amorous to men.
Michelangelo was enamored with other young men as well. We know of a few from his Florentine years, a man named Simone (no known last name ) and a Febo di Poggio. They were left behind when he moved to Rome and not mentioned again in letters. Perhaps they were more smitten with Michelangelo than he was with them.
Andrea Quaratesi (1512-85) caught Michelangelo’s eye about 1530, before he met Tommaso. Andrea was a son of a merchant banker from Pisa. Their correspondence lasted a little over twenty years. They traveled in the same circles of intelligentsia and elite families. Michelangelo transacted business with the family’s bank. Andrea most likely was the recipient of drawings and poems, although we know less about his prominence in Michelangelo’s life and inner circle. Whereas we have letters that represent the Tommaso-Michelangelo relationship, we have something different from his relationship with Andrea.
Michelangelo left us a striking portrait of Andrea. Michelangelo was not in the business of portraiture. He generally avoided portrait commissions. This black chalk drawing is a rare example of Michelangelo’s portraiture, and surely was a gift drawing for Andrea. This is a delicate and evocative portrait with Andrea in a three-quarters pose, looking not at the viewer but just beyond. He is in his early twenties and is a well-dressed sensual youth. Michelangelo delicately lit the portrait from Andrea’s right side of his face with soft shadows falling across his left side. There is nothing arrogant or imposing about Andrea. This was also at the New York Met exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings and it was one of the most striking pieces in a show with hundreds of drawings. For an artist who depicted brawny men, this is his softer side.
Some scholars believe Michelangelo assisted Andrea with drawing lessons, something Michelangelo was not want to do in most cases, but with a good-looking young man, it is possible. There are some drawings with random sketches (one sheet has over a dozen eyes sketched in) along with words which may represent a drawing lesson. Michelangelo often re-purposed paper, as he was frugal, and paper was expensive. There are some words to Andrea jotted down on the sheet with the eyes that reads: “Andrea, have patience/love me sufficient consolation.” Speculation only leads one to imagine a number of possibilities regarding the meaning. If Andrea was receiving some form of lessons from the master, why would Michelangelo ask for patience? In a 1532 letter to Andrea, the same year he set eyes on Tommaso, he writes of his adoration for Andrea and includes the line “He truly loves who truly burns.”
Michelangelo’s jargon and manner of composing letters at this time is a little like trying to decipher Shakespeare. The prose is complicated, taken out of context of the intimate relationships, and the style is so different from how we communicate today. There is a cautionary red flag which must be observed when trying to make meaning of his words and art, especially if one wants quick and definitive Google answers. In this case, there aren’t many.
I leave you with a phrase Michelangelo wrote to Tommaso, which to me sums up his feelings: “Love takes me captive; beauty binds my soul.”
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