Set In Stone

By Janani and C

L’amor mi prende e la beltà mi lega

(Love takes me captive: beauty binds my soul)

Michelangelo Buonarroti Simon

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Statue of David. The Last Judgement.

All of these pieces of art are renowned masterpieces, and the work of Italian painter and sculptor – Michelangelo. Often seen as the greatest artistic representation of the Renaissance period, rivalled only by Leonardo Da Vinci, the works of Michelangelo have heavily influenced the evolution of western art. 

Universally and historically regarded to be the epitome of beauty, Michelangelo’s art is deeply reflective of his vivid understanding of the human body – particularly, the male anatomy. It was a concept that was central to his art, so much so, that he himself coined a term to describe the male nudes he painted – “The Ignudi”, derived from the Italian word “nudo”, meaning naked. Almost all of his works were based on the male figure – exemplified most predominantly by Michelangelo’s David. Even the rare female figures he created were noted to have had male features, and this artistic fixation on the masculine (debatably) called into question his sexuality.

The greatest evidence of Michelangelo’s queerness lies in his dabble in the literary arts. While most might know him as only a painter, he wrote over 300 poems in his lifetime; some of them dedicated to God, some to various female lovers or close friends. However, interestingly enough, 30 of them were written for a young nobleman named Tomasso Dei Cavalieri. Cavalieri captivated Michelangelo, who described the former as the “light of the century”.

“I feel as lit by fire a cold countenance

That burns me from afar and keeps itself ice-chill;

A strength I feel two shapely arms to fill

Which without motion moves every balance.”

Excerpt from a sonnet written for Tomasso De Cavalieri

The affection between the two was mutual, with Cavalieri stating:

“I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you or wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.”

Theirs was a romance of the poet and the muse, bound together by their passion for the arts. Cavalieri deeply admired Michelangelo’s work, even receiving some of his sketches as a gift- such as “The Punishment of Tityus”.

Punishment of Tityus- Michelangelo, 1532

In turn, Cavalieri acted as a creative stimulus for the other, inspiring countless poems, artworks, and letters of fervent passion. In Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” –  the Sistine Chapel Fresco that is arguably the magnum opus of his career – the image of Christ is said to be modelled after Cavalieri. And I don’t know about your personal standards, but in my books, sculpting Jesus to look like me is certainly high enough praise. Although there are no surviving depictions of Cavalieri (if we were to disregard the above-mentioned Jesus), he was described as an “incomparable beauty, with graceful manners” by Italian historian, Benedetto Varchi.

The Last Judgement- Michelangelo, 1541

The love among the pair lasted until the artist’s death in 1564. 

Despite creating numerous pieces depicting homoerotica, such as “Silkworm”, where he expressed the desire to be the garments that clothed Cavalieri (take notes, y’all), Michelangelo was speculated to have maintained a “monk-like chastity” and lived an “abstinent” lifestyle. This led to theories that the relationship between Tomasso and Michelangelo might have been platonic. Not to mention, Cavalieri was a nobleman with a high social position to consider.

As one side of him was pulled with longing towards his lover, one might say a devil sat on his other shoulder. Michelangelo’s sonnets were not just a journal for his queer love, but also a prayer book for his sins. Being a devout Catholic, his religion and the times he lived in cast him in endless turmoil with his own desires. His faith in the religion only intensified towards the end of his life, and coincidentally, so did his harsh internal struggles.

I live in sin, dying to myself I live;

Life is no longer mine, but belongs to sin;

-Excerpt from a sonnet by Michelangelo

Although this sonnet mainly discusses the pain of love, it is implied to refer to his homosexuality. It was left incomplete, possibly an ode to his liaison with Cavalieri.

Regardless of what Michelangelo’s true sexuality was, perhaps one of the most upsetting incidents pertaining to his works, was the switching of the pronouns in his sonnets to Cavalieri because later audiences were made uncomfortable by the homoerotic nature of the poetry. The beauty of art is that it is entirely open to interpretation, and lies in the eyes of the beholder, but when these works are altered to fit a certain agenda, their meaning is entirely lost. This was fortunately rectified when translated to English by John Addington Symonds. 

History in its retelling has always been manipulated to the convenience of those in power, a tragedy that even the great Michelangelo knew he couldn’t escape. Art, however, was a way for him to express his dreams and sentiments. At a time when he could not be explicit about them, his work provided a channel for him to not just exhibit his innate desires, but also immortalize them in paint and marble.

One might even say, he ensured his love and identity were set in stone.

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