Michelangelo’s Dream


The Dream of Human Life by Michelangelo (1533).

Michelangelo was of course homosexual. That obvious fact still needs restating, simply because generations of art historians have been embarrassed by it. Attempts to deal with the subject have a certain comic interest. E. H. Ramsden, who translated Michelangelo’s letters, refutes the slur of homosexuality with a resounding old-fashioned “Tush!” Anthony Burgess gives an equally Victorian shudder over the David, “so epicene that it invokes unpleasing visions of Michelangelo slavering over male beauty.” Many nineteenth century critics denied him any sexuality at all, apparently preferring a eunuch to a deviant; and even today, it is a common ploy to argue that his genius inhabits some transcendently bisexual—and therefore nonsexual—realm. The evidence for his homosexual loves is too strong to be denied, particularly in the letters to and about one of his models Febo di Poggio, and those about the fifteen-year-old Cecchino de’ Bracci. And it is immediately obvious in his art.

So writes Margaret Walters in The Nude Male: A New Perspective (1978). Appraisals of the great artist’s sexuality have thrown off the prudery in the past thirty years, and a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London, looks directly at Michelangelo’s attraction to young men. The central work is The Dream of Human Life (or The Dream), one of a number of drawings Michelangelo presented to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a Roman nobleman and (we’re told) very handsome youth he met in 1532. No pictures of Cavalieri exist, unfortunately, so we have to take his good looks on trust but it’s unlikely that a 57-year-old artist would have plied a boy with beautiful drawings and hundreds of love poems without good reason. Guardian critic Jonathan Jones has a book about Michelangelo published soon and he writes enthusiastically about the exhibition:

The Courtauld Gallery, that sombre, academic institution, dares to go where Irving Stone never went in his bestselling novel about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy. It refutes, with all the authority at its command, centuries of bowdlerisation that have left the nude saints in Michelangelo’s painting The Last Judgment still – in 2010 – emasculated by prudish drapes. It gives us the unmade movie Michelangelo in Love, pouring out his soul in art and verse to a handsome youth whose beauty crystallised all the longings inherent in Michelangelo’s art ever since he carved his teenage masterpiece The Battle of the Centaurs, with its vision of life as a tumult of wrestling male bodies. (More.)

Also on display are previously unexhibited handwritten poems. The Courtauld site has more details about Michelangelo’s Dream which runs from February 18 to May 16, 2010.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The fascinating phallus
Behold the (naked) man
Michelangelo revisited

9 thoughts on “Michelangelo’s Dream”

  1. Well posted my friend. As a youth growing to sexual self-awareness, I claimed Michaelangelo for my own at a time when his homosexuality simply wasn’t mentioned in the text books, or in the famous novel and the film made of it. (Hard to imagine Charlton Heston playing a gay Michaelangelo, though it would have added depth and lustre to his career had he been courageous and open-minded enough to do so.) But I knew, I just KNEW from Michaelangelo’s work, that he was an artist for whom the male nudes in his painting and sculpture were an expression of sexual longing. The heterosexual community too long laid claim to that which wasn’t theirs. Good at last for us homosexuals to be able to shout, “Hands off! That’s one of OURS!”

  2. Yeah, not that I don’t accept there’s going to be more than a few bisexuals among the great homos of history, but I hate that tendency to gloss over the obvious gaiety-gaily-gay GAYboyness of Michelangelo (or Caravaggio, Alexander the Great, the list goes on) with handwaving in the direction of bisexuality. Rather than code for asexual, I read this as “straight-but-dabbling”. They’re just a bit *experimental*, those flameboys of yore, see.

    I do kind of see some historians pointing to marriages that reek of convenience, or purportedly sexual long-term relationships with women where said woman didn’t seem to fuss about hubby shagging every pretty boy he could lay his hands on, and want to shout, “Have you never heard of beards and faghags?!”

  3. It is hilarious how the movie version of THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY glides around the issue of MIchelangelo’s sexuality. There is a scene in a brothel where the Pope’s soldiers go to look for Michelangelo and one of the whores has a good laugh at the idea of M being found there. And then later the scriptwriters give M a speech where he claims that god has crippled him and he can only express his love through his art!

    Just a quick response to Clive if I may – I have a bit of a problem with the idea of “ours” (and “yours”). Just as being a hetero doesn’t blind me to the beauty of the male, I would hope you would be able to appreciate the beauty of woman as expressed in a Venus or a Chola bronze of Parvati.

    Sorry don’t mean to preach but this wall between us needs to be attacked from both sides.

  4. No Stephen, I have no problem at all with female beauty, whether expressed by gay men or straight. But I guess that growing up as I did in the 1950s… not a homo-friendly time for a gay kid to be finding his way… I recall looking for gay role-models around me and finding none. Not one. Just tortured souls and show-biz travesties that everyone laughed at. Nothing I could identify with. Certainly nothing young and sexy. Later Derek Jarman came along and made it OK to be homosexual. He was handsome and outspoken and shook things up. An exhilarating breath of fresh air blowing through a stale old closet. And so there’s a part of me… the part that once felt like an outsider in a hetero world… that rejoices in admired historic figures who on closer examination turn out to be gay. Particularly when the facts are met with bluster and outrage by the old guard. In such circumstances it feels just great to be batting for the ‘wrong’ team.

    It’s true that it’s kind of knee-jerk of me to ‘claim’ gay icons for the gay community, and I apologise for that. But it’s high spirits rather than separatism. I guess too it’s because for so long we had no icons. So lighten up and be a little forgiving Stephen. Gay liberation and the incredible changes in society wrought by those who were militant and raised their voices against the marginalising of a significant proportion of the world’s population, is a very recent phenomenon. You’re quite right. There shouldn’t be any walls between us. People of my generation lived through it all and remember how things were before the gay community had equality with heterosexuals in the eyes of the law. A little crowing is just our pride in the achievements of the gay men and women who against all odds made their places in history, Michaelangelo included. And I’m not preaching here. Just celebrating.

  5. You’re right of course Clive. It’s probably presumptuous of me as a hetero in a majority hetero world to even comment on what it cost you to survive in that world. If I’m overly sensitive it’s just that I grew up as a white southern American in a world that was nothing but walls, religious, racial, sexual. William Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles”. if I don’t know anything else I know about that.

    So yeah no more sermons. Let’s celebrate what we have and what we will have. And pray for us all.

  6. I’m a little younger than Clive but I identify completely with that process of racking up new additions to “our team”, not, as Clive says, in order to say “they’re ours” but as reinforcements for your own self-confidence. It’s easier to deal with society’s opprobrium if you’re in high-class company; Oscar Wilde made exactly these points in his writings and his defence in the dock at the Old Bailey, and he never tired of pointing out the obvious homoerotic tenor of Michelangelo’s work.

  7. Pax Stephen. The trouble with e-mail and posting is that the medium can’t always catch the mood of a comment. If I came over as strident than that was my error. I’m not really that kind of a person.

    I take your point about the American South and ‘walls’. And “mind forg’d manacles” certainly captures an attitude I’m familiar with from relatives in South Africa raised in an evangelical tradition very alien from my own relatively liberal upbringing.

    Whether it hails from white southern America or white South Africa, intolerance is intolerance and we should all hold out against that.

    So I join hands with you my friend to celebrate diversity in all its forms. Long live freedom and may we all have the wisdom to use it well.

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