Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Passions of Michelangelo

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

More than five centuries ago, on 6 March 1475, a colossus was born: Michelangniolo 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, by 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.

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 was massive. It was an Age of Accomplishment: Pico della Mirandola at the age of 18 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.

Detail from the Sistine ceiling 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 and played no role in the Church's narrative. Most of these marvelous lads are weaving a huge garland of oak leaves, and clustered about them are thousands of acorns drawn very carefully to resemble the glans penis or "prickhead" in Tuscan slang (testa di cazzo). One reason for their abundance is that Pope Julius, who commissioned the work, was of the della Rovere family ("of the Oak"): they are Michelangelo's joking allusions to his patron.

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.". His contemporary biographer, Condivi, said that Michelangelo often spoke exclusively of masculine love. In all of his correspondence, he never hinted, even obliquely, at marrying. He was extraordinarily secretive, and burned all of his drawings and papers before he died.

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 among his contemporaries. 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." When a contemporary said that his homosexual behavior had arisen because of his appreciation of the nude male body, Michelangelo countered (through Condivi) "'Whose judgment would be so barbarous as not to appreciate that the foot of a man is more noble than his boot, and his skin more noble than that of a sheep, with which he is dressed?" This defence is fair enough: but it is also a good example of evasion.

Detail from the Sistine ceililngIn November 1545 Pietro Aretino — himself a known homosexual — viciously attacked Michelangelo's "godlessness" displayed in the naked youths of the Sistine Chapel and said quite explicitly: "Even if you are divine, you don't disdain male consorts." He went on to identify two of these boyfriends, 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 drawing and verse almost certainly refer to his tormented love for Perini, and well render the onslaughts of the deities of desire that Michelangelo was experiencing.

Detail from the Sistine ceiling The finest Michelangelo scholar — Robert Clements (see end of this essay) — 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.

Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi Other lovers of Michelangelo 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 18-year-old boy with whose family he lived for several years. Surviving letters prove that Andrea for his part 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 naked I go
An armed Cavaliere's captive and slave confessed.

"Cavaliere" or "cavalry man" is a pun on his lover's name Cavalieri.

The statue 'Victory'The frankly erotic statue of Victory is a similar revelation of the artist's 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 Chapel is that of Cavalieri, 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 66, he was sleeping with a 13-year-old boy named Francesco de Zanobi Bracci, nicknamed Cecchino. 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 Bracci with whose face / God wished to correct Nature."

Bust of Ceccino Bracci 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 physical consummation: "My love has ratified the agreement which I made of myself to him." The most explicit proof is a rejected version of a quatrain for the tomb:

The earthy flesh, and here my bones deprived
Of their charming face and beautiful eyes,
Do yet attest for him how gracious I was in bed
When he embraced, and in what the soul doth live.

Whether this tomb inscription is meant to be spoken by Michelangelo or by Cecchino, the allusion to their common bed is clear. This was accompanied by a note advising Riccio to burn the last two lines "in the fire without witness" and to substitute the more abstract lines "Do yet attest that grace and delight was I, / In what a prison here the soul doth live."

Detail from the Sistine ceilingWhen 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 ended.

Riccio had sent foodstuffs as bribes for more and more quatrains, and Michelangelo returned each epitaph with an acknowledgement 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 certainly seem to be heartfelt:

I was only alive; but dead, I grew
Dearer to him who lost me when I died.
He loves me more than when I lay beside him;
Then good is death if love, for it, grows too.

Late in life — a life of 89 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 Vittorio Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, a woman whose reputation for chastity was no threat to his natural homosexual instincts.

Detail from the Sistine ceilingHe met Vittoria around 1538 when he was 63 and she was 47 or 48 — 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 sometimes changed the word Signor to Signora before circulating his verse. This is a clear case of erotic transference.

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, Michelangelo 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 twisting 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 philosophized his emotions is one of the great myths of art history.

Detail from the Sistine ceilingIn fact this is one of the techniques commonly used by mainstream art historians to deny that Michelangelo was homosexual. Expurgation of Michelangelo's life began immediately after his death. His grandnephew Michelangelo il Giovane in 1623 published an edition of the poetry in which all the masculine pronouns were changed to feminine pronouns, and this remained the standard edition for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Poems and letters concerning Febo and Cecchino are still suppressed in modern editions of the Letters (including that by Irving Stone, who wrote a heterosexualized biography of the artist). The Cavalieri poems were not identified until 1897, when John Addington Symonds investigated the Buonarotti archives and discovered the original versions. The entire fifty epitaphs on Cecchino were not translated into English until 1960.

Virtually all of the biographies are still untrustworthy and downright dishonest. Articles celebrating the 500th Birthday of Michelangelo in 1975 in newspapers and magazines were silent about such things as I have discussed. The only exception to such all-round scholarly bigotry is Robert J. Clements, whose three works I have found most useful for this study: Michelangelo's Theory of Art (1961), Michelangelo: A Self-Portrait (1963) and The Poetry of Michelangelo (1966). Joseph Tusiani's Complete Poems (1960) is valuable, though many of his identifications are inaccurate, and he insists — in the face of all evidence to the contrary — that the punning poems on Febo/poggio are addressed to Vittoria Colonna!

An nude youth from the Sistine ceilingThe most recent attempt to whitewash Michelangelo is James Beck's Three Worlds of Michelangelo (1999). Beck may be a good art historian (he controversially criticized the cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Chapel paintings), but as an interpreter of human feelings he lacks rigour and sophistication. For example, he cites the reputation of Bologna being "famous for its agreeable women" to support his view that Michelangelo fell in love with a girl during his brief stay in that city. But in contrast, the reputation of Florence (Michelangelo's native city) as being notorious for its addiction to sodomy is used to suggest that Michelangelo wanted to avoid this taint. Lorenzo de' Medici in fact was quite lenient towards homosexuality, and Michael Rocke in Forbidden Friendships (1996) has documented several known sodomites in Lorenzo's immediate circle. Beck cites Marsilio Ficino's praise of platonic love to prove that Michelangelo was sexually abstinent. He does not mention that Ficino was called a sodomite by his contemporaries. Beck cites Leonardo da Vinci's expression of distaste for the sexual act to support his view that Michelangelo had a similar distaste; Beck does not mention that Leonardo was actually convicted of sodomy. Beck, needless to say, does not mention any of Michelangelo's favourite giovanni whom I have listed above.

The influence upon Michelangelo of his father Lodovico, his secular patron Lorenzo de' Medici, and his religious patron Pope Julius II are the "three worlds" of the title. Far too much supposition is used to suggest that Michelangelo was closer to Lorenzo or Julius than would be usual in most patron/artist relationships. And Michelangelo's father remains a shadowy figure, from whom his son, though dutiful, seems happy enough to have escaped. Beck is looking in the wrong direction: clues to Michelangelo's character will be found not in father figures, but in son figures.

Beck's response to Michelangelo's depiction of "The Drunkeness of Noah" on the Sistine ceiling is very amusing: "Michelangelo, of course, is here the good son, who modestly covers the father's genitals. In an ironic, witty twist, Michelangelo shows all three sons just as nude as their father, and the cloth that the good son places on the old man is nearly transparent." Beck seems to be completely blind to the fact that Michelangelo was besotted with beefcake.

Beck's speculation on the overall "meaning" of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is especially ludicrous. He argues that its "unprecedented concentration on family and on the interaction between mother and child reflect Michelangelo's nostalgia for his own lost mother, for his family and his childhood". In fact there are very few parent/child groupings on the ceiling. The overwhelming and unprecedented pictorial treatment is of paired nude males. The "children" are in fact putti — about 48 naked little boys — accompanied by 12 pairs of mostly naked lads behind the 12 Seers (illustrations of which I have used to decorate this essay), plus the 16 adult male nudes supporting the Medallions and 16 bronze male nudes flanking the Ancestors, plus the famous 20 Ignudi - young men in all their naked pride and glory. It should be emphasized that most of these adolescent boys play no role at all in Christian narrative and have no obvious meaning in this religious chapel. They are simply there because Michelangelo revered Masculine Love, not the Family.

Detail from the Sistine ceiling

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Passions of Michelangelo", Gay History and Literature, updated 14 June 2008 <>.

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