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

Captive and Slave Confessed

The Gay Love Letters of Michelangelo

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

In 1623 Michelangelo's grandnephew published an edition of the great sculptor's poetry in which all the masculine pronouns were changed to feminine pronouns, which remained the standard edition for nearly two hundred and fifty years. John Addington Symonds' studies in the Buonarroti family archives in Florence brought this censorship to light for the first time in 1892, but it is only very recently that Michelangelo's homosexuality has become a generally accepted fact. Michelangelo (14751564) was a heroic masculinist in the great age of machismo. He regularly employed male models even for his female figures, including the famous statue of Night on the Medici Tombs, a figure whose breasts are obviously superimposed on a male torso. The gallery of nude youths, or ignudi in the Sistine Chapel outraged several pontifs because of their wholly non-Christian associations; the recent controversial restoration of the Chapel makes these homoerotic images stand out even more clearly. His earliest lovers included the handsome model Gherardo Perini who came to work for him around 1520, and, during the 1530s, the younger assistant Febo di Poggio, whom he called "that little blackmailer" because Febo steadily demanded money, clothes and love-gifts from him. In 1532 Michelangelo began wooing the Roman nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri, and became "An armed Knight's [Cavaliere's] captive and slave confessed." His love for Tommaso might have been wholly sublimated, but his love-gifts to his patron included drawings of the rape of Ganymede. Michelangelo's contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Benvenuto Cellini and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma) were publicly charged with sodomy, and Michelangelo, like them, was offered "services" by the ragazzi who worked as apprentices in the art studios. But a powerful strain of neoplatonic puritanism (derived from the work of Marsilio Ficino) in his complex personality, suggests that the conflict between desire and restraint was resolved more in his sculpture than in his life. "What from thee I long for and learn to know deep within me / Can scarcely be understood by the minds of men."


January 1, 1533

Without due consideration, Messer Tomao, my very dear lord, I was moved to write to your lordship, not by way of answer to any letter received from you, but being myself the first to make advances, as though I felt bound to cross a little stream with dry feet, or a ford made manifest by paucity of water. But now that I have left the shore, instead of the trifling water I expected, the ocean with its towering waves appears before me, so that, if it were possible, in order to avoid drowning, I would gladly retrace my steps to the dry land whence I started. Still, as I am here, I will e'en make of my heart a rock, and proceed further; and if I shall not display the art of sailing on the sea of your powerful genius, that genius itself will excuse me, nor will be disdainful of my inferiority in parts, nor desire from me that which I do not possess, inasmuch as he who is unique in all things can have peers in none. Therefore your lordship, the light of our century without paragon upon this world, is unable to be satisfied with the productions of other men, having no match or equal to yourself. And if, peradventure, something of mine, such as I hope and promise to perform, give pleasure to your mind, I shall esteem it more fortunate than excellent; and should I ever be sure of pleasing your lordship, as is said, in any particular, I will devote the present time and all my future to your service; indeed, it will grieve me much that I cannot regain the past, in order to devote a longer space to you than the future only will allow, seeing I am now too old. I have no more to say. Read the heart, and not the letter, because "the pen toils after man's good-will in vain."
          I have to make excuses for expressing in my first letter a marvellous astonishment at your rare genius; and thus I do so, having recognised the error I was in; for it is much the same to wonder at God's working miracles as to wonder at Rome producing divine men. Of this the universe confirms us in our faith.
          P.S.: It would be permissible to give the name of the things a man presents, to him who receives them; but proper sense of what is fitting prevents it being done in this letter.


July 28, 1533

My dear Lord,
          – Had I not believed that I had made you certain of the very great, nay, measureless love I bear you, it would not have seemed strange to me nor have roused astonishment to observe the great uneasiness you show in your last letter, lest, through my not having written, I should have forgotten you. Still it is nothing new or marvellous when so many other things go counter, that this also should be topsy-turvy. For what your lordship says to me, I could say to yourself: nevertheless, you do this perhaps to try me, or to light a new and stronger flame, if that indeed were possible: but be it as it will: I know well that, at this hour, I could as easily forget your name as the food by which I live; nay, it were easier to forget the food, which only nourishes my body miserably, than your name, which nourishes both body and soul, filling the one and the other with such sweetness that neither weariness nor fear of death is felt by me while memory preserves you to my mind. Think, if the eyes could also enjoy their portion, in what condition I should find myself.


Summer, 1533

          I have received from you a letter, which is the more acceptable because it was so wholly unexpected. I say unexpected, because I hold myself unworthy of such condescension in a man of your eminence. With regard to what Pierantonio spoke to you in my praise, and those things of mine which you have seen, and which you say have aroused in you no small affection for me, I answer that they were insufficient to impel a man of such transcendent genius, without a second, not to speak of a peer, upon this earth, to address a youth who was born but yesterday, and therefore is as ignorant as it is possible to be. At the same time I cannot call you a liar. I rather think then, nay, am certain, that the love you bear me is due to this, that you being a man most excellent in art, nay, art itself, are forced to love those who follow it and love it, among whom am I; and in this, according to my capacity, I yield to few. I promise you truly that you shall receive from me for your kindness affection equal, and perhaps greater, in exchange; for I never loved a man more than I do you, nor desired a friendship more than I do yours. About this, though my judgment may fail in other things, it is unerring ...
          Your most affectionate servant.
                    Thomao Cavalieri


December, 1533

          – Albeit you bear the greatest hatred toward my person – I know not why – I scarcely believe, because of the love I cherish for you, but probably through the words of others, to which you ought to give no credence, having proved me – yet I cannot do otherwise than write to you this letter. I am leaving Florence tomorrow, and am going to Pescia to meet the Cardinal di Cesis and Messer Baldassare. I shall journey with them to Pisa, and thence to Rome, and I shall never return again to Florence. I wish you to understand that, so long as I live, wherever I may be, I shall always remain at your service with loyalty and love, in a measure unequalled by any other friend whom you may have upon this world.
          I pray God to open your eyes from some other quarter, in order that you may come to comprehend that he who desires your good more than his own welfare, is able to love, not to hate like an enemy.

Naught comforts you, I see, unless I die:
          Earth weeps, the heavens for me are moved to woe;
          You feel of grief the less, the more grieve I.
O sun that warms the world where'er you go,
          O Febo, light eterne for mortal eyes!
          Why dark to me alone, elsewhere not so?


January 4, 1534

Magnificent M. Michelangelo, to be honoured as a father,
          – I came back yesterday from Pisa, whither I had gone to see my father. Immediately upon my arrival, that friend of yours at the bank put a letter from you into my hands, which I received with the greatest pleasure, having heard of your well-being. God be praised, I may say the same about myself. Afterwards I learned what you say about my being angry with you. You know well I could not be angry with you, since I regard you in the place of a father. Besides, your conduct toward me has not been of the sort to cause in me any such effect. That evening when you left Florence, in the morning I could not get away from M. Vincenzo, though I had the greatest desire to speak with you. Next morning I came to your house, and you were already gone, and great was my disappointment at your leaving Florence without my seeing you.
          I am here in Florence; and when you left, you told me that if I wanted anything, I might ask it of that friend of yours; and now that M. Vincenzo is away, I am in want of money, both to clothe myself, and also to go to the Monte, to see those people fighting, for M. Vincenzo is there. Accordingly, I went to visit that friend at the ban, and he told me that he had no commission whatsoever from you; but that a messenger was starting tonight for Rome, and that an answer could come back within five days. So then, if you give him orders, he will not fail. I beseech you, then, to provide and assist me with any sum you think fit, and do not fail to answer.
          I will not write more, except that with all my heart and power I recommend myself to you, praying God to keep you from harm.
          – Yours in the place of a son,
                    Febo di Poggio

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
SOURCE: John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonaroti (1893).

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