Michelangelo

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor.


[From The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1893 (which actually appeared in late 1892). Symonds's studies in the archives of the Buonarroti family at Florence revealed for the first time that Michelangelo's poems and letters had been deliberately altered so as to obscure his homosexual sensibility; Symonds was quite pleased with this fortuitous discovery which confirmed his own intuition, and proud of his ability to de-suppress homosexual history by means of sound scholarship as well as astute argument. This is perhaps the first analysis of the heterosexualization of homosexual literature. The following excerpts also demonstrate his skill as a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets, which are appropriately included here rather than in the section on translations. Symonds's Life of Michelangelo was reprinted in 2002 with an Introduction by Creighton E. Gilbert, and is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.]


Michelangelo, in short, like most young artists, was struggling into fame and recognition. Both came to him by the help of a Roman gentleman and banker, Messer Jacopo Gallo. It so happened that an intimate Florentine friend of Buonarroti, the Baldassare Balducci mentioned at the end of his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco [summer 1506], was employed in Gallo's house of business. It is probable, therefore, that this man formed the link of connection between the sculptor and his new patron. At all events, Messer Gallo purchased a Bacchus, which now adorns the sculpture-gallery of the Bargello, and a Cupid, which may possibly be the statue at South Kensington.

Condivi says that this gentleman, "a man of fine intelligence, employed him to execute in his own house a marble Bacchus, tel palms in height, the form and aspect of which correspond in all parts to the meaning of ancient authors. The face of the youth is jocund, the eyes wandering and wanton, as is the wont with those who are too much addicted to a taste for wine. In his right hand he holds a cup, lifting it to drink, and gazing at it like one who takes delight in that liquor, of which he was the first discoverer. for this reason, too, the sculptor has wreathed his head with vine-tendrils. On his left arm hangs a tiger-skin, the beast dedicated to Bacchus, as being very partial to the grape. Here the artist chose rather to introduce the skin than the animal itself, in order to hint that sensual indulgence in the pleasure of the grape-juice leads at last to loss of life. With the hand of this arm he holds a bunch of grapes, which a little satyr, crouched below him, is eating on the sly with glad and eager gestures. The child may seem to be seven years, the bacchus eighteen of age." This description is obviously mistaken when he supposes that Michelangelo's young Bacchus faithfully embodies the Greek spirit. The Greeks never forgot, in all their representations of Dionysos, that he was a mystic and enthusiastic deity. Joyous, voluptuous, androgynous, he yet remains the god who brought strange gifts and orgiastic rites to men. His followers, Silenus, Bacchantes, Fauns, exhibit, in their self-abandonment to sensual joy, the operation of his genius. The deity descends to join their revels from his clear Olympian ether, but he is not troubled by the fumes of intoxication. Michelangelo has altered this conception. Bacchus, with him, is a terrestrial young man, upon the verge of toppling over into drunkenness. The value of the work is its realism. The attitude could not be sustained in actual life for a moment without either the goblet spilling its liquor or the body reeling sideways. Not only are the eyes wavering and wanton, but the muscles of the mouth have relaxed into a tipsy smile; and, instead of the tiger-skin being suspected from the left arm, it has slipped down, and is only kept from falling by the loose grasp of the trembling hand. Nothing, again, could be less godlike that the face of Bacchus. It is the face of a not remarkably good-looking model, and the head is too small both for the body and the heavy crown of leaves. As a study of incipient intoxication, when the whole person is disturbed by drink, but human dignity has not yet yielded to a bestial impulse, this statue proves the energy of Michelangelo's imagination. The physical beauty of his adolescent model in the limbs and body redeems the grossness of the motive by the inalienable charm of health and carnal comeliness. Finally, the technical merits of the work cannot too strongly be insisted on. The modelling of the thorax, the exquisite roundness and fleshiness of the thighs and arms and belly, the smooth skin-surface expressed throughout in marble, will excite admiration in all who are capable of appreciating this aspect of the statuary's art. Michelangelo produced nothing more finished in execution, if we except the Pietà at S. Peter's. His bacchus alone is sufficient to explode a theory favoured by some critics, that, left to work unhindered, he would still have preferred a certain vagueness, a certain want of polish in his marbles.

Nevertheless, the Bacchus leaves a disagreeable impression on the mind — as disagreeable in its own way as that produced by the Christ of the Minerva. That must be because it is wrong in spiritual conception — brutally materialistic where it ought to have been noble or graceful. In my opinion, the frank, joyous naturalism of Sansovini's Bacchus (also in the Bargello) possesses more of true Greek inspiration than Michelangelo's. If Michelangelo meant to carve a Bacchus, he failed; if he meant to imitate a physically desirable young man in a state of drunkenness, he succeeded.

* * *

In the David Michelangelo first displayed that quality of terribilità, of spirit-quailing, awe-inspiring force, for which he afterwards became so famous. The statue imposes, not merely by its size and majesty and might, but by something vehement in the conception. He was, however, far, from having yet adopted those systematic proportions for the human body which later on gave an air of monotonous impressiveness to all his figures. On the contrary, this young giant strongly recalls the model; still more strongly indeed that the Bacchus did. Wishing perhaps to adhere strictly to the Biblical story, Michelangelo studied a lad whose frame was not developed. The David, to state the matter frankly, is a colossal hobbledehoy. His body, in breadth of the thorax, depth of the abdomen, and general stoutness, has not grown up to the scale of the enormous hands and feet and heavy head. We feel that he wants at least two years to become a fully developed man, passing from adolescence to the maturity of strength and beauty. This close observance of the imperfections of the model at a certain stage of physical growth is very remarkable, and not altogether pleasing in a statue more than nine feet high. Both Donatello and Verocchio had treated their Davids in the same realistic manner, but they were working on a small scale and in bronze. I insist upon this point, because students of Michelangelo have been apt to overlook his extreme sincerity and naturalism in the first stages of his career.

Having acknowledged that the head of David is too massive and the extremities too largely formed for ideal beauty, hypercriticism can hardly find fault with the modelling and execution of each part. The attitude selected is one of great dignity and vigour. The heroic boy, quite certain of victory, is excited by the coming contest. His brows are violently contracted, the nostrils tense and quivering, the eyes fixed keenly on the distant Philistine. His larynx rises visibly, and the sinews of his left thigh tighten, as though the whole spirit of the man were braced for a supreme endeavour. In his right hand, kept at a just middle point between the hip and knee, he holds the piece of wood on which his sling is hung. The sling runs round his back, and the centre of it, where the stone bulges, is held with the left hand, poised upon the left shoulder, ready to be loosed. We feel that the next movement will involve the right hand straining to its full extent the sling, dragging the stone away, and whirling it into the air; when, after it has sped to strike Goliath in the forehead, the whole lithe body of the lad will have described a curve, and recovered its perpendicular position on the two firm legs. Michelangelo invariably chose some decisive moment in the action he had to represent; and though he was working here under difficulties, owing to the limitations of the damaged block at his disposal, he contrived to suggest the imminence of swift and sudden energy which shall disturb the equilibrium of his young giant's pose. Critics of this statue, deceived by its superficial resemblance to some Greek athletes at rest, have neglected the candid realism of the momentary act foreshadowed. They do not understand the meaning of the sling. Even Heath wilson, for instance, writes: "The massive shoulders are thrown back, the right arm is pendent, and the right hand grasps resolutely the stone with which the adversary is to be slain." This entirely falsifies the sculptor's motive, misses the meaning of the sling, renders the broad strap behind the back superfluous, and changes into mere plastic symbolism what Michelangelo intended to be a moment caught from palpitating life.

* * *

The true test of the highest art is that it should rightly represent the human form. Agreed upon this point, it remains for us to consider in what way Michelangelo conceived and represented the human form. If we can discover his ideal, his principles, his leading instincts in this decisive matter, we shall unlock, so far as that is possible, the secret of his personality as man and artist. The psychological quality of every great master must eventually be determined by his mode of dealing with the phenomena of sex.

In Pheidias we find a large impartiality. His men and women are cast in the same mould of grandeur, inspired with equal strength and sweetness, antiphonal notes in dual harmony. Praxiteles leans to the female, Lysippus to the male; and so, through all the gamut of the figurative craftsmen, we discover more or less affinity for man or woman. One is swayed by woman and her gracefulness, the other by man and his vigour. Few have realised the Pheidian perfection of doing equal justice.

Michelangelo emerges as a mighty master who was dominated by the vision of male beauty, and who saw the female mainly through the fascination of the other sex. The defect of his art is due to a certain constitutional callousness, a want of sensuous or imaginative sensibility for what is specifically feminine.

Not a single woman carved or painted by the hand of Michelangelo has the charm of early youth or the grace of virginity. The Eve of the Sistine, the Madonna of S. Peter's, the Night and Dawn of the Medicean Sacristy, are female in the anatomy of their large and grandly modelled forms, but not feminine in their sentiment. This proposition requires no proof. It is only needful to recall a Madonna by Raphael, a Diana by Correggio, a Leda by Lionardo, a Venus by Titian, a S. Agnes by Tintoretto. We find ourselves immediately in a different region — the region of artists who loved, admired, and comprehended what is feminine in the beauty and the temperament of women. Michelangelo neither loved, nor admired, nor yielded to the female sex. Therefore he could not deal plastically with what is best and loveliest in the female form. His plastic ideal of the woman is masculine. He builds a colossal fame of muscle, bone, and flesh, studied with supreme anatomical science. He gives to Eve the full pelvis and enormous haunches of an adult matron. It might here be urged that he chose to symbolise the fecundity of her who was destined to be the mother of the human race. but if this was his meaning, why did he not make Adam a corresponding symbol of fatherhood? Adam is an adolescent man, colossal in proportions, but beardless, hairless; the attributes of sex in him are developed, but not matured by use. The Night, for whom no symbolism of maternity was needed, is a woman who has passed through many pregnancies. Those deeply delved wrinkles on the vast and flaccid abdomen sufficiently indicate this. Yet when we turn to Michelangelo's sonnets on Night, we find that he habitually thought of her as a mysterious and shadowy being, whose influence, though potent for the soul, disappeared before the frailest of all creatures bearing light. The Dawn, again, in her deep lassitude, has nothing of vernal freshness. Built upon the same type as the Night, she looks like Messalina dragging herself from heavy slumber, for once satiated as well as tired, stricken for once with the conscience of disgust. When he chose to depict the acts of passion or of sensual pleasure, a similar want of sympathy with what is feminine in womanhood leaves an even more discordant impression on the mind. I would base the prof of this remark upon the marble Leda of the Bargello Museum, and an old engraving of Ixion clasping the phantom of Juno under the form of a cloud. In neither case do we possess Michelangelo's own handiwork; he must not, therefore, be credited with the revolting expression, as of a drunken profligate, upon the face of Leda. Yet in both cases he is indubitably responsible for the general design, and for the brawny carnality of the repulsive woman. I find it difficult to resist the conclusion that Michelangelo felt himself compelled to treat women as though they were another and less graceful sort of males. The sentiment of woman, what really distinguishes the sex, whether voluptuously or passionately or poetically apprehended, emerges in no eminent instance of his work. There is a Cartoon at Naples for a Bacchante, which Bronzino transferred to canvas and coloured. This design illustrates the point on which I am insisting. An athletic circus-rider of mature years, with abnormally developed muscles, might have posed as model for this female votary of Dionysus. Before he made this drawing, Michelangelo had not seen those frescoes of the dancing Bacchantes from Pompeii; nor had he perhaps seen the Maenads on Greek bas-reliefs tossing wild tresses backwards, swaying virginal lithe bodies to the music of the tambourine. We must not, therefore, compare his concept with those masterpieces of the later classical imagination. Still, many of his contemporaries, vastly inferior to him in penetrative insight, a Giovanni da Udine, a Perino del Vaga, a Primaticcio, not to speak of Raffaello or of Lionardo, felt what the charm of youthful womanhood upon the revel might be. He remained insensible to the melody of purely feminine lines; and the only reason why his transcripts from the female form are not gross like those of Flemish painters, repulsive like Rembrandt's, fleshly like Rubens's, disagreeable like the drawings made by criminals in prisons, is that they have little womanly about them.

Lest these assertions should appear too dogmatic, I will indicate the series of works in which I recognise Michelangelo's sympathy with genuine female quality. All the domestic groups, composed of women and children, which fill the lunettes and groinings between the windows in the Sistine Chapel, have a charming twilight sentiment of family life or maternal affection. They are among the loveliest and most tranquil of his conceptions. The Madonna above the tomb of Julius II cannot be accused of masculinity, nor the ecstatic figure of the Rachel beneath it. Both of these statues represent what Goethe called "das ewig Weibliche" under a truly felt and natural aspect. The Delphian and Erythrean Sibyls are superb in their majesty. Again, in those numerous designs for Crucifixions, Depositions from the Cross, and Pietůs, which occupied so much of Michelangelo's attention during his old age, we find an intense and pathetic sympathy with the sorrows of Mary, expressed with noble dignity and a pious sense of godhead in the human mother. It will be remarked that throughout the cases I have reserved as exceptions, it is not woman in her plastic beauty and her radiant charm that Michelangelo has rendered, but woman in her tranquil or her saddened and sorrow-stricken moods. What he did not comprehend and could not represent was woman in her girlishness, her youthful joy, her physical attractiveness, her magic of seduction.

Michelangelo's women suggest demonic primitive beings, composite and undetermined products of the human race in evolution, before the specific qualities of sex have been eliminated form a general predominating mass of masculinity.

* * *

Michelangelo's friendship with Vittoria Colonna forms a very charming episode in the history of Michelangelo's career, and it was undoubtedly one of the consolations of his declining years. Yet too great stress has hitherto been laid on it by his biographers. Not content with exaggerating its importance in his life, they have misinterpreted its nature. The world seems unable to take interest in a man unless it can contrive to discover a love-affair in his career. The singular thing about Michelangelo is that, with the exception of Vittoria Colonna, no woman is known to have influenced his heart or head in any way. In his correspondence he never mentions women, unless they be aunts, cousins, grand-nieces, or servants. About his mother he is silent. We have no tradition regarding amours in youth or middle age; and only two words dropped by Condivi lead us to conjecture that he was not wholly insensible to the physical attractions of the female. Romancers and legend-makers have, therefore, forced Vittoria Colonna to play the role of Juliet in Michelangelo's life-drama. It has not occurred to these critics that there is something essentially disagreeable in the thought of an aged couple entertaining an amorous correspondence. I use these words deliberately, because poems which breathe obvious passion of no merely spiritual character have been assigned to the number he composed for Vittoria Colonna. This, as we shall see, is chiefly the fault of his first editor, who printed all the sonnets and madrigals as though they were addressed to one woman or another. It is also in part due to the impossibility of determining their exact date in the majority of instances. Verses, then, which were designed for several objects of his affection, male or female, have been indiscriminately referred to Vittoria Colonna, whereas we can only attribute a few poems with certainty to her series.

This mythus of Michelangelo's passion for the Marchioness of Pescara has blossomed and brought forth fruit abundantly from a single and pathetic passage in Condivi. "In particular, he greatly loved the Marchioness of Pescara, of whose divine spirit he was enamoured, being in return dearly beloved by her. . . . Her death was the cause that oftentimes he dwelt astonied, thinking of it, even as a man bereft of sense."

Michelangelo himself, writing immediately after Vittoria's death, speaks of her thus: "She felt the warmest affection for me, and I not less for her. Death has robbed me of a great friend." It is curious that he here uses the masculine gender: "un grande amico." He also composed two sonnets, which were in all probability inspired by the keen pain of this bereavement. (Rime, Sonnets Nos. lxi and lxii. It must be said that, so far as I know, we have no autograph authority for ascribing them to her. The same must be said about No. lxiii, which Guasti also places among sonnets written "In Morte di Vittoria Colonna." The autograph in Cod. Vat., p. 85, has no superscription. The curious play upon the words Febo and poggio in lines 2, 9, 10, might raise a suspicion that this sonnet was composed after his rupture with Febo di Poggio, about whom something will be said later on in this chapter. This suspicion is confirmed by the fragment of a sonnet (No. xciii), which play on the name Febo di Poggio. In Guasti's Rime it is numbered xciii, and seems to allude in covert language to Febo's preference for some other friend.) . . .

The union of Michelangelo and Vittoria was beautiful and noble, based upon the sympathy of ardent and high-feeling natures. Nevertheless we must remember that when Michelangelo lost his old servant Urbino, his letters and the sonnet written upon that occasion express an even deeper passion of grief.

Love is an all-embracing word, and may well be used to describe this exalted attachment, as also to qualify the great sculptor's affection for a faithful servant or for a charming friend. We ought not, however, to distort the truth of biography or to corrupt criticism, from a personal wish to make more out of this feeling that fact and probability warrant. This is what has been done by all who approached the study of Michelangelo's life and writings. Of late years, the determination to see Vittoria Colonna through every line written by him which bears the impress of strong emotion, and to suppress other aspects of his sensibility, has been so deliberate, that I am forced to embark upon a discussion which might otherwise have not been brought so prominently forward. For the understanding of his character, and for a proper estimate of his poetry, it has become indispensable to do so.

Michelangelo's best friend in Rome was a young nobleman called Tommaso Cavalieri. Speaking of his numerous allies and acquaintances, Vasari writes: "Immeasurably more than all the rest, he loved Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a Roman gentleman, for whom, as he was young and devoted to the arts, Michelangelo made many stupendous drawings of superb heads in black and red chalk, wishing him to learn the method of design. Moreover, the drew for him a Ganymede carried up to heaven by Jove's eagle, a Tityos with the vulture feeding on his heart, the fall of Phaethon with the sun's chariot into the river Po, and a Bacchanal of children; all of them things of the rarest quality, and drawings the like of which were never seen. Michelangelo made a cartoon portrait of Messer Tommaso, life-size, which was the only portrait that he ever drew, since he detested to imitate the living person, unless it was one of incomparable beauty." Several of Michelangelo's sonnets are addressed to Tommaso Cavalier. Benedetto Varchi, in his commentary, introduces two of them with these words: "The first I shall present is one addressed to M. Tommaso Cavalieri, a young Roman of very noble birth, in whom I recognised, while I was sojourning at Rome, not only incomparable physical beauty, but so much elegance of manners, such excellent intelligence, and such graceful behaviour, that he well deserved, and still deserves, to win the more love the better he is known." Then Varchi recites the sonnet:

Why should I seek to ease intense desire
With still more tears and windy words of grief,
When heaven, or late or soon, sends no relief
To souls whom love hath robed around with fie?
Why need my aching heart to death aspire,
When all must die? Nay, death beyond belief
Unto these eyes would be both sweet and brief,
Since in my sum of woes all joys expire!
Therefore, because I cannot shun the blow
I rather seek, say who must rule my breast,
Gliding between her gladness and her woe?
If only chains and bands can make me blest,
No marvel if alone and bare I go,
An armèd KNIGHT'S captive and slave confessed.
"The other shall be what follows, written perhaps for the same person, and worthy, in my opinion, no only of the ripest sage, but also of a poet not unexercised in writing verse":
With your fair eyes a charming light I see,
For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain;
Stayed by your feet, the burden I sustain
Which my lame feet find all too strong for me;
Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly;
Heavenward your spirit stirreth me to strain;
E'en as you will, I blush and blanch again,
Freeze in the sun, burn 'neath a frosty sky.
Your will includes and is the lord of mien;
Life to my thoughts within your heart is given;
My words begin to breathe upon your breath:
Like to the moon am I, that cannot shine
Alone; for, lo! our eyes see naught in heaven
Save what the living sun illumineth.
The frank and hearty feeling for a youth of singular distinction which is expressed in these sonnets, gave no offence to society during the period of the earlier Renaissance; but after the Tridentine Council social feeling altered upon this and similar topics. While morals remained what they had been, language and manners grew more nice and hypocritical. It happened thus that grievous wrong was done to the text of Michelangelo's poems, with the best intentions, by their first editor. Grotesque misconceptions, fostered by the same mistaken zeal, are still widely prevalent.

When Michelangelo the younger arranged his granduncle's poems for the press, he was perplexed by the first of the sonnets quoted by Varchi. The last line, which runs in the Italian thus — "Resto prigion d'un Cavalier armato," — has an obvious play of words upon Cavalieri's surname. This he altered into "Resto prigion d'un cor di virtù armato." The reason was that, if it stood unaltered, "the ignorance of men would have occasion to murmur." "Varchi," he adds, "did wrong in printing it according to the text." "Remember well," he observes, "that this sonnet, as well as the preceding number and some others, are concerned, as is manifest, with a masculine love of the Platonic species." (Rime, p. 45. I have read these autograph annotations to Michelangelo the younger's transcript of the Rime in the Archivio Buonarroti. He altered the word amici in No. lii into animi.) Michelangelo the younger's anxiety for his granduncle's memory induced him thus to corrupt the text of his poems. The same anxiety has led their latest editor to explain away the obvious sense of certain words. Signor Guasti approves of the first editor's pious fraud, on the ground that morality has higher claims than art; but he adds that the expedient was not necessary: "for these sonnets do not refer to masculine love, nor yet do any others. In the first (xxxi) the lady is compared to an armed knight, because she carries the weapons of her sex and beauty; and while I think on it, an example occurs to my mind from Messer Cino in support of the argument. As regards the second (lxii), those who read these pages of mine will possibly remember that Michelangelo, writing of the dead Vittoria Colonna, called her amico; and on reflection, this sounds better than amica, in the place where it occurs. Moreover, there are not wanting in these poems instances of the term signore, or lord, applied to the beloved lady; which is one of the many periphrastical expressions used by the Romance poets to indicate their mistress." It is true that Cino compares his lady in one sonnet to a knight who has carried off the prize of beauty in the lists of love and grace by her elegant dancing. But he never calls a lady by the name of cavaliere. It is also indubitable that the Tuscans occasionally addressed the female or male object of their adoration under the title of signore, lord of my heart and soul. But such instances weigh nothing against the direct testimony of a contemporary like Varchi, into whose hands Michelangelo's poems came at the time of their composition, and who was well acquainted with the circumstances of their composition. There is, moreover, a fact of singular importance bearing on this question, to which Signor Guasti has not attached the value it deserves. In a letter belonging to the year 1549, Michelangelo thanks Luca Martini for a copy of Varchi's commentary on his sonnet, and begs him to express his affectionate regards and hearty thanks to that eminent scholar for the honour paid him. In a second letter addressed to G. F. Fattucci, under date October 1549, he conveys "the thanks of Messer Tomao de' Cavalieri to Varchi for a certain little book of his which has been printed, and in which he speaks very honourably of himself, and not less so of me." In neither of these letters does Michelangelo take exception to Varchi's interpretation of Sonnet xxxi. Indeed, the second proves that both he and Cavalieri were much pleased with it. Michelangelo even proceeds to inform Fattucci that Cavalieri "has given me a sonnet which I made for him in those same years, begging me to send it on as a proof and witness that he really is the man intended. This I will enclose in my present letter." Furthermore, we possess an insolent letter of Pietro Aretino, which makes us imagine that the "ignorance of the vulgar" had already begun to "murmur." (Its date is November 1565, a mistake possibly for 1545. Aretino dies in 1557. It may be added here that Condivi tells us expressly that Michelangelo in his lifetime was calumniated because of his friendships. This makes Condivi's treatment of Michelangelo's emotions and of the Vittoria Colonna episode apologetical.) After complaining bitterly that Michelangelo refused to send him any of his drawings, he goes on to remark that it would be better for the artist if he did so, "inasmuch as such an act of courtesy would quiet the insidious rumours which assert that only Gerards and Thomases can dispose of them." We have seen from Vasari that Michelangelo executed some famous designs for Tommaso Cavalieri. The same authority asserts that he presented "Gherardo Perini, a Florentine gentleman, and his very dear friend," with three splendid drawings in black chalk. (One of these was the famous "Damned Soul" of the Uffizi, as is proved by Michelangelo's inscription on it.") Tommaso Cavalieri and Gherardo Perini were, therefore, the "Gerards and Thomases" alluded to by Aretino. . . . He continued to the end of his days in close friendship with Cavalieri, who helped to nurse him during his last illness, who took charge of his effects after his death, and who carried on the architectural work he had begun at the Capitol.

Their friendship seems to have been uninterrupted by any disagreement, except on one occasion when Michelangelo gave way to his suspicious irritability, quite at the close of his long life. This drew forth from Cavalieri the following manly and touching letter:

Very magnificent, my Lord, —

I have noticed during several days past that you have some grievance — what, I do not know — against me. Yesterday I became certain of it when I went to your house. As I cannot imagine the cause, I have thought it best to write this, in order that, if you like you may inform me. I am more than positive that I never offended you. But you lend easy credence to those whom perhaps you ought least to trust; and some one has possibly told you some lie, for fear I should one day reveal the many knaveries done under your name, the which do you little honour; and if you desire to know about them, you shall. Only I cannot, nor, if I could, should I wish to force myself — but I tell you frankly that if you do not want me for a friend, you can do as you like, but you cannot compel me not to be a friend to you. I shall always try to do you service; and only yesterday I came to show you a letter written by the Duke of Florence, and to lighten your burdens, as I have ever done until now. Be sure you have no better friend than me; but on this I will not dwell. Still, if you think otherwise, I hope that in a short time you will explain matters; and I know that you know I have always been your friend without the least interest of my own. Now I will say no more, lest I should seem to be excusing myself for something which does not exist, and which I am utterly unable to imagine. I pray and conjure you, by the love you bear to God, that you tell me what you have against me, in order that I may disabuse you. Not having more to write, I remain your servant,

THOMAO DE' CAVALIERI

From my house, November 15, 1561

It is clear from this letter, and from the relations which subsisted between Michelangelo and Cavalieri up to the day of his death, that the latter was a gentleman of good repute and honour, whose affection did credit to his friend. I am unable to see that anything but an injury to both is done by explaining away the obvious meaning of the letters and the sonnets I have quoted. The supposition that Michelangelo intended the Cavalieri letters to reach Vittoria Colonna through that friend's hands does not, indeed, deserve the complete refutation which I have given it. I am glad, however, to be able to adduce the opinion of a caustic Florentine scholar upon this topic, which agrees with my own, and which was formed without access to the original documents which I have been enabled to make use of. P. Fanfani (Spigolatura Michelangiolesca, 1876) says: "I have searched, but in vain, for documentary proofs of the passion which Michelangelo is supposed to have felt for Vittoria Colonna, and which she returned with ardour according to the assertion of some critics. My own belief, concurring with that of better judges than myself, is that we have here to deal with one of the many baseless stories told about him. Omitting the difficulties presented by his advanced age, it is wholly contrary to all we know about the Marchioness, and not a little damaging to her reputation for austerity, to suppose that this admirable matron, who, after the death of her husband, gave herself up to God, and abjured the commerce of the world, should, later in life, have carried on an intrigue, as the saying is, upon the sly, particularly when a third person is imposed on our credulity, acting the part of go-between and cloak in the transaction,a s certain biographers of the great artist, and certain commentators of his poetry, are pleased to assert, with how much common-sense and what seriousness I will not ask."

The history of Luigi del Riccio's affection for a lad of Florence called Cecchino dei Bracci, since this is interwoven with Michelangelo's own biography and the criticism of his poems, may be adduced in support of the argument I am developing. Cecchino was a youth of singular promise and personal charm. His relative, the Florentine merchant, Luigi del Riccio, one of Buonarroti's most intimate friends and advisers, became devotedly attached to the boy. Michelangelo, after his return to Rome in 1534, shared this friend Luigi's admiratio for Cecchino; and the close intimacy into which the two elder men were drawn, at a somewhat later period of Buonarroti's life, seems to have been cemented by their common interest in poetry and their common feeling for a charming personality. We have a letter of uncertain date, in which Michelangelo tells Del Riccio that he has sent him a madrigal, begging him, if he thinks fit, to commit the verses "to the fire — that is, to what consumes me." Then he asks him to resolve a certain problem which has occurred to his mind during the night, "for while I was saluting our idol in a dream, it seemed to me that he laughed, and in the same instant threatened me; and not knowing which of these two moods I have to abide by, I beg you to find out from him; and on Sunday, when we meet again, you will inform me." Cecchino, who is probably alluded to in this letter, died at Rome on the 8th of January 1542, and was buried in the Church of Araceli. Luigi felt the blow acutely. Upon the 12th of January he wrote to his friend Donato Giannotti, then at Vicenza, in the following words:

Alas, my friend Donato! Our Cecchio is dead. All Rome weeps. Michelangelo is making for me the design of a decent sepulture in marble; and I pray you to write me the epitaph, and to send it to me with a consolatory letter, if time permits, for my grief has distraught me. Patience! I live with a thousand and a thousand deaths each hour. O God! How has Fortune changed his aspect!

. . . Michelangelo, seeking to indulge his own grief and to soothe that of his friend Luigi, composed no fewer than forty-two epigrams of four lines each, in which he celebrated the beauty and rare personal sweetness of Cecchino in laboured philosophical conceits. They rank but low among his poems, having too much of scholastic trifling and too little of the accent of strong feeling in them. Certainly these pieces did not deserve the pains which Michelangelo the younger bestowed, when he altered the text of a selection of them so as to adapt their Platonic compliments to some female. Far superior is a sonnet written to Del Riccio upon the death of the youth, showing how recent had been Michelangelo's acquaintance with Cecchino, and containing an unfulfilled promise to carve his portrait:
Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes,
Which to your living eyes were life and light,
When, closed at last in death's injurious night,
He opened them on Godin Paradise.
I know it, and I weep — too late made wise:
Yet was the fault not mine; for death's fell spite
Robbed my desire of that supreme delight
Which in your better memory never dies.
Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine
To make unique Cecchino smile in stone
For ever, now that earth hath made him dim,
If the beloved within the lover shine,
Since art without him cannot work alone,
You must I carve to tell the world of him.
The strange blending of artificial conceits with spontaneous feeling in these poetical effusions, the deep interest taken in a mere lad like Cecchino by so many eminent personages, and the frank publicity given to a friendship based apparently upon teh beauty of its object, strike us now as almost unintelligible. Yet we have the history of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the letters addressed by Languet to young Sidney, in evidence taht fashion at the end of the sixteenth century differed widely from that which prevails at the close of the nineteenth.

* * *

In all the compositions I have quoted as illustrative of Michelangelo's relations with young men, there is a singular humility which gives umbrage to his editors. The one epistle to Gherardo Perini contains the following phrases: "I do not feel myself of force enough to correspond to your kind letter"; "Your most faithful and poor friend." Yet there was nothing extraordinary in Cavalieri, Cecchino, Febo, or Perini, except their singularity of youth and grace, good parts and beauty. The vulgar are offended when an illustrious man pays homage to these qualities, forgetful of Shakespeare's self- abasement before Mr. W. H. and of Languet's prostration at the feet of Sidney. In the case of Michelangelo, we may find a solutio of this problem, I think, in one of his sonnets. He says, writing a poem belonging very probably to the series which inspired Michelangelo the younger with alarm:
As one who will re-seek her home of light,
Thy form immortal to this prison-house
Descended, like an angel piteous,
To heal all hearts and make the whole world bright,.
'Tis this that thralls my soul in love's delight,
Not thy clear face of beauty glorious;
For he who harbours virtue still will choose
To love what neither years nor death can blight.
So fare it ever with things high and rare
Wrought in the sweat of nature; heaven above
Showers on their birth the blessings of her prime:
Nor hath God deigned to show Himself elsewhere
More clearly than in human forms sublime,
Which, since they image Him, alone I love.
It was not, then, to this or that young man, to this or that woman, that Michelangelo paid homage, but to the eternal beauty revealed in the mortal image of divinity before his eyes. The attitude of the mind, the quality of passion, implied in these poems, and conveyed more clumsily through the prose of the letters, may be difficult to comprehend. But until we have arrived at seizing them we shall fail to understand the psychology of natures like Michelangelo. No language of admiration is too strong, no self-humiliation too complete, for a soul which has recognised deity made manifest in one of its main attributes, beauty. In the sight of a philosopher, a poet, and an artist, what are kings, popes, people of importance, compared with a really perfect piece of God's handiwork?
From thy fair face I learn, O my loved lord,
That which no mortal tongue can rightly say;
the soul imprisoned in her house of clay,
Holpen by thee, to God hath often soared.
And though the vulgar, vain, malignant horde
Attribute what their grosser wills obey,
Yet shall this fervent homage that I pay,
This love, this faith, pure joys for us afford.
Lo, all the lovely things we find on earth,
Resemble for the soul that rightly sees
That source of bliss divine which gave us birth:
Nor have we first-fruits or remembrances
Of heaven elsewhere. Thus, loving loyally,
I rise to God, and make death sweet by thee.
We know that, in some way or other, perhaps during those early years at Florence among the members of the Platonic Academy, Michelangelo absorbed the doctrines of the Phaedrus and Symposium. His poems abound in references to the contrast between Uranian and Pandemic, celestial and vulgar, Eros. We have even one sonnet in which he distinctly states the Greek opinion that the love of women is unworthy of a soul bent upon high thoughts and virile actions. It reads like a verse transcript from the main argument of the Symposium:
Love is not always harsh and deadly sin,
When love for boundless beauty makes us pine;
The heart, by love left soft and infantine,
Will let the shafts of God's grace enter in.
Love wings and wakes the soul, stirs her to win
Her flight above, nor e'er to earth decline;
'Tis the first step that leads her to the shrine
Of Him who slakes the thirst that burns within.
The love of that whereof I speak ascends:
Woman is different far; the love of her
But ill befits a heart manly and wise.
The one love soars, the other earthward tends;
The soul lights this, while that the senses stir;
And still lust's arrow at base quarry flies.
The same exalted Platonism finds obscure but impassioned expression in this fragment of a sonnet (No. lxxix):
For Love's fierce wound, and for the shafts that harm,
True medicine 'twould have been to pierce my heart;
But my soul's Lord owns only one strong charm,
Which makes life grow where grows life's mortal smart.
My Lord dealt death, when with his powerful arm
He bent Love's bow. Winged with that shaft, from Love
And angel flew, cried, "Love, nay Burn! Who dies,
Hath but Love's plumes whereby to soar above!
Lo, I am He who from thine earliest years
Toward heaven-born Beauty raised thy faltering eyes.
Beauty alone lifts live man to heaven's spheres."
Feeling like this, Michelangelo would have been justly indignant with officious relatives and critics, who turned his amici into animi, redirected his Cavalieri letters to the address of Vittoria Colonna, discovered Florence in Febo di Poggio, and ascribed all his emotional poems to some woman.

There is no doubt that both the actions and the writings of contemporaries justified a considerable amount of scepticism regarding the purity of platonic affections. The words and lives of many illustrious persons gave colour to what Segni stated in his History of Florence, and what Savonarola found it necessary to urge upon the people from his pulpit. (A singular example of Italian sentiment and custom might be quoted from one of Michelangelo's own letters, addressed in 1518 to his friend Niccolò Quarantesi, Lettere, No. cccliii. It refers to a man who was very anxious that his son should be taken into the great sculptor's service. He did not want him, and told the father so: "E lui non la intese, ma rispose, che se io lo vedessi, che non che in case, io me lo caccerei nel letto. Io vi dico che rinunzio a questa consolazione, e non la voglio torre a lui.") But we have every reason to feel certain that, in a malicious age, surrounded by jealous rivals, with the fierce light of his transcendent glory beating round his throne, Buonarroti suffered from no scandalous reports, and maintained an untarnished character for sobriety of conduct and purity of morals.


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