Some Thoughts on . . .

Michelangelo and the Label "Homosexual"

A member of "Histsex", the online discussion list for historians of sexuality, once expressed the following view:

"I cringe when my students refer to Michelangelo as a "homosexual." Why? Because describing someone in the sixteenth century as "gay, "homosexual," "finocchio," "queer," "a faggot," "having same-sex desire," the list goes on however you choose to describe it, does not have the same "meaning"/connotation as it does to contemporary audiences."

I take it, then, that this teacher would not cringe if his or her students used the proper 16th-century Italian term and called Michelangelo a sodomite rather than a homosexual. Personally, I'm quite happy calling him queer, as this term bridges the gap between historical periods. Perhaps the best solution is to avoid specific terms and just say what we mean: Michelangelo fucked boys rather than girls. Or would that make this teacher cringe as well?

When the queer art historian John Addington Symonds was granted access to the Buonarroti family archives in Florence in 1863 he discovered a note written in the margin of the manuscript poems by Michelangelo's grand-nephew (called Michelangelo the Younger) saying that the poems must not be published in their original form because they expressed "amor . . . virile", literally "masculine love", which is really just a Renaissance polite euphemism for paiderastia, better translated today as pederasty and even just "male/male desire". Symonds thus was able to make public the fact that when Michelangelo the Younger prepared his great-uncle's poetry for posthumous publication in 1623 he had changed all of the masculine pronouns in the love poems to feminine pronouns, thus ensuring that any sentiments in the poems that could not be interpreted as being merely platonic would at least be interpreted as being what he considered normal, i.e. what we today call heterosexual. Michelangelo the Younger's action proves that the hetero/homo divide was not only relevant, but important for him and his Renaissance contemporaries. Many of Michelangelo's contemporaries indeed considered him to be "different" (which is not a hundred miles away in meaning from the modern term "deviant"), and a queer contemporary, Varchi, recognized his work as being queer.

Michelangelo's contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Benvenuto Cellini and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma) were publicly charged with sodomy (Leonardo was even imprisoned for two months), and Michelangelo, like them, was offered sexual "services" by the ragazzi or street boys who worked as apprentices in the art studios. Whether Michelangelo's love-gift to Tommaso Cavalieri of a drawing of the rape of Ganymede is an emblem of neoplatonic sublimation or an invitation to bed, I don't know, but there cannot be too much doubt that Michelangelo had sexual relations with his model Gherardo Perini and his assistant Febo di Poggio. I won't say that all of this contextual evidence – plus the evidence of our perception of the apparently homoerotic content of the ignudi in the Sistine Chapel and The Dying Captive and various other sculpture; plus the poetic theme of struggling to come to terms with himself, in the context of guilt of some sort; plus the fact that he was an inveterate bachelor and non-womanizer – amounts to proof positive that Michelangelo fucked men. But I will say that Michelangelo the Younger's censorship provides as much evidence as is needed to prove that Michelangelo's sonnets were perceived during his own time as the product of a man who fucked men (i.e. a homosexual), and the charge of anachronism completely falls apart. The inclusion of Michelangelo's Sonnets in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse is completely justified.

Michelangelo in a letter to Niccolo Quaratesi (who was also probably a boyfriend) jokingly 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 that Michelangelo was susceptible to such offers were spreading by the early 1530s, and in 1545 Pietro Aretino, examining the paintings of naked youths in the Sistine Chapel, which he considered to be homoerotic, made his charges quite explicit: "Even if you are divine, you don't disdain male consorts." The handsome model Gherardo Perini came to work for Michelangelo around 1520; their love flourished between 1522–25, and lasted until the mid-1530s. Robert C. Clements, a major Michelangelo scholar, believes that Michelangelo's affair with Perini was overtly homosexual (see his books Michelangelo's Theory of Art, 1960; Michelangelo: A Self-Portrait, 1962; and The Poetry of Michelangelo, 1966). Michelangelo's affair with Febo di Poggio began in the early 1530s, ending about 1534. Michelangelo jokingly called him "a little blackmailer". Michelangelo wrote poems about falling on a hill (poggio) and exhausting himself, suggestive of physical consummation. Because of their eroticism, Joseph Tusiani in his edition of Michelangelo's Complete Poems (1960) went out of his way to argue that these poems were addressed to Vittoria Colonna! It's amazing how homophobically blind scholars were well into the 1970s. (For a more detailed study, see my article The Passions of Michelangelo.)

To turn from the narrow issue of Michelangelo to the broader context of language, I would argue that "homosexual" or "queer" are perfectly accurate and meaningful equivalents for the 15th-century and 16th-century Italian terms for "inveterate sodomite", "infamous sodomite" and "notorious sodomite", whose existence is well documented by Michael Rocke in his book Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Although Rocke is a social constructionist and contends that "homosexuals" did not constitute a sexually distinct minority with regard to the large majority of men who engaged in homosexual relations, even he nevertheless admits that the category of "inveterate sodmites" did in fact constitute a "distinct minority" (this is Rocke's phrase for them: an important concession) of older sodomites who were so dedicated to exclusive homosexuality throughout their lives (and who lived and worked in sodomitical neighbourhoods and frequented sodomitical cruising grounds) that it can be said to have formed an important factor in their self-identity.

If students today do indeed misuse the term homosexual to mean flaming queen, then I would say that although Michelangelo had little in common with Quentin Crisp, the suggestion that queens existed in 16th-century Italy is not as anachronistic as many seem to think. The life of one "inveterate sodomite" who went by the female nickname "Mea" is well documented by Rocke (this particular man performed oral as well as anal intercourse, and he persuaded other men to sodomize him, which demonstrates a mutuality of pleasure rather than a fixed sex-role pattern). Rocke also documents the 15th/16th century Italian disgust at young men who went about the streets dressed flamboyantly and flaunting their attractions like shameless women, and the charge of "effeminacy" that was often laid against younger sodomites.

In sum, most of the related concepts that we associate with the modern term "homosexual" were also held in 15th and 16th century Italy.

Copyright © 1999, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on "Histsex: For historians of sexuality" Discussion List in May 1999.

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