The prodigious achievements in painting, sculpture, and architecture of Michelangelo Buonarroti made him legendary during his lifetime as a divinely-inspired creator, while his tempestuous, melancholy, and troubled personality epitomized an emerging conception of artistic genius, particularly the nexus between creative and homosexual temperament. While his supporters countered public presumption of his homosexuality with denial, his enemies used it against him. In modern times, homosexual communities have combined this suggestive biography with his oeuvre celebrating the male body to construct a subcultural icon. That status is reinforced by his poetry, a serious avocation that produced the first modern corpus of male-male love lyrics.
Trained in Florence, a city proverbial for sodomy, Michelangelo was exposed to homosexuality at all social levels. The sexual demimonde was ubiquitous, while the humanist circles around Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492) embraced a Neoplatonic philosophy and art that idealized classical pederasty. The scholar Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494), himself homosexual, taught the artist mythological subjects like that of his student carving, the Battle of the Centaurs (1492). This crowd of fighters first displayed the intertwined traits that characterize much of Michelangelo's work: an interest in subjects that offered pretexts for psychological self-projection and nude male bodies, and a tendency to diverge from textual or visual tradition to heighten their physicality.
Beginning with his contemporaries, friend and foe alike have invoked the content or form of Michelangelo's major works as milestones in early modern representation of gender ambiguity and homoeroticism. He illustrated both classical and Christian subjects, the former offering greater scope for overt eroticism, such as Bacchus, the bisexual wine god (1496). The androgynous, tipsy divinity, accompanied by a lascivious boy satyr, presided over Roman parties featuring platonic dialogues on male love. Michelangelo's friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) praised its fusion of male and female traits, but other critics were hostile to such transgressive fluidity: Ludovico Dolce (1508–1568) complained that the artist "does not know or will not observe these differences" between the sexes, since many of his females looked like men.
The colossal David (1501–1504), Michelangelo's best-known religious sculpture, was more conventionally masculine, but equally nude; it infused an antique body with Judeo-Christian spirit, perfecting the unstable Renaissance amalgam of two cultures. Though it was intended to arouse civic virtue, not desire, city authorities soon concealed its genitals with a bronze waistband, indicating discomfort about its dual potential. What was implicit there was explicit, if ambivalent, in his painting of this period known as the Doni Tondo (Holy Family, c. 1503–1506). The background nudes, lounging intimately like Greeks at a gymnasium, may have symbolized a pagan sensuality that was officially superseded, but they still attest to his knowledge that the ancients both depicted and accepted male eros.
Although evidence of obsession with the male form abounds in his art, direct testimony about Michelangelo's sexual activity is lacking. His homosexuality was widely assumed: One man tempted the artist to accept his son as an apprentice by offering the boy's services in bed. He alludes to several such allegations in his poetry and letters, only to deny them, as does his worshipful biographer Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574). Then and later, moralists eager to exonerate him of sin claimed that the dearth of documented acts, coupled with his protestations of chaste spirituality, meant he was not homosexual. By less judgmental current definitions of sexuality, concerned as much with desire as with its physical expression, he was homosexual in orientation, whether or not he consummated such love. Subject equally to pagan passions and Christian guilt, Michelangelo ruefully confessed the irresolvable dilemma that "keeps me split in two halves" (Poem 168).
This internal struggle is most evident in drawings he gave to Tommaso de' Cavalieri, the unrequited love of his life (1533). Their imagery, mirrored in poems for the handsome youth, symbolizes Michelangelo's conflicting responses to infatuation through Greek myths: Jupiter's abduction of Ganymede represents love's uplifting spiritual rapture, other tales its resultant pain and fear. Cav-alieri tried to prevent reproduction of the Ganymede, suggesting that the myth's philosophical gloss would not prevent the public from inferring that artist and recipient were also linked in its more earthy, potentially embarrassing sense of ecstasy.
Eros played a reduced role in later works, reflecting Michelangelo's sympathy with pious Catholic reformers, but his reputation persisted. In 1545, writer Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) attempted to extort a drawing, insinuating that a gift would disprove rumors that Michelangelo only bestowed them on men named Tommaso. At the same time, he enjoyed a profound spiritual friendship with the religious poet Vittoria Colonna (1492–1547), whom he complimented by gender-reversal, writing of her talents in active, male terms while declaring himself her passive, feminized beneficiary.
The written evidence for an early modern homoerotic sensibility in Michelangelo's art was suppressed by his grandnephew, who published the poems in bowdlerized versions. After the originals resurfaced in 1863, the nascent homosexual movement gradually adopted their author as a cultural ancestor. This myth—crystallized by Victorian homosexual critic-historians Walter Horatio Pater (1839–1894) and John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)—spread to fledgling urban subcultures in Europe and North America, where homosexual men decorated their homes with copies of nudes by the Greeks and Michelangelo, fashioning a group pedigree. Mainstream society, however, continued intermittently to contest this claim to a legacy of visual pleasure and historical validation: Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961, filmed 1965) virtually omitted male loves and invented a female one, while translators elided the poetry's eroticism into the 1960s.
Michelangelo's starring role in the homosexual imagry has grown with the more open gay culture that emerged after 1969. Post-Stonewall, Robert Patrick's play Michelangelo's Models (1981) made camp humor from his assumed orientation, and the film Prick Up Your Ears (1987) depicted British playwright Joe Orton and his painter-lover, who papered their rooms with Michelangelo reproductions. The artist thus claims dual significance in the history of male-male desire. His work canonized an enduring "michelangelesque" ideal of male beauty, while his life offered an influential exemplar of one homosexual identity: androgynous, emotional, and sublimating conflicts with self and society into art.
Hibbard, Howard. 1974. Michelangelo. New York: Harper & Row.
Østermark-Johansen, Lene. 1998. Sweetness and Strength: The Reception of Michelangelo in Victorian England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
James M. Saslow