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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Michelangelo, gay?

Over the years, we have been deluged with facts and speculation regarding the sex lives of various Presidents of the United States.  A favorite parlor game amongst art historians, connoisseurs, and critics is speculation  regarding the sex lives of famous artist. Inevitably the conversations turns to whether or not they were gay or straight and the arguments one way or another as evidenced rumor, writings, facts, fiction, or by various elements in their surviving work. It is the latter of these that most fascinate us.   
As an undergraduate in a rather large junior-level art history course, a female student noted that given the lopsided body count of male over female figures in the total work of Michelangelo, and the fact that even his female figures had a transsexual men-with-breasts quality, therefore the man must have been gay. The reaction of the instructor was little short of VOLCANIC. He launched into the hapless young lady with such a vitriolic diatribe jaws dropped all over the auditorium.
Ignudi, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12,
Michelangelo, Buonarotti
Several years later, as I was doing post-graduate work under the same instructor, I stumbled upon references to the Veracci sonnets, love poems written late in Michelangelo's life to a young man, Tommaso Dei Cavalieri, some fifty years his junior. Remembering the outburst from before, I very cautiously mentioned them to the professor one day in his office while conferring with him regarding a paper I was writing. I questioned their meaning, drawing similar inferences as had the unfortunate miss several years before. This time, perhaps realizing I'd done my homework rather than just made wild accusations, his reaction was quite different, admitting that there was a strong possibility regarding Michelangelo's homosexual preferences, while insisting that such speculation had no place in the study or discussion of the man's work. I took a deep breath and let it rest there. 

                                           The flesh now earth, and here my bones,
                                           Bereft of handsome eyes, and jaunty air,
                                           Still loyal are to him I joyed in bed,
                                           Whom I embraced, in whom my soul now lives.

                                           --Michelangelo Buonarotti, written in 1543 upon
                                              the death of Cecchino Bracci at the age of 15.

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