Michelangelo’s Love Sonnets to Tommaso dei Cavalieri

Beautiful sonnets written to an Italian nobleman by the greatest Renaissance artist

That Michelangelo (1475-1564) admired the beauty of the male body is clear from his art. He left behind a large corpus of art that exalts the muscled bodies of nude men—including drawings of anatomical and mythological subjects, the ignudi of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, and sculptures. His statue of the nude David, sculpted between 1501 and 1504, is routinely cited as one of the greatest works of art in the world.

That he loved men is also no secret: He said so himself, in dozens of poems and letters that have come down to us. Whether any of these relationships extended to sex has been endlessly debated. Michelangelo’s apprentice Ascanio Condivi describes him as being naturally abstemious, and he also wrote sonnets of platonic love to a woman. But there was enough concern that the pronouns were changed from male to female in the first edition of his poems, published in 1623.

The concept of homosexuality did not arise until the mid-nineteenth century, and sexual orientation is a twentieth-century construct. While there are plenty of references to sex between men in Renaissance literature, it would be anachronistic to argue about whether or not Michelangelo was gay.

Michelangelo did, however, carry on a relationship for more than three decades with an Italian nobleman named Tommaso dei Cavalieri, whom he met in Rome in 1532, when Michelangelo was 57 and Tommaso was 23 years old. Here  are four of Michelangelo’s sonnets to Cavalieri, as translated by the classicist John Addington Symonds:

54. Love Lifts to God

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.

53. Celestial and Earthly Love

Love is not always harsh and deadly sin;
  If it be love of loveliness divine,
  It leaves the heart all soft and infantine
  For rays of God’s own grace to enter in.
Love fits the soul with wings, and bids her win
  Her flight aloft 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 all manly wise.
The one love soars, the other downward tends;
  The soul lights this, while that the senses stir,
  And still his arrow at base quarry flies.

30. Love the Light-Giver

With your fair eyes a charming light I see,
  For which my own blind eyese would peer in vain;
  Stayed by your feet the burden I sustain
  Which my lame feet find all to 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 mine;
  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 nought in heaven
  Save what the living sun illumineth.

31. Love’s Lordship

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 fire?
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.

Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti (John Addington Symonds, tr., 1904); full text at the Internet Archive · Photograph: Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of 20 ignudi from Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes; photograph cropped from Jörg Bittner Unna/CC BY 3.0 · Brief biographies on Wikipedia: Michelangelo, Tommaso dei Cavalieri · History of concepts of homosexuality and sexual orientation: Hanne Blank: Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2012)

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