November 23, 2014

The Poetry of Michelangelo

The Statue of David, completed by Michelangelo in 1504,
is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.

In writing a post about Michelangelo and his paintings for the Sistine Chapel for another blog, I came across a part of his life I had never known.Almost everyone knows his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and we know some of his sculpture, such as the David and Pietà.  I don't think many people know about his poetry.

I think that my first real encounter with the life of Michelangelo was watching the film The Agony and the Ecstasy back in the mid-1960s. (I didn't read the best-selling biographical novel by Irving Stone that it was based on.)  I was impressed by the story of those four years he spent completing the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel.

I wrote a poem on my daily poem site this past week and realized later that I had used the same title and a very similar experience for an earlier poem this year. Later, I discovered an even earlier version of the idea in a notebook from 6 years ago. My aging memory and its lapses made me read more about the later years of Michelangelo's life and it was news to me that he turned to writing poetry.
His sexuality is somewhat in question but it is clearly a part of his poetry. He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals.

The longest sequence were written to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. He met Tommasso when he was 57 and Tommasso was 23 years old. The Tommasso poems are the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. It's a bit surprising to me to realize that Shakespeare's sonnets to the "fair youth" were written only 50 years after Michelangelo's sonnets.

This led me to find a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo at the library.

In a poem to Cavalieri, he writes:
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
And Cavalieri replied in a letter: "I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours."

The young nobleman was exceptionally handsome, and his appearance seems to have fit the artist's notions of ideal masculine beauty.  Michelangelo described him as "light of our century, paragon of all the world."

They remained lifelong friends, and Cavalieri was present at the artist's death. Scholars still dispute whether this was a homosexual or paternal relationship.
My lover stole my heart, just over there
– so gently! – and stole much more, my life as well.
And there, all promise, first his fine eyes fell
on me, and there his turnabout meant no.
He manacled me there; there let me go;
There I bemoaned my luck; with anguished eye
watched, from this very rock, his last goodbye
as he took myself from me, bound who knows where.

His homoerotic poetry was something that later generations were uncomfortable with and it never really came into popular books and films about his life. Michelangelo's grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published the poems in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed to be feminine. The gender was restored to male in John Addington Symonds' translation into English in 1893. in 1547.

    Why should I seek to ease intense desire
    With still more tears and windy words of grief?
    If only chains and bands can make me blest,
    No marvel if alone and naked I go
    An armed Cavaliere's captive and slave confessed.

"Cavaliere" or "cavalry man" is also a play on Cavalieri.

Michelangelo, Self-Portrait

Michelangelo never married and it is unclear whether he had any longterm physical relationship with anyone.  He did have a great love for the poet and noble widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538. She was in her late forties and he was in her early 60s at the time.

Colonna's poetry and her zealous religious beliefs greatly influenced Michelangelo and led to his devout interest in Church reform. Although Colonna was apparently physically unattractive, she was the subject of many of Michelangelo's love poems, and she appears to have been the only woman with whom the reclusive artist ever had a serious relationship. They wrote sonnets for each other and their friendship remained important to Michelangelo until her death. When Colonna died suddenly in 1547 at the age of fifty-seven, Michelangelo was heartbroken, and her death ended the period of his greatest love poetry.


Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

Following a brief illness, Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564—just weeks before his 89th birthday—at his home in Rome. A nephew bore his body back to Florence, where he was revered by the public as the "father and master of all the arts," and was laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce—his chosen place of burial.

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