Michelangelo’s Gay Affair

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The gay life of the world’s most famous sculptor, Michelangelo, has been explored in a recent book. One chapter of the book, Michelangelo’s Open Secrets, was written by Maria Ruvoldt at Fordham University.

She writes about a subject that has been widely studied for centuries, Michelangelo’s “infatuation with the young nobleman Tommaso de’Cavalieri. In December of 1532, the fifty-seven-year-old artist found himself besotted with the young man, who was probably in his teens.”

In her essay, Ruvoldt sets out to “explore the mechanics of their exchange, the methods that Michelangelo employed to protect the secrecy of his infatuation from some while simultaneously advertising it to a select group of friends and confidants.”

The great artist writes what could be termed love letters. He says, for example that Cavalieri fills his body and soul “with such sweetness, that I feel neither sorrow nor fear of death.” Pretty dramatic stuff! His sixteenth century biographers were well aware of these letters – they “insisted on the purely spiritual nature of the attachment,” writes the author.

In his first letter to Cavalieri, Michelangelo enclosed a gift of two drawings. One was on Ganymede, the youth who was loved by the god Zeus. As Ruvoldt relates, the myth was code for the “model of male homosexual relations that was as pertinent in sixteenth-century Italy as it was in ancient Greece.”

When Michelangelo left Rome for Florence in 1533, he had to rely on a large “network of agents” to deliver messages to the boy. “Michelangelo seems to have used private couriers and the services of banks that had branches in both Rome and Florence,” says Ruvoldt. “But Michelangelo’s circle of friends provided more than the practical assistance of a secure post; they actively participated in Michelangelo’s relationship with Cavalieri. Sebastiano engaged prominent musicians from the papal court to set Michelangelo’s poems to music and shared the compositions with Cavalieri.”

The artist was well aware that many of his letters were read by more than one person. His friend Sebastiano even showed some of the letters to the pope himself! In one particularly sensitive letter of 1533, Michelangelo writes to Sebastiano “Don’t show this letter to anyone.”

It appears that the pope himself was jealous of Cavalieri. The artist was “so overwhelmed with obligations that even the pope had trouble getting his wishes satisfied, while Cavalieri received unsolicited gifts of the artist’s latest inventions.”

Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe (238 pages, softcover), is $49.95 from Truman State University Press. Visit their website: www.tsup.truman.edu

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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