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Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)  
 
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All alike assumed that sexual behavior was entirely voluntary and that an adult male's object-choice would fall naturally on desirable women, whereas the frequent and commonly acknowledged desire for adolescent boys was held to be the mischievous temptation of pesky demons.

Thus, a Christian was responsible only for his or her behavior, not for the motives that lay behind it. On those grounds moralists insisted that, while homosexual attractions were simple temptations, homosexual acts themselves were, literally, unnatural and therefore deliberate perversions of God's will. In this light it would be anachronistic to claim that Michelangelo or anyone else in the period was "homosexual," "heterosexual," or even "bisexual" in the modern sense of those words.

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Whatever the descriptive term one chooses as appropriate for the culture in which he lived, three separate bodies of evidence demonstrate that Michelangelo experienced powerful erotic and emotional attachments. With one possible exception, moreover, these psycho-sexual attachments were limited to other men.

For that reason it seems historically legitimate to discuss Michelangelo's personality as that of a man whose erotic imagination was strongly oriented towards male object-choices. As such, it hardly matters whether Michelangelo ever engaged in a genital relationship with another person.

Letters and Poems

The first two bodies of evidence are Michelangelo's letters and poems. Although he was prickly and argumentative in his professional life, his personal correspondence shows him to have been loving, solicitous, and compassionate towards those with whom he enjoyed close relations. Quite naturally, these qualities feature in his letters to his father and brothers; and on occasion he wrote just as touchingly to his servants.

But, beginning in the 1530s and continuing to the end of his life, one also encounters a higher intensity of the same feelings in his letters to the Roman nobleman Tomaso de' Cavalieri, who outlived him; and, until her death in 1557, to Vittoria Colonna, daughter of a great Roman family and widow of Alfonso d'Avalos, Marchese of Pescara.

As early as the 1520s Michelangelo wrote some poems indicating that he was enamored of a young Florentine, Gherardo Perini; and the many poems addressed to Tomaso de' Cavalieri, in combination with surviving letters and graphic evidence, leave no doubt that Michelangelo profoundly loved the younger Roman from the time of their introduction in 1533 until the artist's death more than thirty years later.

Typically for the period, Michelangelo cast his poems in highly conventional Petrarchan language and forms. Scholars have argued that the style itself beggars claims that Michelangelo's poetic expressions of love may be read as autobiographical.

Against that assertion, however, it must be noted that Michelangelo's first editor bowdlerized several of the love poems, first published in 1623, by changing masculine pronouns and endings to feminine ones.

Inasmuch as the editor was the artist's own great-nephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, one can surmise that the emendations disguised what must have been at the least a family tradition that the poems in question were addressed not to an anonymous woman but to Tomaso de' Cavalieri and, more important, that they were erotic.

It was also in the early 1530s that Michelangelo began his passionate friendship with Vittoria Colonna, an older widow of the highest social rank whom Michelangelo can hardly have courted as a lover.

Their friendship instead grew out of their shared piety, which focused on the image of the suffering Christ as a stimulus to meditation on the expiation of sin through His death and resurrection. In this way Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna were part of a large group of intellectuals, artists, and aristocrats in the vanguard of sincerely pious lay-people who supported the conciliar movement in the 1530s and 1540s.

They gathered around Ignatius of Loyola and the other early Jesuits; they followed the preaching of the renegade Capuchin friar Bernardino Ochino; and their sense of religion, inspired as it was with fervor but tempered with Humanist skepticism, was simultaneously at one with the spirit of reform then sweeping the Church and an object of suspicious interest on the part of Curial theologians.

Michelangelo's Nudes

To many people, Michelangelo's lifelong allegiance to the heroic male nude as the central and indeed sole integer of his visual imagination has often seemed the surest sign of his homosexual orientation. But this is probably not so.

Written evidence of same-sex attraction in the Renaissance suggests that most adult men were sexually attracted to the soft, curving physiques of adolescent boys rather than to the muscular, physically mature male body. As examples of the former category in works of art, one could cite figures by Benvenuto Cellini, such as the Apollo and Hyacinth group, or Ganymede, whereas nude statues by Michelangelo, such as the marble David or the Christ in Rome's Santa Maria sopra Minerva belong to the latter type.

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