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Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)  
 
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In "Love's Lordship," sensual craving for the sumptuous Cavalieri causes Michelangelo, as the poem's speaker, to become a slave of passion:

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 his gladness and his woe?
If only chains and bands can make me blest,
   No marvel if alone and nude I go
   An armed Cavalier's captive and slave confessed.
       (adapted from Symonds's translation)

Sponsor Message.

Michelangelo, like his great literary forefathers Dante and Petrarch, makes suffering supremely artful. And yet one feels that the mournful grief represented here is a source of delight, insofar as the naked speaker's imprisonment by the armed "cavalier," a deliberate pun on the name Cavalieri, can ultimately bring about felicity.

Giving in to the bondage of total obsession with Tommaso, for whom Michelangelo created one of the few portrait drawings of his long artistic career, is a paradoxical kind of erotic liberation, a strange kind of permission to drop sexual inhibitions, on an imaginative level, by having the beloved enforce restrictions.

In the late 1530s and 1540s, Michelangelo began to turn his attention away from Tommaso Cavalieri to Vittoria Colonna, a distinguished poet and woman of letters in her own right. Although Cavalieri and Michelangelo remained friends, the young man went on to marry and apparently did not reciprocate the artist's libidinal overtures.

Michelangelo, by contrast, never married, and his exercises in heteroerotic Petrarchan verse seldom attain the fervent amorous immediacy that characterizes his homoerotic lyrics.

The Poetry Dedicated to Other Attractive Men

The poetry dedicated to attractive men--not only Cavalieri, but also Febo di Poggio, Cecchino Bracci, and other figures who are either fictional or difficult to identify with precision--is a testament to the artist's intense fascination with male beauty, a fascination that is overwhelmingly dominant in the artwork.

And yet no documentation indicates beyond reasonable doubt that Michelangelo ever physically consummated a relationship with anyone. The closest relationship that he ever had with a woman was with Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, a devout widow who seemed to fulfill his need for a nonsexualized friendship with a female of remarkable talent and theological conviction.

The Final Phase of Michelangelo's Poetic Career

In the final phase of Michelangelo's poetic career (ca 1540-1560), the embodiment of male perfection is typically represented as having passed into the afterlife or in meditative religious contexts.

In addition to a small group of elegiac lamentations written for deceased friends, the artist writes an extraordinary series of fifty funerary poems for the ill-fated Cecchino Bracci, a handsome adolescent who died prematurely at the age of fifteen, and a moving series of lyric prayers to Christ, the Savior who, according to Christian belief, sacrificed His perfect body for the salvation of humankind.

Hence, the poetry of male beauty and masculine belovedness becomes increasingly preoccupied with death, spiritual mysticism, divine judgment, and redemption. In what may be his last poem, "Non piu per altro" ("No longer by any other means"), Michelangelo invokes Christ's blood as the healer of "innumerable sins and human urges," and the reader seems asked to ponder exactly how homoerotic desire figures into the artist's own life-long struggle with the very human urges of "love, that passion dangerous and vain."

Editorial Censorship of the Poems and Their Eventual Recovery

In the first printed edition of the poetry, which was not published until almost sixty years after the author's death, the editor was obviously troubled by the haunting homoerotic inflections of Michelangelo's verse. Therefore, in the original volume of the collected poems (1623), which was edited by the artist's grandnephew "Michelangelo the Younger," genders were switched from male to female in some instances in order to be more palatable to orthodox tastes.

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