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Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)  
 
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Best known for his genius in art and architecture, Michelangelo was also an accomplished author of poetry.

The son of a magistrate, Michelangelo was born in Caprese, a village near Florence. At the age of thirteen, he became an apprentice in the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio's workshop, where his precocious talent was recognized almost immediately.

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Soon he attracted the attention of Lorenzo de' Medici ("the Magnificent"), the powerful Florentine patron, who invited the promising young man into the elite inner sanctum of the Medici household, which was then at the center of a flourishing artistic circle. It was there that Michelangelo was exposed to the ideas of the outstanding artists, intellectuals, and noblemen of his day, a group of whom would regularly gather for meals and conversation.

Michelangelo's talents were nurtured at the Medici Court, where he was allowed to study the fine collection of statuary in the family's renowned garden, a virtual museum of antiquities, and from this time forward he began to produce the works of art that have made him the most celebrated figure of the Italian Renaissance in the eyes of popular culture.

The statue of David, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral are among the many masterpieces of his long career that are rightly acknowledged as essential landmarks in the history of art, and they have elicited strong responses from the moment of their first exhibition to the present day.

Michelangelo's poetry has not consistently elicited the same enthusiasm even though the artist spent considerable time creating over three hundred poems in the Italian vernacular over a period spanning six decades (ca 1501-1560, with the vast majority of the extant verse written ca 1530-1550).

The Reputation of Michelangelo's Poetry

Although some of his contemporaries did commend his poetic gifts, modern scholars have been slow to grant Michelangelo status as an eminent literary figure. The poetry has sometimes been trivialized as a second-class adjunct to the artwork, useful primarily for explaining the imagery of the paintings, statues, and drawings.

Perhaps the most judicious view is that the poetry and art are worthy of mutual respect, and that, though not attaining the artwork's sustained level of stellar achievement, the verse contains moments of indisputable genius. At any rate, both the verbal and visual modes were commonly viewed as interrelated in Renaissance aesthetic theory, and profoundly aware of the philosophical rapprochement between poetry and the plastic arts, Michelangelo himself paid both literary and artistic homage to select people whom he loved dearly.

Michelangelo's Inspiration: Tommaso Cavalieri

Both verbal and visual craftsmanship are brilliantly combined in the series of poems and drawings intended for Tommaso Cavalieri, a handsome Roman aristocrat. At the age of fifty-seven, Michelangelo became smitten in 1532 with the "infinitely lovely" Cavalieri, who at the age of twenty-three seemed to embody all the ideals of masculine beauty that the aging artist had searched for throughout his career.

As a result, we are fortunate to have a trove of artistic evidence that seems to record, under the guise of subtly encoded symbolism, the emotions that Michelangelo felt for the cultivated young man.

Ganymede and the Imagery of Flight

Of particular interest to gay studies has been the imagery of flight that permeates various items created (or, in some cases, assumed to be created) for Cavalieri. The drawing of Ganymede, which we are told was expressly made for the beloved Tommaso, portrays the nude Trojan prince Ganymede being swept aloft by a giant bird that is actually Jupiter in disguise.

The iconography of the drawing can be read as an allegory of Michelangelo's own conflicted sexual responsiveness to the youthful Cavalieri.

On the one hand, Ganymede's abduction by Jupiter in the form of a giant bird was frequently explicated as an archetypal myth of the soul's rapt transportation to the heavenly spheres, a transcendent aerial journey away from the carnality of earthly desires.

On the other hand, Ganymede, a young man of exceptional beauty, and the metamorphosed Jupiter could also be interpreted as flying into sensual rapture, entering the highest realm of unabashed erotic ecstasy with one another.

Both readings of the Ganymede myth--spiritual versus sexual flight--appear to be present in an uneasy, irreconcilable alliance that seems intentional on Michelangelo's part. The fact that this homoerotically charged drawing was made specifically for Cavalieri, to whom Michelangelo wrote passionately suggestive letters, implies that the artist was trying to convey a message of ardent desire that included a physical, as well as a metaphysical, aspect.

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