What It Was Like to Be Queer Genius Michelangelo

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo's "David" by Matthew Virgilio / Shutterstock

I’ve been lucky to meet several notable LGBTQ celebrities in my life. Many of them I was interviewing for a publication like this one. However, I think my first such celebrity encounter happened long before my writing career began.

Michelangelo’s Sexual Identity

Granted, at the time we met, the artist was long dead. But I knew he was most likely a homosexual. Since that word wasn’t coined until much later in history, historians can’t decide how to quantify Michelangelo’s sexual identity. Nor do we full understand how normalized same-sex relationships were during the High Renaissance.

In his own time, people knew about Michelangelo’s love for Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a young nobleman who appeared in some of his drawings. Michelangelo also mentioned Cavalieri (who was nearly 34 years the artist’s junior) in at least 30 poems. However, Michelangelo’s descendants attempted to obscure this fact from history. As early as 1620, one of his grand-nephews changed the poems gender references from male to female. These were not restored until about 125 years so.

Michelangelo speaks about Tommaso having gentle eyes, in one case even “angel eyes.” In other writings, the Michelangelo writes about wishing to become the very garments Cavalieri wears. Here’s another good example:

Love takes me captive; beauty binds my soul;
Pity and mercy with their gentle eyes
Wake in my heart a hope that cannot cheat

That’s quite the same-sex love note for five centuries ago.

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Approaching the Divine

Generally, you need to be at least a graduate student to view original drawings and source materials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, I begged my professor to call in a favor. In exchange, I would write an extra paper. She agreed. I considered it a birthday present.

The day started no differently than many of New York in spring. I took a cab across Central Park from my dorm to the museum on Fifth Avenue. The forsythia were in bloom and even rushing by them in a car, it was quite a vision. Their yellow boughs perched above gray stone walls are, for many New Yorker’s, the first sign Spring has come to the city.

“You cannot take notes with ink, only pencil,” a curator of Italian and Spanish drawings Carman C. Bambach told me. “The drawings are very sensitive.”

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A Very Close Encounter

In a little room reached by a hidden door, they showed me the most precious thing to which I’ve ever been privy. There are very few Michelangelos outside of European collections. So I thought they would tuck the drawing away be under glass. But they didn’t. I was only inches from the work of a man so gifted, he was called “il divino” in his own lifetime. I could clearly see the left-handed crosshatchings of, perhaps, history’s most famous southpaw.

The drawing was a study for the Libyan Sybil on the Sistine ceiling. The model was a nude male, perhaps an apprentice from the artist’s studio. Michelangelo captures and translates the youth’s figure into that of a powerful woman, who would end up in one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of art. Yet there is something tender and attractive in the eyes of the sitter.

Michenlangelo’s art was known to inspire awe even in his own day. Imagine yourself in an age without a flood of images from media or even much accessibility to museums. What’s more, Michelangelo could manipulate stone as easily as paint or ink. He could create the illusion of movement in lifeless rock; he’d paint images like no one had seen before.

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LGBTQ Art Way Before Stonewall

As we celebrate 50 years of the gay civil rights movement this year, there are many exhibitions of LGBTQ art and artists going on right now. However, I find comfort and great joy knowing that — centuries ago — one of the world’s most iconic artists professed his love for a young man in words. And in his art, he shared his admiration for the male figure in bold, uncompromising lines.

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Last modified: July 10, 2019