His poetry is intimate and personal, as it revolves around three different loves: love of beauty, love of his Florence, and love of Christ. These verses can give you insights into the context of the actual events that occurred when Michelangelo was creating his various works of art. You will find out more about the historical background, whether it is about the difficult conflicts that arose between Michelangelo and his patrons, complex relationships with other artists who were his rivals or enemies, or the political situation in Florence under the government of Lorenzo de Medici. You can read Michelangelo’s sonnets for free here.
Michelangelo had the good fortune to be born in a historical moment in which he was given an opportunity to express his genius, develop it, and learn. It was the Renaissance in the Italian city of Florence, under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici. Nevertheless, his path was not easy. His father, Ludovico, thought that it was shameful to be an artist, and he was often preoccupied with worrying about how to make more money and preserve the Buonarotti family name. Ludovico never missed a chance to remind his son of the family’s proud heritage, as it was as old as the famous Italian families of Medici, Strozzi or Tornabuoni, with the family tree going back over three hundred years. However, an art teacher named Domenico Ghirlandaio noticed that young Michelangelo had extraordinary gifts, and he was actually willing to pay to teach him, which was highly unusual.
When it comes to the aforementioned love of beauty, Michelangelo was fascinated both by physical beauty (the human face and body), and the beauty of the soul. When he was 57, he met a young man named Tommaso dei Cavalieri and fell in love with his divine image. Michelangelo was moved by his physical appearance and his mind and soul. Very soon, his passion was noticed by his contemporaries, who started gossiping about the relationship. From encounters with Cavalieri, Michelangelo drew inspiration and passion for creating works of art. It was stimulating for his creativity, but often a torture for his well being.
Many art historians have debated whether this love was purely platonic or homoerotic in its subtext. These insinuations were considered extremely shameful, so the tradition began of insisting that no man was a subject of Michelangelo’s passion in his poetry. Michelangelo’s great nephew was the first one to do so, by publishing the first edition of the poems in 1623. According to some, Michelangelo was tempted by the sensual forms of love, but he did manage to transform the beauty he felt there into art. As he mentioned in his sonnet Beauty and the Artist, he was driven by his heart of flaming sulphur and flesh of tow; it is his destiny to endure these temptations, as he was chosen to become an artist:
[…] If I was made for art, from childhood given
A prey for burning beauty to devour,
I blame the mistress I was born to serve.
Michelangelo’s other great love of this type was his friend Vittoria Colonna. The two exchanged letters of poetry and became close. She became one of the most prominent poetesses of the Italian 16th century and was a true companion to Michelangelo. Vitoria was 46 when she met the great artist in Rome. Michelangelo loved her passionately. He made several drawings of her and wrote some of his most intimate sonnets in her honor. Maybe the most moving sonnet is the one written after Colonna passed away, titled Irreparable Loss:
[…] Her soul that fashioned mine hath sought the
Wherefore unfinished I must meet my end,
If God, the great artificer, denies
That aid which was unique on earth before.
Extremely tender verses about Vittoria Colonna can be found in the sonnet titled The Model and the Statue:
When that which is divine in us doth try
To shape a face, both brain and hand unite
To give, from a mere model frail and slight,
Life to the stone by Art’s free energy.
This sonnet also shows an important postulate of Michelangelo’s creativity. He had a special kind of relationship with stone, and he felt confirmed in his identity when he worked as a sculptor. It was almost as though creating three dimensional works of art gave him a sense of his personal dimensionality. He respected stone and used to caress it for long periods of time, in an attempt to see its potential. He believed that he was to cooperate with it, because he thought that an artist had a sacred task of releasing the figures that were trapped inside the stone blocks.
Michelangelo hated oil painting as he considered it to be a subprime art form. He considered it to be less pure than sculpture and less challenging – therefore, less worthy. A painter could always erase his mistakes, and he dealt only with an illusion of space, while sculpting demanded immaculacy.
Knowing this, we can only imagine how devastated Michelangelo was in 1508, when Pope Julius II ordered him to paint a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. From an historic point of view, we are more than glad that Michelangelo was forced to do so, since today we are left with a breathtaking work of art. But he was not too happy about it: he thought he was wasting his time doing something that was not his profession. He worked on it completely alone for years. History is full of anecdotes about this fever of creation: some note that Michelangelo started living on the scaffoldings and rarely came down. In order to paint the ceiling, he was forced to lie down and adapt to an uncomfortable position. The artist wrote about the unpleasantness of this work in a sonnet dedicated to Giovanni da Pistoia, titled On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel. In the original manuscript, Michelangelo accompanied the verses with a sketch: he drew himself in a diabolical form, painting the ceiling. In the sonnet, Michelangelo complains about the painful process of creating this work of art:
[…] My beard turns to heaven; my nape falls in
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. […]
Even before the Sistine Chapel commission, Michelangelo quarreled with Pope Julius II. The Pope was surrounded by many advisers. One of them was the famous architect Donato Bramante, who was Michelangelo’s rival. In 1505, Michelangelo was ordered to build a mausoleum for the Pope. He spent eight months in the mountains, searching for the finest Carrara marble. Then, without any explanation, Pope Julius abandoned the project. Michelangelo was furious. In the following year, he wrote a sonnet To Pope Julius II in which he shows his remorse that the pope himself trusted the fairytales of those who were obviously deceiving him. There is an allusion to Bramante here:
[…] thin ear to fables still,
Rewarding those who hate the name of truth.
Michelangelo has also written a sonnet to honor, dedicated to Giorgio Vasari, who is best known for his great book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times. Michelangelo respected Vasari’s great venture:
[…] You, re-illuming memories that died,
In spite of Time and Nature have revealed
For them and for yourself eternal fame.
When you get to know Michelangelo’s art, a number of questions will emerge. What exactly caused the power of his imagination? How did he manage to implement his great ideas in the real world? How does God or nature select these exceptional personalities who are chosen to be blessed with talent? You may find some of the answers in his sonnets. Michelangelo was often misunderstood, mistreated or under-appreciated. During his lifetime, he lived through a total of thirteen pontificates, and every pope wanted him in his service. You could never say no to the Pope, so Michelangelo was often torn between his commissions and his convictions. In spite of everything, he was always driven by his passion to create, and not much beyond it was of interest to him. Beauty, creation, and the Holy Christ – that was the trinity of his life.