Michelangelo's poetry reveals his 'divided soul'

Michelangelo was dubbed the ‘divine Michelangelo’ in his day for his stunning works of art. But his poetry reveals a deeply troubled and dissatisfied soul — he never felt his work was good enough, and was plagued by feelings of guilt for his earthly desires.

‘Controversial’ emotions fueled by his sexuality led him to a very creative process, says art historian

Circa 1525: sculptor, painter and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti is renowned for his Renaissance masterpieces, but he was also a very serious poet. The Italian artist wrote more than 300 poems — poems that speak profoundly about love and angst. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

*Originally published on June 3, 2021.

Every year, millions visit Michelangelo's famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Millions more people flock to his statue of David in Florence. 

"There's been an emphasis upon Michelangelo as the 'divine', the creator of these great works of art — truly awesome works — that we tend to forget that there was a human being behind these creations," said William Wallace, professor of art and archeology at Washington University in St. Louis. 

"We tend to think that [Michelangelo] was able to accomplish anything and everything because he did accomplish some magnificent things," said Wallace, adding that Michelangelo spent his life feeling he was never achieving his best work. "He was dissatisfied with a lot of things that we think are pretty magnificent. None of these things are very easy for him: art-making, love, or death."

A restorer cleans Michelangelo's statue of David at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy. The marble masterpiece stands 14 ft tall, and was created between 1501 and 1504. (Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Born in 1475, Michelangelo died just a couple weeks shy of his 89th birthday. Over the course of his life Michelangelo wrote more than 300 poems, revealing his deep inner turmoil. 

Michelangelo and 'earthly desire'

I wish I wanted. Lord, what I don't want:
Between my heart and the fire hides a veil of ice
which moderates the fire, so that my deeds
don't match my pen, and makes my page a liar.
I love you with my tongue, and then regret
that love doesn't reach my heart; yet I don't know where
I might open a door to grace so it can spread
within my heart and chase out all pitiless pride….

Michelangelo Poem 87 - from James Saslow's The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation

"He wrote the first large body of verse in any modern language addressed to a male love object by another man. There is no precedent for that in European literature unless you go back to classical antiquity," said James Saslow, professor emeritus of Renaissance art and theatre at the City University of New York.

Michelangelo was a devout Catholic and was nearing 60 when he fell for a young nobleman 40 years his junior, named Tommaso di Cavalieri. He managed to combine his love of God and love of Cavalieri in his poetry. 

"That desire to address unorthodox and controversial emotions led him to a very creative process," said Saslow.

"He had to learn to express somewhat deviant or novel feelings, and he also had to be careful to code or conceal the radical implications of what he was talking about. So the poetry walks a fine line between a very honest confessional and a somewhat coy, indirect tone, where those who are looking will understand what he's saying, but others will not. And that is his great creative contribution."

Inside the Sistine Chapel

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The website of the Vatican Museums allows users to peruse the frescoes of Michelangelo that adorn the inside of the Sistine Chapel in a 3D virtual tour.

Michelangelo was tormented by guilt for his pangs of sensual love. 

"The poetry seesaws between ecstatic celebration of the glories of love and lacerating himself for feeling such things," said Saslow.

"It's a conflict between passion and guilt.

Feeling trapped

Who is this who leads me to you against my will,
Alas, alas, alas,
Bound and confined, though I'm still free and loose?
If you can chain others without a chain,
And without hands or arms you've drawn me in,
Who will defend me from your beautiful face? 

Michelangelo - Poem 7, Saslow translation

"The speaker is describing love as a prison. And imprisonment is really the perfect metaphor to describe being subjugated by love," said Deborah Parker, professor of Italian at the University of Virginia. Her book Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing explores how this sense of entrapment gets expressed in the poetry. 

Parker points to other poems Michelangelo wrote that also express the theme of imprisonment. Not only did he feel imprisoned by love, he also felt enslaved by his art and the expectations others had for him. 

"He is so accustomed to the miserable state of being a slave, that he doesn't bother trying to be freed," said Parker.

"The poem emphasizes that hard labour is a crucial component of the artist's life — so different from the way Leonardo da Vinci portrayed the working life of an artist, as sitting in his studio attired in elegant robes, listening to music. This is not Michelangelo's vision."

When the master keeps the slave in prison bound
by a harsh chain, with hope of nothing else,
he grows so accustomed to his  wretched state
that he would scarcely ask for liberty. 
    Habit tames even the tiger and the serpent,
and the fierce lion, born in the dense forest;
and the novice artist, exhausted by his work,
in growing use to sweat double's his wind. 

Michelangelo - Poem 25, Saslow translation

Quest for salvation

Michelangelo devoted himself to his quest for salvation in the afterlife.

"Michelangelo wrote deeply philosophical, deeply spiritual and inspired poetry," said Sarah Prodan, professor in the department of French and Italian at Stanford University. 

His spiritual muse was poet and noblewoman, Vittoria Colonna.

A drawing of Vittoria Colonna by Michelangelo. Colonna was approximately 50 years old and Michelangelo 65 at the time of the drawing, c. 1550. (Wikimedia)

After her husband died, she devoted herself to her faith and built a significant following. She and Michelangelo exchanged letters, and poems for each other — he also created spiritual drawings for her. 

Their friendship helped him work through his inner conflict between earthly desire and the desire for salvation.

...Rend that veil, you O Lord, break down that wall 
which with its hardness keeps delayed from us 
the sun of your light, extinguished in this world.
Send that promised light, which we will see someday, 
to your beautiful bride, so that my heart 
may burn free from any doubt, and feel only you."

Michelangelo Poem 87 - translation James Saslow

"The idea here is that first you discover your sin and then it gets worse and then you realize that and come to the state of fear — fear of death, fear of damnation," said Prodan.

 "And then ultimately this recognition that you're really powerless to do anything about it unless grace enters your life, and it's at that point that you turn to Christ and the journey can begin."

About the contributor: 

Tony Luppino is an independent curator and art historian. He worked in museums and cultural institutions for over 40 years including as Executive Director of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance)

William Wallace is a professor of art and archeology at Washington University in St. Louis. His numerous books on Michelangelo include Michelangelo, God's Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece.

James Saslow is professor emeritus of Renaissance art and theatre at the City University of New York. His books include Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society as well as The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation was used for this IDEAS episode.

Sarah Prodan is associate professor in the department of French and Italian at Stanford University. Her books include Michelangelo's Christian Mysticism: Spirituality, Poetry and Art in Sixteenth-Century Italy.

Deborah Parker is professor of Italian at the University of Virginia. Her books include Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing.

Paul Barosky is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Virginia. His books include Michelangelo's Nose: A Myth and its Maker.

*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.

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