Michelangelo's Dream, Courtauld Institute, London
A breathtaking collection of drawings outlines the intriguing back story of the artist's dangerous desire
Sunday 21 February 2010
That Michelangelo was a tricky customer is borne out by contemporary reports of him. To the 16th-century art historian Vasari, whose opinion has stuck, he was il divino, made by God as a model of how men should be in all things: poetry, art, bodily beauty.
To a viewer of the newly-painted Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Vasari's divine Buonarroti was an inventor delle porcherie, a maker of porkery, of obscenities. How can two such different – two so opposed – Michelangelos have co-existed?
Which brings us to Tityus, to Christ and to Tommaso de' Cavalieri. Tityus was a mythological Greek giant whose future as a rapist was assured when he tore his mother's womb with his own phallus. (A species of large-horned beetle is named after him.) Fully grown, Tityus tried to rape Leto, mother of Apollo, for which he was condemned to an eternity in Hades with vultures pecking at his liver: this is the subject of a drawing, The Punishment of Tityus, lent by the Queen to the Courtauld Gallery's fine new show, Michelangelo's Dream. Although the show's title is taken from another drawing – Il Sogno, or The Dream of Human Life, in the Courtauld's own collection – Tityus is its centrepiece. Shown in a two-sided vitrine in the middle of the room, it depicts, recto, the lustful giant writhing handsomely on a rock. Verso, Michelangelo has traced a figure which follows Tityus's outline almost exactly. It is of the newly risen Christ.
To artists of the High Renaissance, Christ's dual nature as human and divine dovetailed neatly with courtly thoughts of profane and sacred love. He may have been God but He was also Man, prone to the same fleshly urges as Tityus. This two-sidedness had particular appeal for Michelangelo, thought to have been homosexual at a time when sodomy was punishable by burning. In 1532, the artist, then 57, met a beautiful 23-year-old Roman nobleman called Tommaso de' Cavalieri. It seems, for Michelangelo at least, to have been love at first sight. The question was which kind of love, and how to express it safely.
One way was to send Tommaso carefully encoded sonnets, the manuscripts of some of which are included in this show. Michelangelo writes of his beloved as a fire in which he, an ageing phoenix, will be reborn: any suggestion of sexual inflammatoriness can be explained away as poetic licence. Another way of declaring his love for Tommaso was in so-called "presentation drawings" – finished works meant for intimate consumption, to be handled and treasured by their recipient. Tityus is one of these, as is the titular Dream. Both use male beauty to express spiritual awakening. Indeed, as with the image of the phoenix, both find salvation in male flesh.
All of which makes the anonymous attacker of Michelangelo's porcherie arguably a more astute critic of art than Vasari. The dozen drawings by the artist in this perfect little exhibition show a tendency to knottiness, to figures which wind around each other and contort. This is a symbol, conscious or not, of the complexity of their meaning, their levels of encryption. Any suggestion that Michelangelo's feelings for Tommaso might have been base – which is to say sexual – could be countered by noting that even the famously priapic Tityus has been given a tiny winky. For the more lustful thoughts Michelangelo may have harboured for his young hero, we have to look at the drawing of Phaëton he made a year later.
Son of the sun god, Helios, Phaëton insisted on driving his father's chariot, lost control of it and was killed by Zeus. It is a story of mortal presumption, and may suggest Michelangelo's own temerity in daring to woo the god-like Tommaso. What is beyond doubt is that the composition's focal point is on the genitals of a horse, then, as now, a byword for virility. Tommaso's surname, Cavalieri, means horseman in Italian, from cavallo or horse, which is also slang for crotch. It seems clear that Michelangelo both hoped and feared that this allusion would be seen by Tommaso, that part of the power of this exquisite drawing – of all the presentation drawings – is that, like Phaëton, they dice, quite literally, with death. Did Tommaso, soon to be a husband and father, spot this meaning, and if so, did he care? Who can say. Tradition has it that he was holding Michelangelo's hand when the old man died in Rome in 1564.
To 16 May (020-7848 2526)
Charles Darwent goes to a Tate Britain show that challenges one view of Henry Moore: that he is father of the turd-in-the-plaza school of sculpture
arts + entsThere were towering ideas, some scintillating performances and revelatory grooves... our writers pick out their personal highlights
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
elephant appealPrince William signs up for our charity appeal
peoplePrepare to be entranced by worms as the molecular biologist gets ready to give the Royal Institution science lectures
elephant appealSo says man jailed for cutting off dead elephant's tusks
booksWe examine the best titles for teens
voicesPeople moan that Christmas is too commercial, the spirit lost. But it is a time to over-indulge, and always has been, says DJ Taylor
scienceResearchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words
booksA Christmas story in six parts
travelWill high-value tourism help the workshops of this Renaissance city?
food + drinkA trifle without custard? Surely not! Nonsense – and here’s three to finish your festive meal that prove it
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Arts & Ents blogs
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
David Cameron takes his biggest gamble yet as he gets tough on Europe over immigration
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
Scientists ‘incredibly concerned’ for fate of banana as plagues and fungus infections spread across world’s supplies
- 1 Tim Sherwood challenges Daniel Levy to set out vision for Tottenham Hotspur’s future
- 2 French pub fined €9,000 after customers returned empties to bar - because it's 'undeclared labour'
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 #Teamnigella: It’s the only side to be on
- 5 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- < Previous
- Next >