As an Italian, I found it an uplifting experience to hear Michelangelo Buonarroti’s poems read, in his own language, at the exhibition “Michelangelo’s Dream”, recently opened at the Courtauld Gallery.
Love, beauty and artistic genius are on display in what the Telegraph has called a “curatorial and scholarly triumph”. For the first time, Buonarroti’s complex drawing Il sogno (“The Dream”) is being shown alongside the so-called “presentation drawings”, a series of highly refined works made between 1522 and 1533. The Old Master gave them as a token of friendship and love to the young and talented Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri.
Vigorous, perfectly defined male nudes are created on paper with black or red chalk, breathing in a powerful life of their own. Drawing on classical sources, the artist shaped his own visions of ancient myths. The intention was probably both to instruct the young draftsman in the art of drawing (it is said that Tommaso spent hours looking at them with a magnifying glass) and to please him with unique works featuring moral teachings as well as explicit signs of his newborn infatuation.
Yet the show is not the “joyously gay love story” described in the Guardian‘s review. These drawings convey a subtle sense of melancholy, the same tormented and somehow suffering mood that Michelangelo delicately and vigorously expresses in his letters and poems, shown alongside the artworks. In one of his poems, Michaelangelo writes:
Or if fame or dreaming brings someone before my eyes
Or make him present in my heart, leaving behind
A burning trace I cannot describe — perhaps it is this which draws
my heart to tears . . .
There is no trace, moreover, of a homosexual love story; at least not in the sense that we mean it. Despite the artist’s attraction to the outstanding beauty and cultivated wit of the young Tommaso, the artist himself firmly remarks on the nature of his “chaste love”.
Love and beauty were for Michelangelo an extraordinary mean of redemption, symbolising human aspiration towards the highest good. His contorted figures, caught in the perfection and thus the forceful sexual appeal of their forms, symbolise the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter. This is just the main theme of Il sogno, which the curator Stephanie Buck describes as “one of the finest drawings in the whole Renaissance”.
Rather than expressions of his longing, Michelangelo’s compositions are ideograms: they feature an unprecedented combination of superb draughtsmanship and overlapping psychological, mythological and philosophical meanings. Take the giant Tityus: cruelly grasped by the wide-winged vulture who is torturing him, he is not only a marvellous attractive struggling male nude but also the mythological embodiment of the terrible consequences of lust, the soul dragged down to the underworld. His extraordinarily balanced dialogue with the bird expresses the overpowering physical attraction of beauty.