Perpetually denominated as the greatest artist within the Renaissance period, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s work is as idolised today as it was 500 years ago. Some of Michelangelo’s most celebrated commissions are the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel 1477-1480, with approximately five million people visiting the site annually today. However, Michelangelo’s artistic skill extended into many other forms; disegno of which he believed was the foundation of sculpture, architecture of which he believed was the extension of sculpture, and poetry of which is particularly insightful in distinguishing sexuality within his work. However, many of those who blithely invoke the artist’s name might be astonished by an honest look at Michelangelo, as scholars often tend to deny or exclude the sexual aspect of his art to orchestrate a particular argument or myth around the artist. Sexuality and orientation is however, inseparable from the artist’s oeuvre due to his consistent depiction of the nude figure, with an acute focus on the male anatomy.
In his novel The Agony and The Ecstasy, biographical writer Irving Stone created a critical persona of Michelangelo which has staunchly influenced the twentieth century viewer of his work. Stone’s Michelangelo had three female lovers including, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s daughter, all of which are founded upon ambiguous historical information. However, Stone’s presumption of Michelangelo’s sexual orientation can be said to be supported by the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Eve. Analysis of this fresco and the utilisation of a nude female model due to the sensuous rendering of the female figure of Eve would allude to a heterosexual orientation. This view of Michelangelo is further supported by analysis of his other female subjects such as the marble sculpture of Dawn in the Medici Chapel where the features are discernibly softer than those of his coarser male subjects. Despite these sensuous female depictions, Michelangelo’s male nude pieces far outnumber them. In fact, it is clear that his work is dominated by nude figures of the male sex, which complicates the matter of sexuality and the artist. If one takes the example of the ignudi of the Sistine Chapel, the subjects depict the idealised nude male form in a relaxed repose. Positioned on the corners of biblical compositions such as The Sacrifice of Noah, the athletic male figures bear no relevance to the stories of which they are placed within. This leads to the question of why Michelangelo chose to include these particular figures within these compositions, and how this overtly sexualised imagery was accepted by the highly conservative population of the Early Modern period.
One might describe the Renaissance as, like most hegemonic history, distinctively masculine. Phallic symbolism was prevalent throughout the Renaissance period; not only with statues of nude men erected within every major building, but with the architecture itself – columns and pillars. Modern scholars argue that these phallic pieces reflected whilst also reasserting male dominance, power and political authority. This societal structure coincided with the dominance of the artist of Michelangelo who, arguably, towered far above his contemporaries of the imagination. Michelangelo brought a supremely masculine passion to his sculpture, such as David, to animate the stone with human desire and eroticism. Yet despite the dominance of Michelangelo’s aura, the sheer volume of male nudity did create outrage in public circles. For example, in November 1545 Pietro Aretino, a known homosexual, viciously attacked Michelangelo’s “godlessness” displayed in the naked youths of the Sistine Chapel and said quite explicitly: “Even if you are divine, you don’t disdain male consorts.” The figures later became identified as two of Michelangelo’s boyfriends, Gherardo Perini and Tommaso Cavalieri. However, of course it is true that the unclothed body may invoke many more feelings than solely enticement such as innocence, perfection, wisdom, freedom and in some cases divinity.
Michelangelo will forever remain the epitome of a particularly masculine genius of which we call machismo. However, the gender ambiguity posed by Michelangelo arguably challenges the strict societal gender roles of which have dominated culture for so long. From a twenty-first century perspective, one is able to view Michelangelo’s figures with an unprecedented fluidity with the major analysis of his work seemingly characterised by the questioning of gender, race and sexuality. Thus, the question posed must shift away from whether Michelangelo’s artwork is purely an ode to the male form – and as such, a rejection of women within a patriarchal society – towards an enquiry into the progressive motives and consequences of the ambiguity of this artist’s omnipotent work.