Art historians have long speculated whether a set of drawings Michelangelo Buonarroti made for his friend and patron Tommaso de’Cavalieri in 1532 reveal a not-so-secret love. In one of the drawings, “Ganymede,” an eagle’s talons grip a young man around the shins as it bears him aloft. “To many,” James Fenton writes, “this looks like buggery—buggery, to be sure, of an exceedingly unusual kind . . . but buggery nevertheless.” Also fueling the gossip are a number of passionate love sonnets the artist wrote to the young nobleman. “The artist protests a chaste love,” Fenton says, “but he does so with a passion that, for a modern sensibility, can only with difficulty be conceived as chaste.” At the time Michelangelo presented the drawings, he would have been 57; Tommaso may have been as young as 12, though he was more likely at least in his teens.
During his life, Michelangelo (1475–1564) fastidiously guarded access to his drawings. “‘Non mostra cosa alchuna ad alchuno,’ his agent wrote to the Marquis of Mantua: He doesn’t show anything to anybody.” Rival artists often sought out such sketches for clues about techniques they could appropriate—indeed, 50 sketches were stolen from Michelangelo’s workshop in 1529. The artist burned all drawings still in his possession shortly before his death.
But the drawings Michelangelo presented to intimates, such as the ones given to Tommaso, were very different from working sketches. Fully finished, these works were presented, according to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s contemporary and early biographer, to teach the young man how to draw. (At the least they sparked in Tommaso a collecting interest: He eventually amassed an impressive body of works by Giotto, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.) Their content, however, at least to modern eyes, is blatantly sensual, even improper, though it seems clear—if the emotionally tortured texts of some of Michelangelo’s sonnets are taken as evidence—that the pictures don’t represent reality. Michelangelo is thought to have been homosexual, but he publicly expressed aversion to coitus, and advised others “not to indulge in it, or at least as little as possible.”
But did Michelangelo have any qualms about his relationship with Tommaso? The two remained lifelong friends, even as the younger man married, had children, and became a widower, and Tommaso was with Michelangelo when he died. Fenton speculates that Michelangelo “would have been horrified” by the innuendoes about his relationship with Tommaso, “not least by the equanimity with which we say this kind of thing.”
Fenton, a poet and critic, believes that the very publicness of the courtship belies the possibility that it had a physical component. Michelangelo knew he “was acting nobly and openly, not as a sodomite in a dark alley.” To modern scholars, Fenton says, “the experience of the desire is crucial to the diagnosis; whether we act on such desires is almost irrelevant. But this kind of thinking was quite foreign to Michelangelo.”