Born and raised in Tuscany, Michelangelo rose from relatively humble beginnings to become one of the most sought-after and well-paid artists of the Renaissance.
As a craftsman, he was a legend in his own lifetime, known as Il Divino — the Divine One. Over the span of nearly nine decades, he produced some of the most acclaimed works of sculpture, painting, and architecture in the history of Western culture.
In his personal life, however, there were many contradictions and ironies.
As a young artist in Florence, Michelangelo was shaped by the pioneering leadership and nurturing patronage of the Medici family, only later to betray them by sculpting the towering symbol of the newly-restored Republic of Florence: his 17-foot-tall David, which now resides in the city’s Accademia Gallery, attracting millions of visitors every year.
Michelangelo was homosexual, which was considered a mortal sin by the Catholic church, yet he was employed by nine consecutive popes, all in keen pursuit of his talents. The Church may have viewed his sexual orientation as “a crime against nature” but its pontiffs sure didn’t seem to have a problem with his paintings and sculptures adorning their tombs or the most important churches in Rome.
Perhaps most interestingly, Michelangelo did not think of himself as a painter, but his most famous works in Rome are paintings; the Sistine Chapel being chief among them.
When it came to art, Michelangelo was without question Il Divino. But in stark contrast to the glory of his art was the darkness of his life, fraught with loneliness, sadness, obsession, and anger.
The Naked Truth: Michelangelo’s Obsession with the Male Form
Although some say Michelangelo’s homosexuality is a modern invention, the reality of the master’s sexuality is indubitably recorded in his own writings. We know more about Michelangelo’s sexual and emotional life than virtually any other prominent figure of his era thanks to his poetry and letters. From his own hand, we get a unique and intimate look into his psyche and his loves.
One only has to look at his works of art to know that Michelangelo was obsessed with the male form. Not only were his male figures the epitome of muscular masculinity, so also were his females!
Let’s take the Sistine Chapel, for example. In the scene of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, Eve seems more like a gladiator than Adam’s feminine counterpart. It’s interesting also to note that the devil was portrayed by Michelangelo in this scene as a female, suggesting that he was perhaps a misogynist in addition to being gay.
Michelangelo’s obsession with the male form is abundantly clear in both his sculpture and painting, but there is one aspect of the Sistine Chapel ceiling that exemplifies this in a particular way.
In the scene where God separates the light from the darkness, there are four nude male figures framing the epic action. They are not part of the scene, nor are they mythological figures or allegorical characters. They are simply four naked men, painted by Michelangelo purely for the esthetic pleasure of their form.
These groups of beautiful, athletic males figures appear all over the massive fresco and they have a name: ignudi, a word invented by Michelangelo himself.
Skinned Alive by Rome: Michelangelo’s Anger Personified in The Last Judgment
Ironically, the life of Il Divino was not so divine, especially near the end. In his later years, Michelangelo was profoundly sad, profoundly lonely, and profoundly angry.
Nowhere is Michelangelo’s anger more potently and painfully exhibited than in his painting, The Last Judgment.
In the centre of the scene, near Christ, sits St. Bartholomew. The apostle, who, according to legend, was skinned alive for converting the King of Armenia to Christianity, holds a knife in one hand and his own skin in the other.
The face on this creepy, sagging sack of flayed skin is Michelangelo’s. It is a self-portrait, and its message is “I’m an empty skin. I’m a martyr. I can’t be what I want to be. Rome, you have skinned me alive.”
This depiction of an empty shell of a man, painted of himself by himself, is the most revealing message we have about the mental state of Michelangelo in Rome. But why such misery?
The creation of his masterpieces seemed continually shrouded by struggle, whether it was with mercurial patrons, combative popes, fanatical censors, or his own demons.
Compelled by competitiveness and greed, Michelangelo’s life as an artist was marked by taking on too many commissions and working himself to the point of utter exhaustion. Although he was tortured by resentment for certain projects, most notably the Sistine Chapel, he was driven to carry on by his reverence for the will of the church.
In spite of the struggles, the ironies, the misery, the loneliness, the obsessions, and the anger, Michelangelo’s genius reigned supreme, leaving us a legacy of masterpieces that is nothing less than truly divine.
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