by Roderick Conway Morris

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Aspects of Love in Michelangelo

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 20 July 2002
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Rape of Ganymed
by Correggio, 1532



Long thought to be a copy of Michelangelo's marvelous drawing 'The Rape of Ganymede,' the version now at the Fogg Museum of Art in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was identified as the original in the mid-1970s.

The picture was done in 1532 by the artist as a gift for Tommaso de' Cavalieri, the precocious young son of a Roman nobleman, a few days after Michelangelo met the boy, to encourage him in his efforts to learn to draw. It was accompanied by another brilliant image of 'The Punishment of Tityus.' The drawings and the surviving correspondence between Michelangelo and Tommaso indicate that their mutual admiration was instant and intense, and led to a lifelong friendship.

The Ganymede drawing forms the centerpiece of a splendid exhibition, curated by Marcella Marongiu, 'The Myth of Ganymede: Before and After Michelangelo,' at Casa Buonarroti, once owned by the artist and now the museum dedicated to his memory. Also lent for the occasion is the pendant 'Tityus,' which belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, bringing together these two masterpieces for the first time in hundreds of years. (The show continues until Sept. 30.)

According to Greek mythology, Ganymede was an exceedingly handsome aristocratic young Trojan, abducted by Zeus to become his cup bearer. Transforming himself into an eagle, the Mighty Thunderer swooped to earth and carried off the boy to Mount Olympus, where his services were rewarded by immortality. Michelangelo's drawing captures the moment when Ganymede has just been seized and is being borne aloft. Far from showing fear, his body is yieldingly relaxed and his facial expression one of dreamy submission.

'Tityus' records the Prometheus-like fate of this Titan, who enraged his father Zeus by attempting the virtue of Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. For this contumacy, Zeus condemned Tityus to Hades, where for all eternity his liver was devoured by vultures (or the nobler eagle, as Michelangelo would have it), continually growing back again to prolong the agony.

As has been plausibly suggested, the subtext of the images may well relate to Michelangelo's passion for Tommaso, the ecstasies of love, represented by Ganymede, and torments, sharp as those suffered by Tityus, subtly conveyed in an appropriately cultivated manner and with exquisite draftsmanship.

The classical models that inspired Michelangelo, from statuary and cameos to Attic vases and bronze mirrors, are well illustrated in the first part of the show. One of the closest configurations of his 'Ganymede' is a statue once in the Venetian Grimani family's famous collection, which Michelangelo must surely have seen when he temporarily took refuge in Venice. But the Renaissance artist imbued the scene with an unusually powerful homoerotic charge.

'Ganymede' was repeatedly copied, often with great skill, and gave rise to a series of paintings, frescoes, engravings, jewelry and sculpture, a well-chosen selection of which are gathered here.

The new puritanism promulgated by the Council of Trent, however, discouraged artists from continuing to feature this risqué story in their classical repertoire, let alone in a Michelangelesque manner that implied a thinly veiled celebration of homosexual love.

But the subject enjoyed a discreet revival in the late 17th and early 18th century, for the most part with its sexual implications much reduced. A Giambattista Tiepolo sketch here, for example, has all the affectionate innocence of a scene of father and son.

Yet the show ends with an extraordinary fake, supposedly a detached ancient Roman fresco, showing Zeus on his throne kissing Ganymede. It was, in fact, the work of Anton Raphael Mengs, the protégé of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the leading 18th-century theorist of Neoclassicism, widely regarded as the greatest living authority on classical art. Winckelmann pronounced the piece 'the most beautiful painting yet to come to light' from the ancient world. To our eyes, the fresco looks highly unconvincing as a piece of antique Roman painting. And one can only conclude that in this case Winckelmann was seduced more by the subject than the picture's intrinsic qualities. (He later met a sad end in Trieste, when he was stabbed to death by a man during a casual sexual encounter.)

The apparent masculinity of some of Michelangelo's female nudes has been an area of debate since the 16th century. Two examples often called as witnesses are the reclining nudes representing 'Night' and 'Dawn,' which form part of the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo Church in Florence, whose breasts look uncannily like botched silicone implants.

Less extreme, but displaying characteristics not wholly feminine, is the figure of the goddess of love in a 'Venus and Cupid,' now at the Accademia, for which Michelangelo did the drawing, but Pontormo completed as a painting in about 1533. This is the text, as it were, that the curators, Franca Falletti and Jonathan Katz Nelson, take in 'Venus and Love: Michelangelo and the New Idea of Beauty,' to justify the ways of the 'Divine Michelangelo' to men, and women for that matter.

This worthwhile show is, unhappily, located in the two wings on either side of the master's 'David.' After the cool calm of Casa Buonarotti, this setting is as conducive to thoughtful contemplation as a metropolitan train station at rush hour, as the tourist hordes surge through and, having made brief obeisance at the feet of the muscle-bound idol, move on to the next cultural shrine on the itinerary. (The exhibition continues until Nov. 3.)

'Venus and Cupid' was commissioned by a wealthy Florentine merchant-banker as part of a decorative scheme for his palazzo, which was to have a strong literary flavor. As Nelson argues in the show and catalogue, literary ideals of female beauty, rather than nature, provided much of the impetus for Michelangelo's 'Venus,' the masculine attributes of the figure intended to lend dignity and nobility to a creature that would otherwise have been a mere woman.

The notion that the female body was an inferior version of the male was fairly widespread at the time. One could add that, while the Roman Catholic Church took a rather dim view of women as a subspecies in general, except when playing a supporting role as saints and martyrs, in Florence in particular women were not expected to take any significant part in public and intellectual life.

Current neo-Platonic thinking, too, Nelson proposes, encouraged Michelangelo to employ Venus above all as a symbol, and use her image deliberately to create 'a new type of female beauty,' more metaphysical than real.

Michelangelo would certainly have encountered the luscious nudes of Giorgione, Titian and their Venetian contemporaries during his stay in the city, and it is perfectly possible that he was consciously striving to invent a more spiritual, chaste alternative, not just by introducing more masculine traits in the body, but also in the contorted, but ultimately more asexual pose he contrived.

It is notable, however, that though subsequent mannerist painters enthusiastically adopted the Florentine's elaborately distorted poses, when it came to the female body they tended toward more realistic models. A good example of this is Bronzino's often illustrated 'Allegory of Love' at the National Gallery in London, painted about a decade later, where the arrangement of the figures is amazingly twisted, but the appearance of Venus unmistakably feminine.

For the fact is that in this matter Michelangelo was flying in the face of nature, or at least the common ideal of nature. And, presumably, even today most Western women would rather have the physique of a Giorgione or Titian Venus, than one by Michelangelo.

Palazzo Strozzi is, meanwhile, hosting 'The Shadow of the Genius: Michelangelo and Art in Florence 1537-1631,' which continues until Sept. 29, then travels to Chicago this winter and Detroit in March. Michelangelo left Florence for good in 1534. His presence continued to loom large, and projects such as the Medici tombs and library at San Lorenzo were completed after his departure.

But the title of the show is a little misleading, given that it includes few works by Michelangelo himself. The period in question is extremely interesting and produced some excellent works both in the field of the fine and applied arts, and did much to give Florence the look that the city has maintained to this day.

The problem with the style of presentation is that while offering an extended paean to the Medici grand dukes it does not explain sufficiently clearly what exactly their lasting artistic legacy was, nor how the best artists and craftsmen succeeded in transcending the influence of Michelangelo and the other greats of the preceding generations to make a distinctive, and still relatively neglected, contribution of their own.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023