In examining the contribution that Michelangelo Buonarroti made to quatrocento literature, specifically the art of poetry and more specifically, erotic and platonic love poetry, it should be understood that his literary activities were not secondary to his other artistic contributions, and should not be examined in that light. Though many if not most literary and artistic persons during the Renaissance wrote poetry, Michelangelo was a very able and learned poet,1 and rose above the general level in poetry, as he did in visual arts. His writing of poetry was not a mere diversion, and the poetry has the artistic quality which marks his other works. He is considered by critics to be the "foremost madrigalist of the Italian Cinquecento" (Clements, p. vii) and "the greatest Italian lyrical poet of the sixteenth century." (Alexander, p. ix)
Michelangelo's verse remained obscure until recently, but during his lifetime he was appreciated as a great poet,2 his poetry widely circulated in manuscript, and set to music by contemporary composers, including Constanzo Festa, Jean de Conseil (the Pope's court composer), Tromboncino and Jacob Archadelt.3
Vasari acknowledged the poet's contemporary status by including a quatrain from the poetry, in his life of Michelangelo. Taken as a whole, it is a fairly large body of work, some 343 poems or fragments4 which have been variously translated by Wordsworth, Southey, Longfellow, Emerson, Norton, Santana, etc., (Clemens, p. vii) and these "Englishings" enjoy varying degrees of success.5
Michelangelo was both highly literate and plain-spoken. He felt passionate toward individuals, both female and male (Vittoria Colonna and Tommasco Cavalieri in particular), and this did not seem to be the source of cognitive dissonance so much as the usual psychological problems of someone whose primary focus was on their work, rather than domesticity and the kind of compromises necessary to ordinary human love. Platonic love suited Michelangelo because the demands of his profession came first. Vittoria--independent, highly intelligent, more like a man than a woman--was inaccessible, the women who came closest to being his intellectual equal, and a person characterized by loftiness, nobility and virtue--all of which appealed to the poet. He turned to her for guidance and idealized her through the ecstasy of his religious mindset; Michelangelo was a deeply religious person who believed in prayer and all the accompanying Renaissance religious imagery characteristic of his era. She was a pious widow and friend to Michelangelo in his later maturity. She died at age 56, having been "harassed and persecuted" (Clements, p. 199) for criticizing the Church. Michelangelo was deeply affected by her death, and for a very long time; he wrote many commemorative pieces in her honor.
Even at this later hour, you succeed in making me blest,
Me, to wretchedness born.
If grace and good fortune prevail over my cruel destiny,
By you both heaven and nature will be vanquished.6
Tommaso Cavalieri, characterized as a "handsome and cultivated Roman nobleman" (Cambon, p. 44), remained the artist's friend until the end of his life, and accepted Michelangelo's Platonic courtship while he himself preferred the ordinary homelife of a conventional man, with wife and children. This inspired a sense of alienation in Michelangelo for which he begs God to make some sense. Michelangelo is revealed as being ill at ease in a self-conscious, masochistic way characteristic of modern neuroticism. Themes of suffering often include being demolished or pulverized (like a sculptor carving from marble); the experience of love is likened to being taken over by an alien power:
How can it be that I am no longer mine?
In Diologi, Donatao Giannotti quotes Michelangelo:
O God, o God, o God,
and is not closer to me than myself
and has more power on myself than I?7
Whenever I see someone who has some virtue, who shows some ingeniousness, who can do or say something more aptly than the others, I am compelled to fall in love with him, and I give myself in thralldom to him so utterly, that I am no longer mine, but his entirely.8
This poetry is also characterized by lewd jokes and a Dantesque perspective. Petrach is the dominant influence but the verses are full of contradictions between "exalted meditations on the varieties of love" and "the voice of [a] plebeian Florentine...crude, jesting, judgmental." (Alexander, p. xiv) It is likely that Michelangelo used ambiguity as a poetic device to "intensify the connotative vibrations of the poem." (Alexander, p. xv)
There are primary themes which are undeniable: religiosity, pessimism, the conflict between spirit and matter. The poetry is confessional in nature, with a revealing candor in its soul-searching, self-devouring process. It is as if the pangs of love are more pertinent to the poet than the specific individuals which inspire the verse; he portrays not the persons but their effects on him. Much of the passion is sublimated, clothed in religious terminology and conventional poetic conceits, as might be expected in that era. Conflicting poems illustrate the mutual exclusiveness of Christian metaphor on one hand, and human, earthly love on the other. The poems are deep with meanings implicit in Renaissance culture and ethics. Logical and linguistic consistency exists in the addressing of God as love, "Amor," or in the lower case "amor" when referring to the insatiable passion of youth, which is seen as something of a nuisance in the light of the weariness of old age and a troubled conscience.
In terms of a criticsm based on the conventional and academic, the poetry does not always fare well, but criticized within the freer perspective of an older tradition which the poet followed, the "old master" notion of Michelangelo remains secure, even in the literary realm.
- His influences were undoubtedly Dante, Petrarch, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Plato, Pliny, Plotinus, Cicero, Arioso, Berni, Machiavelli and many others as well. Michelangelo's library was examined by the German scholar E. Grisbach.
- The entire literary output may be divided into three periods: 1500-1532/34, 1534-1547, and 1547-1560 (Reynal, pp. 545-556) The poet's grandnephew attempted a publication, but censured the text, changing masculine to feminine gender. A responsible edition appeared in epitaphs, etc. (Alexander, p. xvii) The German art historical Karl Frey reorganized the poems in 1897, based on del Riccio's chronology; the edition was issued in 1960 by Noe Girardi. Alexander reinstated Frey's chronological reconstruction.
- And in modern times by Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Hugo Wolf.
- 80 sonnets, 100 madrigals, four capitoli in terza-rima, two sestinas, and 50 epitaphs for Cecchino Bracci. (Alexander, p. x)
- Clements characterizes translations as, at best, (metaphor, Cervantes), "the reverse side of a tapestry." (Clements, p. vii)
- Clements, p. 200 (G 234), which refers to the translation by Creighton Gilbert.
- Cambon, p. 41.
- Ibid., p. 42. Dialogi di D.G. de'giorni che Dante consumo nel cercare l'Inferno e 'I Purgatoria  (Florence: Sansoni, 1939), p. 68.
The Complete Poetry of Michelangelo. Ohio University Press, Athens, 1991.
Cambon, Glauco. Michelangelo's Poetry: Fury of Form. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Clements, Robert J. The Poetry of Michelangelo. New York University Press, 1965.
The Complete Work of Michelangelo, Reynal and Company in Association with William Morrow & Co., New York. Copyright Istituto Geografico De Agostini, Novar, Italy.
The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works. Italian Series, ed. Joseph Tusiani. Dufour Editions; (January 1986).