During the winter of 1532, the 57-year-old Michelangelo fell heart and soul in love with the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who was probably not yet 20 years old. As well as extraordinary beauty, the young man possessed gentle manners, a cultivated mind, and an intelligence capable of appreciating the honour of being loved by a man of Michelangelo’s genius.
As far as is known, that love was physically unrequited, though that does not mean it was chaste. For Michelangelo expressed his desire for Tommaso openly in letters, poems, and the spectacular gift of five of the most perfect drawings he ever made, known today as the presentation drawings.
A new exhibition reveals what was really on Michelangelo’s mind when he drew The Dream.
By Martin Gayford
A naked, sleeping man is woken by a winged angel, also naked, blowing a trumpet in his face. Behind him jostles a circle of figures representing the deadly sins. This drawing, thought to have been executed in the mid-16th century by Michelangelo (and reproduced here) is known as Il Sogno or The Dream.
From Thursday, it will form the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London comprising Michelangelo’s drawings, letters and poems, which promises to throw new light on the emotions, imagination and private life of one of the greatest artists who ever lived. There is one small problem: The Dream and the other drawings on show are far from easy to decode. On the contrary, they bring to mind Churchill’s celebrated remark about Russia in 1939; they, too, are “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
The first of the questions presented by The Dream is: for whom was it made? The most popular theory says the recipient was a young Roman nobleman named Tommaso de’ Cavalieri who was, without much question, the love of Michelangelo’s life. Almost immediately, more questions begin to crowd in: what were the terms of this love and how was it expressed? The two men first met in Rome in the winter of 1532 when Michelangelo was 57, and de’ Cavalieri was, according to rather vague documentation, between 12 and 21.
Over subsequent years, the artist bombarded this youth with letters and poems. Both reveal a different Michelangelo – vulnerable, suffering, and capable of tenderness – to the fearsome figure often seen by his contemporaries. A year after that first meeting Michelangelo wrote to de’ Cavalieri that “while my memory of you lasts I am unable to feel either weariness or fear of death”. In sonnets he declared, punning on the other’s name: “I remain the prisoner of an armed cavalier.”