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MLN 117.1 (2002) 17-47
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On Homoerotic Tension in Michelangelo's Poetry
The hypothesis that a latent homosexuality (or bisexuality) can be identified in Michelangelo's poetry has often been put forth, especially in the English-speaking world. Its general claim, that Michelangelo's "unorthodox sexuality" is a key to a better understanding of both his poetry and his art, is grounded mostly on psychoanalytic studies such as Robert S. Liebert's investigation of Buonarroti's life and works. 1 Leibert's premise is "there are certain invariable laws of human behavior which operate in all individuals, irrespective of period and culture" (3). This assumption raises a fundamental methodological issue for literary readings of the Rime that regards the validity of utilizing this "metatemporal" framework.
Paradoxically, such philological studies attempt to read Michelangelo's verse in its historical context while using as their point of departure Leibert's metahistorical presumptions. For example, in his recent monograph (an interesting and intelligent analysis and important overview of the Rime), Christopher Ryan demonstrates a refined sensitivity to the nuances of difficult poetic texts. At the same time he grounds his analyses of the texts on a speculative oedipal explanation of Michelangelo's sexuality 2 that allows him to assert that "Michelangelo's sexuality was at least primarily homoerotic" (156), and then [End Page 17] use Oedipus as a key for his reading of the Rime. This belief, coupled with Michelangelo's fascination with males of superior beauty and intelligence, then causes Ryan to find in the poems for the young Roman noble Tommaso Cavalieri a "rapture" that distinguishes them from the rest of the Rime. The poet's infatuation with Cavalieri leads Ryan to complete the circle and affirm that the "repentance" evinced in the poems Buonarroti wrote after 1547 is attributable in great measure to remorse for past homosexuality (12-13). However, it must be made clear that the original impetus for Ryan's reading (a fact he makes explicit only in an endnote) comes from "indirect and inconclusive" evidence and "fairly meagre indications in the sources" (260). James Saslow also uses Liebert to justify an "oedipal," hence homoerotic reading of Michelangelo's verse. Saslow is of the opinion that "Michelangelo's statements about love and desire leave little doubt that he conceived of intimate relationships in what would now be considered fundamentally homosexual terms" (The Poetry of Michelangelo, 17). 3 Robert Rodini is the author of a third highly intelligent study that seeks to link the importance of eye imagery in the poems dedicated to Cavalieri to Liebert's theses. He speculates:
I think it can be argued that the eye, as an organ, as a corporeal orifice, and as metonymic of the body, is referential to both the intellect, the locus of apprehension and desire, and, as well, to orifices of the physical body which have highly erotic associations." (68)
Then, following Saslow, he builds on that conjecture, and writes, "we are speaking of the eye as a metonym of the "receptive body," of reception which can satisfy by illumination in bringing epiphanic moments just as it can be a metonym for the willing reception of sexual gratification which, in the case of Michelangelo, seemingly goes unfulfilled" (68-69).
Such readings take their impetus from the apparent agreement in the psychoanalytic community that "Michelangelo's deeply ambivalent [End Page 18] relationship to his mother" not only had "a decisive influence on his creativity," but also gave vent to "a late and intense expression" in his "inflamed passion for Cavalieri" (Sterba and Sterba, 170). The same--it is claimed--can be said for the ambiguous paternalism toward other young men that can be found in Michelangelo's poetry. However, there is much that we just do not know about these relationships, and about many other aspects of Michelangelo's life. Therefore, more verifiable aspects of his personal and creative life cannot be ignored in favor of assumptions based on irretrievable aspects of his intimate biography. While art serves to reveal what is hidden, we cannot set aside obvious, conscious motivations and allow...