REVIEW: Michelangelo's Dream: Was the gay artist a predator or a PR prototype?

Would today's armies of supple Topman kids mincing off to school in their glittered bumpsters have been enough to soothe the longing of Michelangelo's gaze?

I went to see Michelangelo’s Dream at the Courtauld Gallery today – a collection of mythological and religious drawings that included the famous and endlessly copied item The Dream. Interestingly, some of the queer items on display are kindly loaned by Her Majesty the Queen. Originally The Dream was a serial presentation of faintly erotic gifts to a teenage boy that Michelangelo had become obsessed with- the young Italian nobleman Tommaso de Cavalieri. I’ve nicknamed the boy Cava for simplicity’s sake but also because we sadly live in a world where gay men no longer offer drawings and poems to their teenage pursuits but they do unfalteringly offer us plenty of cava.

The exhibition was surprisingly well attended, perhaps thanks to The Guardian’s generous double-page spread on Saturday. The crowd seemed to receive the abundance of homoerotic information well, although one visitor loudly announced “I don’t like drawings” and marched downstairs defiantly into the biscuit-tin world of Renoir.

The Dream is a confusing picture in which a naked man outstretches himself across a stone sphere atop a plinth while an upturned winged messenger blows a trumpet in his face for no apparent reason. The depictions of deadly sin which surround the main composition originally included a childish hand gripping a large phallus (placid if you ask me, but erect according to the guide book) but this was rubbed out at some stage by one of the drawing’s one-time owners. We are told by the accompanying text that there is some kind of rebirth going on, but we’re left in the dark by the exhibition’s curators as to what kind of rebirth this is.

I would guess that this sense of awakening and rebirth is an early example in art of what today we call “coming out”. Michelangelo clearly pre-empted the cultural necessity of gay liberation, and that a social outlet of homosexual desire was required in order for sinful predation to stop and for gay relationships to exist on a level of decency and mutuality. Michelangelo longed for his homosexual desires for Cava to be reciprocal but knew all to well that even if they were, there was little he could do about it in 16th century Florence, a city described by The Guardian’s James Hall somewhat scientifically as “ardently anti-sodomite”.

Today when a man comes out as gay he usually undergoes a reclassification of identity in the minds of his peers. The new sexual status finds its way to the top of his social profile – “My friend Tom who’s gay is coming later” etc. This cultural re-birth is sometimes frowned upon in Britain now by straights and gays alike – “Why does it matter that Tom’s gay? Did you need to tell me that?” etc. To Michelangelo, the possibility of talking openly about sexual identity was a lurid dream, utterly out of his reach, although not inconceivable.

Included in the exhibition is erotic poetry that Michelangelo wrote and sent to Cava, my favourite titled “You know that I know”, the middle-age equivalent to emo poetry on MySpace in which Michelangelo begs Cava to give him a sign.

Would Michelangelo’s behaviour be considered today as that of a “dirty old man”, predatory and perverted? He was in his 50s while pursuing this teenage Adonis afterall. Or would our present-day society of CK models bulging from billboards and armies of supple Topman kids mincing off to school in their glittered bumpsters be enough to soothe Michelangelo’s repressed longing?

We’ll never know for sure whether Michelangelo placed his skilled hands on young Cava’s globular frame. I like to think that he failed in his sexually ambitious quest and released his frenzy of Firenze passion on an unsuspecting studio assistant. If the beautiful and aristocratic Cava did fancy some lad-on-lad action, you’d hope he opted for an athletic palace pageboy or a sunkissed courtly hedge trimmer, not some aged and twisted sculptor, no matter how intellectually stimulating.

What we do know is that Michelangelo was a prototype for the PR industry and a bit of a gay whizz. For a start we call him by his first name Michelangelo, as if he were an R n’ B singer like Kelis or Cassie. I’m trying to imagine the world talking about me in 500 years time by my Christian name. “Have you read that book by Jack?” Unbelievable.

Secondly, the majority of Michelangelo books don’t bare a cover image of the facially decrepit artist himself, but a blazing shot of his gay masterpiece – the statue of David. Such genius.

Right. I’m off to write an erotic poem addressed to Euan Blair now. Too old perhaps?

Michelangelo’s Dream is at the Courtauld Gallery until 16 May. Mind the staircase (!) - it goes beautifully beyond health and safety.

For a more art-based review of the exhibition see Laura Cumming's Guardian review here.


  1. I don't think that the atmosphere towards same sex sex relationships was as hostile as you think in Florence or Rome at the time. Harsh to criticize Michaelangelo himself for not being as beautiful as his creations. I am sure he was well aware of that - see his letters to his nephew. M was mega gay and not just in his art but in his life. He covered the ceiling of the holiest space in Christendom with paintings of muscle marys not so far removed from Tom of Finland. But as an artist this erotic quality is what speaks to people who see it. That ability is something extraordinary. There are a LOT of dirty old men in the world. As you say, his is a name that still resonates 450 yeqrs after his death.

  2. Biscuit tin world of Renoir - oh Jack you bitch - LOVE it! xx

  3. I much prefer this to the Cheryl Cole eulogy. Clever and witty. But why does gay identity need to come into every blog piece? It's reductionist to label the statue of David a 'gay masterpiece' when it was a paean to independence in the Florentine Republic. Its Old Testament roots are, as far as I'm aware, asexual, and Donatello's sculpture is far ... See Moremore camp.

    My favourite paragraph (terrific analogy):

    "Included in the exhibition is erotic poetry that Michelangelo wrote and sent to Cava, my favourite titled “You know that I know”, the middle-age equivalent to emo poetry on MySpace in which Michelangelo begs Cava to give him a sign."

    Robbie Jones

  4. Benjamin J. O'Brien8 March 2010 at 07:58

    From what I understand, Cava was probably about 13 when the statue arrived on his doorstep; given that Michelangelo was 57, and not, let's say, under 16, this state of affairs seems more like a case of sublime reminiscence than, one would hope, a genuine lust.

    I am inclined to agree with Robbie (c.f., if by 'gay masterpiece' you mean 'gay subject' rather than simply 'gay artist'. I can't think of a more infamously straight character in the Hebrew scriptures.

    That said, perhaps given the situation at the time, erotic outlet wasn't so inclined towards gender-distinction; i.e., it could be that the phenomena of strict delineation of sexual borders (as you highlight with your coming-out narrative) is a modern creation? A system of heteronormativity that begets an inevitable subcultural 'homonormativity' in return?

    Indeed, the phallus size is some indication of such confusion of boundaries, given that I believe the purpose of giving everyone in a piece a tiny penis is to prevent undignified female arousal, and yet, in the case of the more probably gay drawings, this feature is maintained. Of course, you could put that down to convention, but that only seems to further the point..

  5. Michelangelo's statue of David is a gay icon now - that's for sure - I've seen it on about ten gay peoples' fridges.