Michelangelo's Dream reveals artist's affairs of the heart at The Courtauld Gallery

By Kirstie Brewer | 04 March 2010
A picture of a drawing of a nude man reclining on a cloud

(Above) Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Punishment of Tityus (1532). Black chalk. Royal Collection, © 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Exhibition: Michelangelo's Dream, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until May 16 2010

In the winter of 1532, Michelangelo Buonarroti met Tommaso de'Cavalieri and instantly fell in love.

His desire for the young Roman nobleman was so fervent he expressed it in heartfelt letters, drawings and poems, many of which are in this show at The Courtauld.

The exhibition offers a rare and intimate encounter with an artist whose homosexuality has all too often been written out of art history.

The artist's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos were deemed by the Vatican's Master of Ceremonies as "not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns".

Five centuries later, the prudish drapes introduced to strategically cover the male nudes are still there.

A picture of an ancient letter in pen

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sonnet for Tommaso de' Cavalieri, "I do not know if it is the very longed-for light" (Non so se s'è la desiata luce) (circa 1534; edited for plannedpublication in 1546). Pen and ink, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Refreshingly, the Courtauld has shed the restrictive conservatism of the past with an honest and celebratory showcase of the artist's most personal work.

The so-called "presentation drawings" on display were not commissioned by wealthy patrons or the Vatican state. They were instead drawn for the love of Michelangelo's life, to be enjoyed as independent works of art in themselves rather than as preparatory studies for commissioned painting and sculpture.

The journey begins with the earliest surviving letter from Michelangelo to Cavalieri, in which the artist expresses his delight that Cavalieri had agreed to accept the gift of some drawings.

Cavalieri is thought to have been no older than 17 at the time and, according to 16th century biographer and artist Vasari, the gifts were primarily intended to teach him how to draw.

A picture of a drawing of a nude God

Giorgio Vasari, Allegory of a Dream (circa 1541-45). Pen and brown ink, heightened with white on blue paper. The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Their depictions of mythological stories, taken from Ovid, were also very likely to have been intended to offer moral guidance.

Michaelangelo's Dream boldly challenges its viewer to consider two conflicting sides of the artist. Nowhere is this more apparent than with The Punishment of Tityus, artfully displayed in a double-sided vitrine.

The Greek myth has classically been interpreted as a warning against unregulated sexual pleasure. And yet in Michelangelo's version, this appears to have been overshadowed by the glorified body of the giant who writhes on a rock.

A grotesque human face appears in a tree, but this is the only hint at the lustful giant's suffering.

A dangerous desire for the male figure and an adherence to Renaissance moral allegory are both inherent in his work – and that is what makes the exhibition so intriguing.

A picture of a drawing of a scene of nudes

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Fall of Phaeton (inscribed by Michelangelo) (1533). Black chalk. The British Museum, London

But it is the sonnets on display that really highlight Michelangelo’s strenuous efforts to transform a physical desire into a purer form of love and enlightenment.

Their poetic imagery of dreaming and transcendence to a spiritual realm offer an insight into the meaning of the presentation drawings, and The Dream in particular.

The Dream has been described as one of the finest of all Renaissance drawings and is amongst the Gallery's greatest treasures.

The drawing's meaning remains elusive; it's unclear whether the nude youth pictured is embracing the earth it rests on or pushing it away in favour of a spiritual existence closer to God.

It represents a conflict close to Michelangelo's own heart, but the dreamer and the dream itself are left deliberately ambiguous.

The viewer is invited to compare the youth in The Dream with the figure in The Risen Christ that hangs deliberately alongside.

The meaning of The Dream is further investigated in the context of closely related works by Michelangelo's contemporaries, who address similar themes of rebirth, dreaming and the nature of Man.

There is also a section which focuses on copies of The Dream, highlighting what a meticulous and painstaking work of art the original really is.

A purely aesthetic appreciation for the drawings on offer is rewarding in itself, and The Fall of Phaeton is a particular marvel.

The finished drawing is a perfectly balanced triangular composition, truly bringing home the ingenious talent that has immortalised Michelangelo.

Admission £5/£4 (free on Mondays until 2pm.) Open daily 10am-6pm. Book online.

Museums at Night logo

The Courtauld is holding a special Michelangelo event during Museums at Night 2010. Find out more .

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