03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Michelangelo's "Dirty" Poetry

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Michelangelo's "Dirty" Poetry

If you've seen a Michelangelo sculpture in person, you understand why Italians call him "the divine one." His figures almost burst with life. Legend has it he once deceived himself, cracking his hammer on a sculpture and shouting, "Why won't you speak to me!" While he was nowhere near the poet that he was an artist (and in fairness, that's an awfully high bar), he was a fervent and prolific one. His verse offers us a thorough and startlingly clear (sometimes too clear!) view into his brilliant and tumultuous mind.

We know from his biographers that Michelangelo was a bit unusual. Despite his wealth, he often chose to sleep in his clothes and kept so generally unclean that he chased off potential apprentices. Even his art, while deeply admired, was considered by many to be, well, "dirty." He produced a lot of genitalia, and the church took great pains to, literally, cover it up. A contemporary described him as an "inventor delle porcherie" or an "inventor of pork things." These tendencies reveal themselves in Michelangelo's poems. While he could write beautifully, he could also use rough and uncouth language, reveling in the base and visceral. Here's the "pork" inventor at his most inspired, translated by John Fredrick Nims in his The Complete Poems of Michelangelo by University of Chicago Press:

Urine! How well I know it--drippy duct

compelling me awake too early...

...if guts, unclogged, could ventilate their smell

no bread and cheese would keep it in duress,

while round it now catarrh and mucus jell.

Congestion blocks the postern down in back.

With all the phlegm, top exit's blocked as well.

It doesn't scream High Renaissance, does it? The same poem holds ample evidence of the artist's well-documented depression:

My pleasure: gloomy moping. Old and gray,

discomfort's my repose...

...No flames of love within my heart, a bare

cold hearthstone deep in ash.

Why the depression? Scholars speculate that Michelangelo believed he was living in sin. He was known to have been intensely spiritual, a believer in the teachings of Savanarola, the fervent preacher who drove Florentines to burn their luxuries in bonfires on the streets (before they decided it was easier to just burn him). This spirituality led Michelangelo to deep and fearful introspection like this moment of doubt, when one can't help but think of his famous painting of The Creation of Adam:

I'm envious, Love, I swear

(why hide it?) of the dead,

a panicky muddle-head,

my soul in terror of its sensual tie.

Lord, as the last hours fly,

stretch out in mercy your two arms; make me

less what I've been, more what you'd have me be.

As for the "sin," there's convincing evidence that Michelangelo was a homosexual. His poems certainly support the idea. The artist wrote more than 300 verses expressing his love and devotion to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, his lifelong companion, and wrote another 50 devotional verses to Ceccino dei Bracci after the young man's death. Some scholars argue that Michelangelo's expressions of love were purely platonic, but this poem to Ceccino doesn't leave much grey area:

..and here my bones,

bereft of handsome eyes, and jaunty air,

Still loyal are to him I joyed in bed,

Whom I embraced, in whom my soul now lives.

Michelangelo also wrote verse about his struggles with his craft. He admitted he was not at heart a painter, and some believed his rivals pushed for him to receive the Sistine chapel commission to keep him from sculpting, at which he had no peer. Painting the chapel was a monstrous undertaking. In addition to its sheer size and that fact that he had to paint much of it on his back, the chapel required a complex painting process called "fresco." The artist had to mix and spread a layer of wet plaster and then paint onto the plaster before it dried. At that point, no adjustments were possible. Michelangelo's poems at the time lay out his general annoyance:

A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning

like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever--

bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.

From all this straining

my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.

Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.

I don't belong!

Who's a painter? Me? No way! They've got me wrong.

The chapel, of course, came out all right in the end. But talk about pressure! A talented young painter named Raphael was decorating the apartments down the hall, just waiting for him to slip up. That's enough to drive anyone to sin.