This exhibition is a love story. When Michelangelo met a beautiful young roman nobleman, Tommaso Dei Cavalieri, at the age of fifty seven he was at the height of his career. It was the start of a relationship which remained a close and devoted friendship for the rest of his life, even after Cavallieri married and had a family, and he was by Michelangelo’s side at his death. Michelangelo described his love for Cavallieri as a chaste passion, but looking at the results in the Courtauld gallery, where just a selection from over three hundred sonnets which Michelangelo dedicated to Cavallieri and the best of the surviving presentation drawings which were given to him are showing, there is no doubting its depth of feeling. Presentation drawings were a wonderfully intimate way for an artist to show regard and trust. A drawing was a working document with much to give away about future plans and working methods and it would usually have been kept private, but presentation drawings were an end in themselves, to be enjoyed for their beauty. It is also an immediate and personal work of art straight from the artists own hand, a glimpse into the mind of the giver.
The work on show is anything but chaste. It is full of movement, action, passion and pain. The risen Christ shakes off his grave clothes, Phaeton falls from his chariot in the sky, a lustful giant is pierced by the beak of a giant bird. It is both a celebration of male beauty and a kind of warning from an older man to a much younger one about the perils and dangers of life. It also shows a relationship which grew into one based on mutual respect. Michelangelo asks for Cavallieri’s opinions and offers to change aspects of the drawings if he wishes him to. It is a meeting of minds, not just an older man admiring a handsome younger man’s physical beauty. It must have been overwhelming for Cavallieri, who may well have been only a teenager at the time, to be included in the thought processes of a genius in this way, however rich and well connected he was.
The poetry is very beautiful, courtly, intense and rather lonely, full of longing. Unsurprisingly the handwriting is also stylish and beautiful in itself. When you read what Michelangelo wrote to Cavallieri it is impossible not to be moved by his honesty and clear sightedness as he realises that he is longing for something which will always be partially out of his reach as an old man. Whatever youth and beauty he might once have had are past and no amount of fame and artistic mastery will bring them back.
With your fair eyes a charming light I see,
For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain;
Stayed by your feet, the burden I sustain
Which my lame feet find all too strong for me;
Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly;
Heavenward your spirit stirreth me to strain;
E’en as you will, I blush and blanch again,
Freeze in the sun, burn ‘neath a frosty sky.
Your will includes and is the lord of mien;
Life to my thoughts within your heart is given;
My words begin to breathe upon your breath:
Like to the moon am I, that cannot shine
Alone; for, lo! our eyes see naught in heaven
Save what the living sun illumineth.
This is a very personal exhibition, an insight into the heart and mind of a person who lived over five hundred years ago, someone who was not only an artistic genius but also a man with deep and lasting feelings. It is good that the Courtauld is now able to show the truth about him after so long and let us into his thoughts. That is the least that the purity and depth of feeling which Michelangelo felt for Tommaso Dei Cavalieri deserves.