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How Michelangelo's Relationships With Men Inspired His Art And Stuck It To The Catholic Church

Updated September 23, 2021 15.3k views14 items

Michelangelo was more than a sculptor and painter — he also used his platform to display his admiration of men in an era that did not look fondly on any form of non-heterosexual physical or romantic relationships. When he painted the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo used the muscular bodies of working Romans he met in the bathhouses as his models, transforming one of the holiest chapels in Catholicism into an altar to the male form. These Michelangelo facts show the artist's genius was linked to his sexuality, which he refused to hide.

Despite of all his visits to the bathhouse, Michelangelo reportedly never bathed. Instead, he used the experience to study men in the baths, just like he traded art for corpses to learn more about anatomy. Other Michelangelo inspirations include a 20-something nobleman who a 50-something Michelangelo wooed with love poems, as well as male pleasure workers and young apprentices who appeared in Michelangelo's art as biblical heroes. Michelangelo's entire career celebrated the male form, even in the heart of the Catholic Church.

  • He Painted Subversive Messages About Homosexuality In The Church's Holiest Chapel

    When the pope asked Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, he may have expected something like the ceiling's art, which told the story of Genesis in vibrant colors. But Michelangelo produced something much more subversive. According to Elena Lazzarini, the artist based the muscular figures on men Michelangelo met in the Roman bathhouses. 

    By the time Michelangelo painted the monumental fresco, rumors already swirled about his own sexuality. The artist took a clear stance on the salvation of gay men by painting embraces and kisses in heaven between unclothed men. As Lazzarini argues, these images were "undoubtedly homosexual in nature."

  • He Wrote Love Poetry To Men, But His Family Hid The Poems

    Michelangelo wrote dozens of love poems to men, but for years no one was aware of their true subjects. Michelangelo's nephew carefully edited the artist's writing after his death to obscure his dedications to men. In a 1623 published edition of Michelangelo's poetry, his grandnephew changed all the masculine pronouns to feminine pronouns. For over 250 years, no one realized the love poems were actually addressed to men.

  • Photo: Tacyttik17 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Intentionally Put A Basket Of Male Members In The Sistine Chapel

    When he designed the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo added 20 unclothed men who weren't at all related to Christian iconography. They were apparently Michelangelo's way of adding scandalous images to his monumental fresco. The basket next to one of the ignudi, or decorative unclothed figure, tells the story. While the contents are meant to represent acorns, the symbol of Pope Julius II's family, Michelangelo painted them to resemble male genitalia. As Rictor Norton argues, the images look like members, representing the Tuscan slang testa di cazzo, which means "prickhead."

  • Photo: Ahiyajorge / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    He Modeled His Art On Male Pleasure Workers

    Where did Michelangelo see the divine male bodies that inspired his work? According to Elena Lazzarini, Michelangelo visited stufe, or "stew houses," to watch unclothed men. Stew houses offered opportunities to take a dip in a public bath or receive a massage, but they also included secluded rooms where visitors could hire male or female pleasure workers. Michelangelo reportedly used his visits to the stew house not to bathe, but to learn more about the male form.