Michelangelo's Hilarious Love Poetry

‘The Complete Poems of Michelangelo’ casts a whole new light on the most famous artist of the Italian Renaissance

(photo: Register Files)

Michelangelo was quite a talented fellow! I mean, the Pietà! The statue of David! The Sistine Chapel!

The acclaimed sculptor, artist and architect was considered a master by his Renaissance peers; and his reputation has continued to the present day. In his long lifetime, Michelangelo Buonarroti produced a vast number of works that are still considered masterpieces of the highest order. He sculpted saints and soldiers, painted prophets and sybils and scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. He designed the iconic domed roof of St. Peter's Basilica (although construction of his design was not completed until after his death). He designed the interior of the Medici Chapel in Florence, creating unusual variations in windows and cornices and wall designs.

But did you know that in addition to his sculptures, his great paintings, his architectural designs, Michelangelo also wrote poetry? Indeed, he sculpted and painted until his death at the age of 89; but especially in his later years, when his weakened eyesight and reduced energy made the other creative fields more challenging, Michelangelo wrote some 300 poems. 

I'd never read any of them until I stumbled upon a collection translated by American poet and academic John Frederick Nims. In The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), Nims strove to avoid the stifled, pompous words he'd seen in others' translations of the work. At the same time, he tried to preserve, as much as possible, the rhythm, sound, wordplay, connotation, and all the other enrichments that lift prose to a more resonant and allusive level. The result is poetry that is both profound and silly, that makes you think and makes you laugh.

This is part of poem #5, in which Michelangelo complains about the harsh conditions under which he worked, stretching his frame as he lay on his back to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:

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.
My belly, tugged under my chin, 's all out of whack.

Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback's hump
would be.

I'm pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled – see? –
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast!

It goes on, his frustration exploding in the last line:

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

A lot of the shorter poems seemed to be about death – the death of someone (not always the same person) who was important to Michelangelo. Here's poem #181:

So tell me, Death, why not possess some face
already worn with age? Why mine instead?”

“Because long life, on earth's corruption fed,
deserves, in heaven's pure ambience, no place.”

And although Michelangelo is often sad at the loss of a friend, he reveals a deep faith – understanding that death is a gift which permits the soul entrance into heaven. In #192 he writes:

If true (and it is) that with body's final breath
the soul, cut loose from the flesh (which it only bore
because heaven imposed that chore),
breaks free, it feels only then supreme delight,
becoming divine in death
as sure as we're born, down here, with death in sight.
No sin in this; we're rightfully
to change funeral woe to mirth
when we stand about to mourn the newly dead,
for the soul, escaping earth
and the frail remains, then, there, on the deathbed,
finds perfect peace instead.
Such their true friends desire, in equal measure
as pleasure in God transcends all earthly pleasure.

Then there are the love poems. It's hard to know to whom he's speaking – is it to God, or to Jesus' mother Mary? Is it a woman (or even a man) who has captured his fancy? But this is a section of the book which made me laugh out loud and which woke me, still laughing, in the morning. I was reminded of a compilation I'd once read of “World's Worst Love Poems” which included one that began, “Our love is like a bowling ball....”

It's not a bowling ball that comes to Michelangelo's mind when he gazes on his beloved; but oh, gosh, it might as well be! Here, the first verse from poem #20:

Sweeter your face than grapes are, stewed to mush;
looks like a snail had slicked it, to and fro,
the way it shines. Like radishes a-blush,
your cheeks. Teeth, sweet corn buttered, row with row,
On you the pope could get a heavy crush.
Your eyes! They're brown horse linniment aglow.
Hair pale as frizzy onions in their bin.
O love me, love! Or else you do me in.

Michelangelo's health began to fail as he grew older; and several times, he'd faced serious illness. It's sad to imagine the art, the limericks, that were destroyed by Michelangelo's own hand, as he determined to eradicate any work which failed to live up to his standard of excellence, Nims describes the flurry of destruction as death neared:

On Saturday, February 12, 1564, Michelangelo worked fitfully at the Rondanini Pietà. He had planned to do so the next day, until reminded that it was Sunday. On Monday, the opening of carnival week, h was ill with fever. Friends, including Cavalieri were summoned. Sometime in the next day or two he burned drawings, sketches, cartoons – and no doubt verses – so that no one would see his less than perfect drafts. He died that Friday, February 18, two weeks short of his ninetieth birthday.

Michelangelo seems here to have imagined his own death, and wrote about his confinement to the tomb with a flat humor that shocks in its realism:

I'm packaged in here like the pulp in fruit
compacted by its peel. In lonely gloom,
a genii in a jar. Dumped destitute.
No room for flying high. I'm in a tomb
where mad Arachne and her creepy crew
keep jittering up and down, a spooky loom.
My entryway's a jakes for giants, who
gorge on gut-loosening grapes or suffer flux.
No other comfort station seems to do.
Urine! How well I know it – drippy duct
compelling me awake too early, when
dawn plays at peekaboo, then yonder – yuck! – 
dead cats, cesspool and privy slosh, pigpen
guck – gifts for me, flung hit-or-miss?

It goes on. The Complete Poems of Michelangelo will cast a whole new light on the man who is widely regarded as the most famous artist of the Italian Renaissance.