The fame of Michelangelo Buonarroti as a painter and a sculptor far outdistances his reputation as a poet. This is unfortunate, for while it is open to question whether Michelangelo could have ever developed into a poet of a stature equivalent to his stature in the plastic arts, his reputation as a poet is less than it should be. Modern critics have discovered that he is an important Renaissance Italian poet, and he is considered by many the best Italian lyric poet of the sixteenth century.
The reasons for the slow growth of Michelangelo’s poetic reputation are easy to identify. First, even in his own day, while his poetry was extravagantly praised by a circle of friends, it was Michelangelo’s painting and sculpture that drew the eyes of the world at large. Moreover, his poetry was not published until 1623, fifty-nine years after his death, and then only in an incomplete, much-edited, and censored edition. By that time the Renaissance style of writing was being replaced by the neoclassical style throughout Europe, and the poems did not attract major attention. It was not until the early nineteenth century, when the Romantics were rediscovering the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that complete and well-edited editions of the poetry began to appear. Only in the twentieth century were completely authoritative editions published.
Even Michelangelo never took his poetry seriously enough to collect, revise, or preserve the whole of it. While he considered himself a professional painter and sculptor, he, like almost every poet of the Renaissance, thought of himself as an amateur as a poet. Poetry, after all, was never much of a way to earn a living; in Michelangelo’s age poetry was valued as a social pastime and a gentleman’s skill. Even if a man did think of himself as a professional poet, it was bad form to act as if he did. This Renaissance attitude has given scholars much trouble, and only after much searching have they managed to locate in various places 343 separate poems and poetic fragments (and many variants) by Michelangelo. Most of these were composed after 1530.
Although the poetry is sometimes written in the traditional Petrarchan manner, and although the conventions of neo-Platonism are also important in the work, the best poems are characterized by Michelangelo’s unique style. The structure, syntax, and even the grammar are twisted and full of tension; the poems are often obscure, and the poet sometimes seems to pay scant attention to such relatively simple things as rhyme and metrical regularity. The overall impression of the verse, as critics like to point out, is as if Michelangelo in writing was struggling to shape his complex thoughts into hard, unmalleable language the way a sculptor struggles with marble or granite.
The poems fall into several categories. First in importance are the pieces written to Vittoria Colonna, either proclaiming Michelangelo’s platonic love for her (he met her when he was sixty-three) or lamenting her death, as in this sonnet:
So that I might at least be less unworthy,Lady, of your huge high beneficence,To balance it, my poor wits at firstTook to plying my own wholeheartedly.But then, seeing in me no potencyTo clear the way to grasp that goal exists,My evil fault for its forgiveness asks,And the sin makes me wiser constantly.And well I see how anyone would strayWho thought my flimsy, transient work could equalThe grace pouring from you, which is divine.For wit and art and memory give way;In a thousand attempts none who is mortalCan pay for Heaven’s gift out of his own.
Vittoria was herself a poet of some note and a patron of the arts, and she inspired several notable men of her day to the composition of verse. Generally speaking, there are three levels of love spoken of in Michelangelo’s poetry: human, fleshly love, which takes the Petrarchan convention; honest love, a transcendental emotion that takes the neo-Platonic convention; and good love, the spiritual love of God. Good love is the subject of the greater number of Michelangelo’s poems, but honest love is the dominant theme in the best of his love poems, most of which are written to Vittoria. Human love is a...
(The entire section is 1900 words.)