Michelangelo first met Tommaso de' Cavalieri in 1532. Michelangelo had other lovers, although his relationship with Tommaso was the longest and most passionate. For many centuries, historians writing about Michelangelo tried to ignore that he was gay. For example, in his poems, references to men were changed to women. February is LGBT History Month, which is important as it allows LGBT people to reclaim the past, identifying and evaluating the place of LGBT people in history. Michelangelo's sexuality is central to any discussion of his work.
The focus for this year's LGBT History Month is the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of gay men in England and Wales. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was a turning point, allowing the development of an organised gay rights movement. In the first half of the twentieth century there was a vibrant gay community in Britain. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is full of homosexual overtones. Authorities turned a blind eye from time to time. Decriminalisation meant gay men no longer had to behave so furtively. It was not until 1980 that being gay was decriminalised in Scotland, then 1982 in Northern Ireland. Stonewall was founded in 1989.
Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century openly gay figures emerged in the media, politics, world of business and faith. There are few areas now where LGBT people are not visible, the major exception being on our football pitches. The legislative path has not been a smooth one, 1988 seeing the introduction of Section 28, which was not repealed in England and Wales until 2003. The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, finally gave legislative equality to most LGBT people. We still need further legislative changes, especially around trans issues, for LGBT refugees and on the faith opt out to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. However, with a few exceptions, it is now largely a battle for hearts and minds. Although Scotland did not decriminalise gay men until 1980, it is now one of the most LGBT friendly places in the world, with the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties in Scotland both identifying as LGBT.
For me, Michelangelo is one of the most fascinating LGBT historical figures. The greatest artist of all time, his sculptures, paintings and architecture continue to shape the world we live in today. Michelangelo's sexual identity is played out in his art. Two of his drawings, the Ganymede and Tityos, are particularly beautiful and indicative of Michelangelo's understanding of homosexuality. The Ganymede depicts the abduction of a handsome shepherd by Jupiter, disguised as an eagle. The Tityos shows a muscular giant, chained and overpowered by the same god. When studying Michelangelo's poetry at university, I savoured the intimacy of the Michelangelo-Tommaso de'Cavalieri love story. Michelangelo and Tommaso's romance resonates over five hundred years.
I find Michelangelo's sculptures sexually arousing. They captivate me. His Lorenzo and Guilliano de' Medici, in Florence's Medici Chapel, are handsome and sensuous, their defined bodies and square jaws carved in silken marble. His Moses, for the tomb of Julius II, is sensational. This mass of muscles, shoulders and forearms supports an ideal physiognomy. Michelangelo's works have a potent sexuality. Michelangelo's love for men is evident in his art and was accepted by his contemporaries.
Michelangelo's homosexuality was a fundamental component of his identity. Michelangelo's art provides an insight into Renaissance homosexuality and demonstrates the profound impact romance can have on creative output. Some of the greatest British artists of the twentieth-century were LGBT, such as Francis Bacon. Even more so than Michelangelo and Tommaso de'Cavalieri, Bacon's relationship with George Dyer underpins his work. His portraits of Dyer are powerfully visceral, an act of defiance in the face of a post-war society wrestling with change.
I wonder what Michelangelo and Francis Bacon would have thought of the rights LGBT people enjoy in twenty-first century Britain today? Francis Bacon lived through the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967. The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, was momentous. Barack Obama considers marriage equality in the USA, achieved in 2015, as one of his greatest successes. As LGBT people, we have a rich past to celebrate. The past can inspire and empower us, ensuring that, individually and collectively, we have a bright future. Make sure you celebrate LGBT History Month this February. By reclaiming our past, we can argue more compellingly for the future.