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Michelangelo...the poet?

Michelangelo Buonarroti lived from 1475 to 1564. He created many fabulous and famous works of art: David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Last Judgment mural on the back wall of said chapel, but did you know that he was also a poet? Due to his association with the Medici family of Florence whom he lived with for several years in his youth – he not only came to see some of the finest collections of ancient Roman statuary but was also exposed to the top intellectual minds of his age.

His sculpting and painting career was prolific but he also wrote over three hundred poems. Surprised? So was I. I suppose it makes sense though – artistic talent rarely restricts itself to one medium. And all the time he spent sculpting or on his back painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was definitely time that something else was going on in his mind.

During his time in Florence working for the Medici and prior to his leaving for Rome to work for the papacy, Michelangelo worked on statuary for the Medici Chapel in Florence located in the church of San Lorenzo. On one of the figures in the chapel below the statue of Giuliano Medici reclining on a tomb is a female allegorical representation of night. A young man named Giovanni Strozzi, who had seen the statues, was so awed by Michelangelo’s work and apparently by Night’s powerful beauty and lifelike appearance that he composed an eloquent if not a little overly romantic epigram to m’lady Night:

“Night, that you see in such sweet repose
Sleeping, was sculpted by an angel
In this stone, and since she sleeps, she lives;
Wake her, if you don’t believe me, and she will speak to you.”

Michelangelo, by this time living in Rome and disgusted by Florentine politics, took this opportunity to pen a somewhat humorous response expressing his own political views on the state of Florence through the lady herself:

“Sleep is dear to me and even more so being made of stone,
As long as injury and shamefulness endure;
Not to see, not to hear is my great good fortune;
Therefore do not wake me, lower your voice.”

There is nothing that tickles me more than to see an unexpected side of someone so famous. Considering that this poem was written more than four hundred years ago – it’s still as clever and fresh as ever. And in very few words he has conveyed a sharp message to the political factions of Florence – that not even a statue would want to live there as long as the politics remained as they were.

Michelangelo lived to be eighty-nine – in itself an impressive feat during a time of plagues and other illnesses that raged through the Italian peninsula. Through much of his sculpture he immortalized biblical and allegorical figures, through many of his paintings he illustrated the stories of the bible, and through his writings he showed a quick wit and a grasp of local politics. For all of these reasons and more he is considered one of the great masters of the Renaissance.

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