May 02, 2005

Michelangelo’s Dream

Maria Ruvoldt’s book The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep and Dreams is an absorbing study of ‘the Renaissance perception, production and reception of sleep and dreams and their relation to divine inspiration.’ In Chapter 6 of the book, Ruvoldt looks in detail at a fascinating drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Il Sogno (the Dream):

'Il Sogno,' drawing by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, ca. 1533.

The drawing, done in graphite on paper, was made around 1533. It is currently in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Ruvoldt speculates that it was among a number of pieces that Michelangelo presented as gifts to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young man with whom the artist had recently become infatuated. The drawing has been interpreted (by Panovsky, among others) as an allegory for virtue triumphing over vice in an ‘awakening of the soul.’

Detail from 'Il Sogno,' drawing by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, ca. 1533.

The semicircular arrangement of figures sketched around the reclining nude and the descending angel depict several of the vices, but are by no means a typical catalogue of the ‘seven deadly sins:’ there is no depiction of Superbia (Pride), for example, while Luxuria (Lust) is sketched more than once. Ruvoldt plausibly suggests that Michelangelo drew those aspects of the vices which he felt applied to himself…

Detail from 'Il Sogno,' drawing by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, ca. 1533.

Beneath the recumbent nude are a number of masks. The mask given most prominence, the one with the flat nose and the forked beard, is a slightly caricatured likeness of the artist himself. This could be seen as a physical representation being shown as subordinate to the artist’s spiritual likeness as embodied by the reclining figure.

Detail from 'Il Sogno,' drawing by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, ca. 1533.

Perhaps the most puzzling element in the composition is the sphere upon which the central figure leans back. The meridian encircling this globe has led to conjecture that it represents the world. Ruvoldt thinks it is intended instead as a symbol and an attribute of melancholy: more specifically that saturnine melancholy, which, according to Marsilio Ficino, was a characteristic temperament of men of genius, rendering them susceptible to intense depression and inspiration alike: it is known that Michelangelo considered himself a melancholic of this stamp. Spheres also feature in other contemporary depictions of melancholy.

Detail from 'Il Sogno,' drawing by Michelangelo Buonarrotti, ca. 1533.

According to Ruvoldt, the fact that the angel’s trumpet is pointing at the other figure’s forehead, and not to his ear, is also significant. Apparently, Renaissance medical tradition held that the forehead corresponded to the location of the mind’s imaginative faculty, to that part of the brain which receives and preocesses visual impressions: in which case, what we see here is a depiction of the artist directly inspired by images received ‘from above.’

Posted by misteraitch at May 2, 2005 12:33 PM

Thanks for posting this. Fascinating.

Posted by: Lynn S on May 4, 2005 02:27 AM

fascinating indeed.
i wonder if there is any relation between the trumpet-to-forehead part of this drawing and the legends around the construction of the abbey at the mont-saint-michel? according to local history (in normandy), the angel michael came down and commanded the local bishop to build an abbey there. the bishop ignored this calling at first, then the angel came to him again and poked him in the forehead. (the bishop's skull is preserved in the abbey, and there is a distinct thumbprint at the front of it.) and ... voil, the abbey was built. i wonder if michael angelo felt that kind of connection or calling ...?

Posted by: romy on May 4, 2005 04:54 AM

Oh, do this again sometime, please, it's fascinating.

Posted by: Melinama on May 4, 2005 12:20 PM

Indeed nice.
It seems to me however that the two meridians on the sphere are not in the correct perspective. What do you think?

Posted by: dirk on May 7, 2005 11:21 AM

Back in Summer 2002, I was fortunate enough to see these drawings at Casa Buonarroti in Florence. They were part of a exhibit centered on drawing of Ganymede and the homoerotic symbolism that his myth had taken on. If I remember correctly there was more than one version of Ganymede by Michelangelo, though the one portrayed here was the best and clearest.

Posted by: Oscar Chamberlain on May 9, 2005 07:30 PM
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