The Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi

I had the good fortune to see the Michelangelo show at the Met. Amid all that spectacular rendition of muscle and sinew, flesh and bone, there was one drawing that was startlingly different. It was not heroic, not vigorously drawn, not superhuman in its strength. Rather, it was dim, gentle, and ethereal — it was romantic.

Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, c.1528–32, Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo was in the habit of giving drawings as gifts to selected favorites of his. This drawing, a portrait of a young member of a Florentine banking family, was a gift to the sitter. In the context of Michelangelo’s other work, I think we can entertain few doubts that Michelangelo expresses romantic longing here.

Ordinarily, he is a man on a mission. He generated masses of architectural sketches, plans for buildings that were actually built. It is fair to consider his figure drawings as being similar in motive: they are plans for a world. Michelangelo was a natural demiurge, and his frustrated task was to create a universe. His drawings aim to explore and impose a vision for the architecture of reality itself.

Rarely in his work does this burning drive falter and give way to a more familiar motive: a humble craving to perceive, to understand, to leave a recording of something in the world which inspired in him a greater awe than what his mighty imagination could provide. It is in this sense that the Quaratesi portrait is romantic. The subject has drawn Michelangelo out of himself. It has overpowered him and made him feel incomplete. His eye travels gently over his subject with the ardor and forbearance of a seducer. He craves possession.

Consider the subtle highlight on the right side of the face where the shadow of the nose passes away and the shadow of the turning cheek has not yet begun. It is a mere slip of light, so tiny a thing as to ordinarily be elided in a Michelangelo drawing into the overall structure. Beneath his attention. Likewise the serrated shadow created by the complex cartilage of Quaratesi’s nose. That light on the cheek, that imperfect nose — we see here not Michelangelo the idealist, but a realist Michelangelo, a Michelangelo for whom every detail of the real is precious. He is jealous lest anything should escape his gaze.

If we accept this hypothesis for the nature of the drawing, then it has a lesson to teach us about love itself. The Quaratesi depicted by Michelangelo is almost unbounded in his sensitivity, in the subtlety of his perceptions, the prudence of his impulses. He is a model of virtue, and Nature has matched his character with the features it deserves: delicate lips, vast moonlike eyes, expressive nostrils, a graceful, feminine jaw. Now, the real Quaratesi was not more than 20 years old, and surely no less than 13. There is no chance whatsoever that he equals the profundity of the creature Michelangelo depicts here. He may be a promising young man. His family may have ensured his proper education in the classical subjects and the Christian virtues, and he may have been of natural good character. But the intense and wise humanity Michelangelo depicts here is not that of a youth.

If it is not Quaratesi, who can it be? One is tempted to say it is surely Michelangelo. But that would not be quite right either. We know that Michelangelo was fiery at his most intense, and at the least — crotchety. He was no paragon of calm saintliness.

The character Michelangelo creates here is neither Michelangelo nor Quaratesi. It begins in each of these men, and follows the transformation outlined by Socrates’s instructor, Diotima of Mantineia, as he recounts her teachings to us in the Symposium:

She replied, “Love is of the beautiful. But some one will say: When a man loves the beautiful, what does he desire?”
“To what you have asked,” I replied, “I have no answer ready.”
“Then,” she said, “Let me put the word ‘good’ in the place of the beautiful, and repeat the question once more: If he who loves good, what is it then that he loves?”
“The possession of the good,” I said.

- Plato, Symposium

Diotima, in this heavily edited quotation, proposes a model of love which became a motif in Western thought: that love begins in the senses, in a carnal craving for the beautiful body, and, if one is wise, matures into a craving for the good, ultimately expressed in the “possession” of becoming good.

Michelangelo is a full participant in this tradition, and it is love in this sense that he expresses in his portrait. It has its origin in beauty, and it is inspired by beauty to purify itself. This purification redeems the gaze of the artist, and the weakness of the sitter. Each, through the other, strives toward a model of the good, reaching a greater virtue than he could have achieved alone. We do not know if Quaratesi took this meaning from Michelangelo’s scrutiny. But we do know that Michelangelo did, through the evidence of his drawing. It’s the kind of drawing that justifies a life.

This is very abstract — fortunately, Michelangelo and Quaratesi can be inspected through the prism of a parallel relationship, one which grounds them in the most intense poetry. There is something in Quaratesi that is terribly reminiscent of Bosie, the worthless young Lord Alfred Douglas for whom Oscar Wilde ruined himself.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde’s recklessly public affair with Bosie landed him in jail, an imprisonment which wrecked his health and sent him to an early grave. In his writings to Bosie, Wilde recapitulates the Diotiman journey of the soul from animal craving toward detached wisdom, all phases in the maturation of love. Early in their career together, Wilde writes:

I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead –

- Oscar Wilde, 1893, letter to Lord Alfred Douglas

Later, in prison, Wilde writes De Profundis, a troubled masterpiece, swerving between self-pity and self-discipline, melodrama and profundity. It is an extended letter to Bosie. He is transformed from a rabid flirt to a penitent. Here he speculates to Bosie about the moral lessons of Jesus:

To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not his creed. It was not the basis of his creed. When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring…
But while Christ did not say to men, ‘Live for others,’ he pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one’s own life. By this means he gave to man an extended, a Titan personality. Since his coming the history of each separate individual is, or can be made, the history of the world.

- Oscar Wilde, 1897, De Profundis

Do you see the magnificence in this passage? Wilde has become intuitively convinced that his earlier individualism cannot save him; that he will not transcend his carnality without a broader perspective. And yet he recognizes that he is temperamentally incapable of abandoning his intense individualism. So he deploys the entirety of his genius in reconciling his individualism with Christ’s doctrine of generosity — and he does it. His self expands, it casts its broad wing over all men. He becomes radically empathetic. The pain of others becomes his pain; his self-love becomes love for them as well. And this is the message he sits alone in jail writing to Bosie. He still loves Bosie, he is still a fool for him. But he has harnessed his desire and used it to mend and elevate his crippled soul.

I see this same redemptive light, this same Platonic purification, in Michelangelo’s portrait of Quaratesi.

It is very easy, in our more cynical age, to scoff at the pretensions of a Michelangelo or a Wilde, who see cosmic significance in winsome boys, or seek to extend a tingle in the pants to universal moral import. And, indeed, the path of a Michelangelo or a Wilde is not the right path for the overwhelming majority of humankind. For virtually everyone, the outcome of lust should range from a brief fling to a happy marriage. But we do not ask a Michelangelo or a Wilde to live like normal men. We ask them to sacrifice their lives — and they do — and to have outrageous faith that their desires and insights carry meaning. We beg them to leave some single sign, lighting the way for the rest of us toward a revelation of love, of wisdom, of transcendence. And they do. Thus is cynicism defeated, and hope crowned lord of its right kingdom, the human heart.

This article is written on the occasion of “Eros’s Gaze,” an issue of the magazine PoetsArtists, and will be republished there.