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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese 1475-Rome 1564)

Recto: The Fall of Phaethon. Verso: a woman and a study for an ear 1533

RCIN 912766

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When Michelangelo was fifty-seven he met and fell in love with the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Michelangelo was devoted to Cavalieri and wrote him sonnets that ardently express his love:

Love takes me captive; beauty binds my soul / Pity and mercy with their gentle eyes / Wake in my heart a hope that cannot cheat

Alongside poems and letters, Michelangelo made a series of complex and highly finished drawings for Cavalieri, including this one. Executed in black chalk, the drawing shows the Fall of Phaeton. Apollo, the sun god, offered to grant his son Phaethon one wish and Phaethon asked to drive the chariot of the sun. Phaeton lost control of the horses, and in order to save the earth from being scorched, Jupiter struck him from the heavens with a bolt of lightning. Michelangelo shows Phaeton plummeting from the chariot, while around him are the flailing bodies of the horses. Below, his sisters watch in horror as he falls. The story is one of hubris and failed ambition, and the drawing has often been thought to represent Michelangelo’s feelings of unworthiness in presuming to love the beautiful Cavalieri.