©2015 Donna DiGiuseppe ISBN 978-0-86698-821-6.
Michelangelo Buonarotti, THE Michelangelo, was famous throughout Italy by the time Sofonisba was born. Her father wrote to the mannerist master to solicit a mentoring relationship of sorts for his precocious daughter when she was struggling to make a name for herself in the mid to late 1550s. Amilcare drafted his first letter to Michelangelo on May 7, 1557 with the words, “Excellentissimo et Magnifico mio Maggiore Honorandissimo,” “Very Excellent and Magnificent, My Most Very Honored.”[i]
Master Michelangelo’s talent was coveted from the Medici to the Pope, yet Sofonisba’s dedicated father Amilcare was optimistic for his talented daughter – and ambitious. He had his own honor to vindicate, having earned his noble name not at birth, but rather as a teenager, being born a bastard of nobility. Amilcare’s short exercise with Michelangelo’s salutation encapsulated his lifetime of marginal birth status in a world that valued title and social hierarchy.
Unbeknownst to the Anguissola family, the great Michelangelo needed to be needed during that period for his own reasons. It was just over a year since the death of his partner of twenty-six years, Urbino. Many months after his partner passed, Michelangelo’s grief remained undiminished, as he shared with his friend and collaborator, the artist and critic Giorgio Vasari:
My Dear Giorgio,
I can barely write, but I will say something to respond to your letter. You know that Urbino is dead. He who was my blessing from God is now my infinite pain. His favor taught me to live, and his dying has taught me to desire my own death.
For twenty-six years, I found him completely trustworthy and loyal, and now that I had made him rich and expected him to be with me as I relax into my golden years, he is gone, and nothing remains for me except the hope to see him again in paradise. At least God has given me a sign that he died happy even though he didn’t want to leave me alone in this treacherous world, so full of worries. Such a huge part of me has gone with him that nothing remains here for me but infinite pain.
Your Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rome, 23 February 1556
From Il Carteggio di Michelangelo. Edited by Giovanni Poggi. Vol. 5. Firenze: Sansoni, 1965.
These are the words of a grieving lover, not a boss or collaborator. When I read this letter, I was convinced the great mannerist was gay, in case there was any question.
Michelangelo had devoted his life to representing piety, his Pieta`, his Sistine Chapel, and now, after all his personal sacrifices for the sake of his art, he felt abandoned, alone, and without a feeling of purpose.
In the midst of his pain, Michelangelo received Amilcare’s letter on behalf of Sofonisba.
* * *
“A messenger from Rome,” Lucia burst into the library to find her father to accept the special delivery. The others appeared from every corner of the house to hear the Masters reply.
“It must be from him,” Europa observed.
“I can hardly believe we have a response so soon,” Sofonisba said, her hands shaking as she tore open the letter her father handed her.
Bianca tapped her tented fingers together in a sort of impatient prayer as they waited for Sofonisba to read.
“He’s asking me for a sketch of a crying child,” Sofonisba said, searching their faces. Don’t they understand how important this is?
* * *
On May 15, 1558, Amilcare wrote again to Michelangelo, acknowledging receipt of the master’s reply.
“Le Vostre amorevolissime lettere me sono molto piu` care,”[iii] “Your very loving letters are so dear to me.”
The opportunity to mentor and inspire this ambitious young woman helped pull Michelangelo out of his grief over Urbino’s death. After a lifetime of hiding his relationship to his lover from his employer the Pope, he felt moved to help a young woman trying to make it in a world that did not fully accept her, just as it had not fully accepted him.
[i] Sofonisba e Le Sue Sorelle “Cremona Catalogue” (Leonardo Arte srl, 1994) 364, curated by Rossana Sacchi.
[ii] From The Letters of Michelangelo, translated from the original Tuscan Edited and Annotated in Two Volunmes by E.H. Ramsden, Volume Two 1537-1563 (Stanford University Press, 1963) 161.
[iii] Cremona Catalogue, 365.