Michelangelo: Naked Truths?

Just where the artist took inspiration for The Last Judgment's nude figures has become a matter of debate.

Christ raises the blessed and casts down the damned in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco The Last Judgment (detail).

Christ raises the blessed and casts down the damned in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco The Last Judgment (detail).


A recently published study by a researcher at Pisa University suggests that Michelangelo may have based some of the figures in his fresco The Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, on visits to contemporary Roman bathhouses.

According to news reports, Elena Lazzarini, author of a 52-page study called Nudity, Art and Decorum: Aesthetic Changes in 16th Century Art (Pacini Editore), maintains that the artist took his inspiration for the many nude male figures in the scene from visits to stufe, or “stew houses,” establishments that offered not only baths and massages but secluded rooms where both male and female prostitutes plied their trade. Lazzarini, who did not respond to requests for comments from ARTnews, told the Guardian of London that the “figures descending to hell and ascending to heaven are inspired by the virile, muscular manual workers and porters Michelangelo would have seen during his visits to the baths, which are well documented.”

Painted on the altar wall between 1537 and 1541, The Last Judgment shows the Second Coming of Christ, who raises the souls of the saved to heaven and casts down the damned to eternal punishment in hell. (The punishments are indeed grisly: one of the damned is being dragged into the inferno by his testicles, and another is reduced to his sagging, flayed skin.) Among the saved, “there are kisses and embraces, undoubtedly homosexual in nature,” Lazzarini told the Guardian.

The nature of Michelangelo’s sexuality has long been a subject of discussion among scholars, but whether or not he frequented the Roman bathhouses, let alone made sketches there, is even more open to dispute.

“Clearly Lazzarini has been investigating the phenomena and location of bathing establishments in cinquecento Rome,” says William Wallace, an art history professor at Washington Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis and author of Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times (Cambridge University Press). “She is undoubtedly correct about the nature of these stufe but does make an undocumented assumption if she states that Michelangelo frequented the baths.” The only mention of the artist’s bathing or otherwise setting foot in public bathhouses, Wallace says, occurs in a letter from Michelangelo’s father, written in 1500, who admonishes his son: “Never wash; give yourself rubdowns but don’t wash yourself.”

“The artist’s biographers relish telling us that he sometimes worked so hard that he failed to wash or undress, and when, after a week, he finally removed his stinking boots, he also removed layers of skin,” Wallace adds.

John Spike, a Florence-based scholar and author of Young Michelangelo (Vendome Press), argues that the figures in The Last Judgmentare “really beefy guys” by 21st-century standards, “which isn’t, by the way, a Renaissance concept of good-looking guys.” Spike adds that “we do not have figure study drawings by Michelangelo of such men. And it’s not certain that he often drew from models at this later stage of his career.”

Lazzarini’s research, scholars say, may have been provoked by the comments of Biagio da Cesena, the pope’s master of ceremonies, who, according to Vasari, complained that so many nudes, exposing their “shameful parts,” were not fit for the papal chapel but rather “for bathrooms and inns.” The artist had his revenge by painting Biagio’s features on a “representation of Minos consigned to the Inferno, tormented by a snake biting at his genitals,” according to Bette Talvacchia’s Taking Postions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture (Princeton University Press). “The choice of bestowing a sexual agony was not fortuitous; it may well have been conceived as appropriate retribution for the grievous accusation of painting ignudi disonesti” (shameful nudes), she writes.

Soon after Lazzarini’s speculations hit the news, another of Michelangelo’s most famous male nudes came under closer scrutiny, when a pair of art historians, Sergio Risaliti and Francesco Vossilla, asserted at a conference devoted to the statue of David, in Florence, that the figure holds in his right hand the cylindrical fragment of a weapon known as the fustibal. A kind of staff sling, the fustibal was used to throw stones up to 600 feet. It had been known since Roman times and was represented by both Lorenzo Ghiberti and Leonardo da Vinci.

The Bible says that David took only his shepherd’s staff, five smooth stones, and a sling when he set off to slay Goliath, and other art historians believe he holds in his loosely clenched oversize right fist either a stone or the handle portion of a sling.

“The shepherd’s staff wasn’t fitting with the political meaning of the statue,” which celebrates the defense of civil liberties by the independent city-state of Florence, according to a quote from Risaliti in the online publication Discovery News. “We believe the object is actually the handle to which a staff had to be mounted, much like a golf pole.”

“David holds a cylinder in his hand—that’s certain,” says Spike. “I cannot say if it is the handle to a sling or the handle of a fustibal because I do not know of such things. But FranÂcesco Vossilla is a serious scholar, so you can assume that his conclusions have sufficient foundation to deserve mention.”

But “if it took 500 years to see it,” says Wallace, “then Michelangelo wasn’t very persuasive in his representation.”

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