The Dream (Il Sogno)
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475- 1564)
A winged spirit, perhaps the mythological personification of Fame, swoops down to trumpet an important message. The figure’s torso is twisted, with legs bent helter-skelter in an elegant suggestion of urgency. The announcement is not delivered to a receptive ear, but to the forehead of a beautiful male nude, who is draped over a terrestrial globe. This pair of figures is set upon a fabric-covered box containing a pile of masks. In the background, groups of writhing bodies blend with a haze of cloud, which arches around the male protagonist. These smaller figures are characterised by a sketchy style, which makes a stark contrast to the luminous, sculptural appearance of the main players.
The intended meaning of this enigmatic drawing has never been confirmed. The title of the work comes from Giorgio Vasari’s 1568 Lives of the Artists, in which the biographer referred to it as Il Sogno (The Dream). Most commonly, this drawing has been interpreted as the human mind being summoned back to virtue from the vices. Indeed, all of the seven cardinal vices except for Pride are represented by the figures in the clouds. From left to right, they feature in the following order: gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, envy and sloth. We can see, for example, a large bag of money that hovers above the youth’s head, symbolising Greed. Immediately to the right of this pouch, a cowering figure braces against the wrath of his neighbour, who is poised to lash out with a baton. The masks within the open box in the foreground do not conform to the traditional seven vices, but had long been emblems of deceit and falsity. In 1545, soon after this drawing was produced, it inspired the design of a maiolica dish depicting the Prophet Daniel, whose dreams were haunted by the seven deadly sins.
The importance of the mind’s engagement with virtue is highlighted by the trumpet that meets the youth’s forehead. This part of the body, according to Renaissance medical tradition, is the location of the imagination. Fame’s trumpet therefore homes in on the imagination of the nude, imploring him to overcome temptation and lead a virtuous life. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) referred to the forehead area as the imprensiva, or ‘the part of the brain that receives and processes visual impressions’. The importance of the forehead as the site of visual artistry also draws our attention to the creative talent needed to produce this artwork itself.
The refined quality of this drawing, clear in the almost waxy finish of the central figures, suggests that it was not produced in preparation for another work such as a painting or print. It is instead an independent piece that would likely have been a gift to a friend or patron. Such artworks are known as ‘presentation drawings’. In 1533, Michelangelo gifted a group of four such works to his friend and rumoured lover, the nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri (1509–1587). Three of these are at the Royal Library in Windsor, and share a similar aesthetic to The Dream, whose recipient remains unknown.
The complexities of this artwork would have offered the perfect opportunity for contemplation within a learned, connoisseurial environment. We know that the presentation drawings owned by Cavalieri were viewed by the ruling classes in Rome and even by the Pope himself. Here, Michelangelo invites his viewers to reflect upon topics fundamental to human existence: virtue, vice, beauty and temptation.
Michelangelo and Tommaso de’ Cavalieri
Find out about the relationship between Michelangelo and the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri with whom the artist had fallen passionately in love.