Michelangelo’s The Dream of Human Life (c.1533)

This highly finished drawing has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory of virtue and vice, a morality lesson that most artists (and viewers) would find dull and unimaginative. Even though the central figure had been identified as the human mind as early as 1642, subsequent critics largely ignored this insight to focus instead on the peripheral figures as symbols of human vices.1 Yet, given Dante's profile in The Last Judgment  made from a mass of similar forms, the semi-circle around the awakening nude must represent the crown of Michelangelo's own head from the temples up. This fits neatly with Maria Ruvoldt's interpretation that the image is self-referential about the act of creation.2

We are looking at Michelangelo's mind with the central figure as its essential personification or soul. The trumpeting angel breaks through the crack in the skull, known as the fontanelle, the opening where the spirit was thought to enter at birth and leave at death.3 Besides Michelangelo used to call his brain “my memory-box” which must therefore be the open box with a bunch of masks in it, alternative characters used by the artist with one a self-portrait.4 The sphere is then likely to represent his inner eye-ball to symbolize imagination rather than a spherical earth.5

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Captions for image(s) above:

Michelangelo, The Dream of Human Life (c. 1533) Chalk on paper. Courtauld Institute

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Medieval images of the mind traditionally contained circles to indicate the various spheres of mental activity and even include central dividing lines as Michelangelo's does. The small figures in Michelangelo's "head", some erotic including a disembodied phallus, must now represent not vices, as conventionally argued, but the fertile, creative struggle in the artist's own mind, with sex as a metaphor for creation.


Captions for image(s) above:

Cell Doctrine from Albertus Magnus, Philosophia pauperum (1506)

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1. Identified as such by Heironymous Tetius. See Francis Huxley, The Eye: The Seer and the Seen (New York: Thames & Hudson) 1990, pp. 13, 15

2. Maria Ruvoldt, "Michelangelo's Dream", Art Bulletin 85, March 2003, pp. 86-113; "the recycling of forms" that Ruvoldt writes "may be charged with meaning" certainly is, as Michelangelo re-imagines the forms re-combining in different ways during the act of creation.

3. Although Ruvoldt argued that Virtue and the Vices are part of the subject here, she believes them to be “part of a more complex program that alludes to melancholia, dreams, love, desire, and creation..”. In general, though, I am in agreement with her interpretation. See Maria Ruvoldt, The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p. 142

4. “With my beard toward heaven, I feel my memory-box atop my hump..” from Michelangelo, The Poetry of Michelangelo, trans. J. Saslow, New Haven, 1991, no. 5, pp. 70-72

5. Ruvoldt identified the sphere as the earth because of what she thought was an equatorial line. Ruvoldt 2003, p. 88

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