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The Fall of Phaeton by Michelangelo, a black chalk over stylus drawing
Michelangelo made this study in black chalk for Tommaso de'Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman with whom he fell in love during an extended trip to Rome in 1532. He also expressed his feelings for Tommaso - who was forty years his junior - in poetry and letters. That Michelangelo was homosexual is now almost universally acknowledged, but opinion remains divided over whether he ever expressed these desires physically.
Love's destructive power is symbolised by Phaeton falling to his death after losing control of the chariot of the sun, borrowed from his father Apollo. He was hit by a deadly lightning bolt from Jupiter, who is shown astride an eagle at the top of the drawing. Below him, his grief-stricken sisters are transformed into poplar trees. Michelangelo's identification with the plunging figure of Phaeton, punished for aspiring to his father's divine realm, is echoed in his poetry, which frequently equates love with fire and burning.
The study is inscribed at the bottom with a note written in Michelangelo's hand: 'Messer Tommaso, if this sketch does not please you, say so to Urbino in time for me to do another tomorrow evening, as I promised you; and if it pleases you and you wish me to finish it, send it back to me'. Urbino was Michelangelo's servant Francesco d'Amadore, who took the drawing to Tommaso.