Updated: Oct 22
“The artist’s view of life is the only possible one and should be applied to everything, most of all to religion and morality. Cavaliers and Puritans are interesting for their costumes and not for their convictions.” Oscar Wilde.
But what is the artist’s view of life?
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) said that if people knew how hard he worked at his craft, they wouldn’t think his paintings were so marvelous. A portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra depicts the Renaissance master as a sullen and rather repulsive individual and not the Bon Vivant one usually associates with Oscar Wilde, the artiste. Michelangelo avoided women, ate and drank sparingly, and slept in his clothes (including his boots). He stank.
Obviously, Michelangelo had his ‘artist’s view’ of life, although its aesthetic expression emerged entirely from his paintings and sculptures in marked contrast to his personal grooming and dress. Fashion-wise, he was no work of art. His contemporaries called him ‘the terrible’ but only because his art works consistently evoked a sense of awe. The chronicler, Giorgio Vasari, claimed that Michelangelo’s work transcended that of any artist living or dead. That’s quite a tribute. Still, he had no apprentices. Nobody cared to get that close to the man.
Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, wasn’t a painter or a sculptor, although his entire life was one broad canvas on which he depicted the colourful genius that was himself. But there is more similarity between the Renaissance artist and the Victorian artiste than most are willing to acknowledge.
The homoerotic nature of many of Michelangelo’s works, as well as the deluge of poetry he wrote to several male love interests over his lifetime, clearly place him alongside Wilde in the artist’s view of life. Michelangelo was applauded for his genius, almost entirely expressed in the employ of his Vatican patrons whose own sexual proclivities ran along similarly esoteric lines. One might even suggest that Michelangelo had carte blanche to openly pursue whatever sexual impulses he might have wished in the Stati Della Chiesa, the Papal States that encompassed all of Italy from Lombardy in the north to Naples in the south. This was patently not the case with Wilde in late 19th century England.
Wilde espoused the philosophy that men of genius like himself stand apart and are laws unto themselves. He believed and taught that singularity of appearance and a quick wit count doubly in a democracy. As a poet, playwright, lecturer and the centrepiece of every soiree worth attending in London of the 1880’s and 90’s, Oscar Wilde’s whole persona was that of his art. He dressed flamboyantly, spent lavishly, ate and drank prodigiously, wrote forcefully and furiously, and spoke convincingly. He entertained. He exercised his clever and sometimes caustic wit and wielded his well-honed tongue like a rapier, most often in good humour. He was a fixture in upper-class British society, although he was usually without funds and in debt. And it was the living of this artist’s view of life that undid him in the end.
Oscar Wilde is less remembered for his novels, short stories, plays and poetry, as much as for the hideously hypocritical show trial that sent him to prison. Some excellent insights into the man are contained in Frank Harris’ biography published in 1910. Harris was himself as flamboyant and interesting as Wilde and had known Oscar as his publisher and friend, up close and personal. He stuck with him to the end, and even beyond.
The straw that broke Wilde was called Wilde versus Queensberry (that’s right, the Marquess of Queensberry – author of the rules of boxing). On 18 February 1895, Queensberry had left his calling card at Wilde’s club bearing the inscription: ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.’ It begs explanation what was deemed worse, to be a poser or a sodomite. The inference, of course, was to Wilde’s homosexual liaisons with the Marquess’ son, young Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde likened the vain and spoiled Alfred Douglas to a Greek god, although the pretty young man was totally undeserving of the greater man's affections. His own life never amounted to much, except scandal.
Now, if Wilde had been anyone else, he’d probably have challenged the irate father to a duel, or perhaps even a boxing match. But Oscar was no good with guns or swords or fists. He hated sports, especially blood sports. Instead, he had the Marquess arrested for criminal libel under the 1843 Libel Act.
Frank Harris advised his friend that in prosecuting Queensberry, “they are going to prove sodomy against you.” Once Wilde had pressed charges, the only way that Queensberry could avoid conviction was to show evidence that Oscar Wilde was indeed a homosexual and practicing sodomite, an assertion for which there was ample public evidence. The whole thing backfired on Wilde. Less than three months later, he found himself in prison, convicted of sodomy and gross indecency in the case of Regina v. Wilde. The experience broke him.
“I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world,” he wrote. “And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.”
After his release, Wilde fled immediately to France. He requested acceptance into the Catholic Church and was rejected, but was later conditionally baptised by a French priest on his death bed. His tomb, sculpted with a modernist angel is located outside Paris. The angel’s male genitalia have long since been vandalized.
In 2017, Oscar Wilde was officially pardoned. His legacy is best described in his own words: "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power."
Please check out my novels and short story collections at www.francescorizzuto.com