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John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)

Author of The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti

101+ Works 835 Members 8 Reviews

About the Author

John Addington Symonds was born in Bristol on 5 October 1840. Symonds attended first a private tutor's in Clifton, then to Harrow, then to Balliol and later to Magdalen. In 1860 he took a first in " Mods," and won the Newdigate with a poem on The Escorial; in 1862 he was placed in the first class show more in Literae Humaniores, and in the following year was winner of the Chancellor's English Essay. In 1862 he had been elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen. The strain of study unfortunately proved too great for him, and, immediately after his election to a fellowship, his health broke down, and he was obliged to seek rest in Switzerland. Symonds was plagued by ill health, and he would die of tuberculosis at the age of 52. During his last term at Oxford, in 1863 his health collapsed altogether, partly due to stress caused by the spread of rumours that he was having a homosexual affair with one of the students. His academic career was at an end, and for three years he was unable to do any work. He thought he might study law, but in 1865 it was discovered that his left lung was diseased, and after a complete rest it was decided that he could never follow a profession, but would have to go to a warmer, climate and become a writer. He spent the rest of his years between Switzerland and Venice, Italy. For many years Symonds's energy was wasted by trying to suppress his homosexuality. Essentially he wished to make homosexuality acceptable, both to himself and to society by idealizing it in his works. It is for his studies in the history of art that Symonds has been most highly praised and remembered, as well as his Rennaissance work. John Addington Symonds died at Rome on April 8, 1893. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Disambiguation Notice:

John Addington Symonds [1840-1893] is not the same writer as John Symonds [1914-2006]. The former was a Victorian writer with a particular interest in sexual reform and emancipation for homosexuals. He wrote many books on Classical subjects, Renaissance Italy and C19th Romantic poets. The latter was a novelist, children's writer and executor of the estate of Aleister Crowley whom he also wrote many books on. These two important writers really do need their own individual entries.

Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, via glbtq.com


Works by John Addington Symonds

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1893) 140 copies, 2 reviews
The memoirs of John Addington Symonds (1984) 96 copies, 1 review
Sexual Inversion (1928) 41 copies, 1 review
Wine, Women and Song (1884) 35 copies, 1 review
The Age of the Despots (1877) 35 copies
The Revival of Learning (1877) 31 copies
Renaissance in Italy (1888) 28 copies
Studies of the Greek poets (1893) 26 copies
The Fine Arts (1877) 25 copies
Shelley (2004) 18 copies
Walt Whitman: A Study (2009) 9 copies
Sketches in Italy (1879) 7 copies
New Italian sketches (2011) 6 copies
The Catholic Reaction (1886) 5 copies
Vagabunduli libellus (1884) 5 copies
Animi figura (2008) 4 copies
Los papas del Renacimiento (1999) 4 copies, 1 review
Sir Philip Sidney (2011) 4 copies
Giovanni Bocaccio (1961) 3 copies
Walt Whitman 2 copies
Gabriel: A Poem (SC) (1974) 2 copies
Many Moods (1970) 2 copies
The principles of beauty (2012) 2 copies
Ben Jonson (1970) 2 copies
Fragilia Labilia (1902) 2 copies
Italian byways 2 copies
Sir Philip Sidney (2022) 1 copy
Rhaetica 1 copy
Blank Verse (1970) 1 copy
Miguel Angel 1 copy

Associated Works

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1728) — Translator, some editions — 2,566 copies, 22 reviews
The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (2001) — Contributor, some editions — 1,809 copies, 23 reviews
The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1983) — Contributor — 241 copies, 2 reviews
The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature (1998) — Contributor — 161 copies
Christopher Marlowe: Five Plays (1956) — Introduction, some editions — 114 copies, 3 reviews
John Webster and Cyril Tourneur: four plays (1888) — Editor; Editor — 104 copies, 1 review
Selected sonnets, odes, and letters (1966) — Translator, some editions — 39 copies, 1 review
Thomas Heywood (1888) 28 copies, 2 reviews
The Life of Benvenuto Cellini: Volume 1 (1929) — Translator, some editions — 19 copies, 1 review


(33) 16th century (101) anthology (31) art (183) art history (82) autobiography (362) Benvenuto Cellini (38) biography (329) Cellini (42) classic (65) classics (138) drama (43) fairy tales (36) fantasy (58) fiction (134) Florence (32) folklore (38) gay (55) Harvard Classics (32) history (161) homosexuality (26) Italian (60) Italian History (31) Italian literature (76) Italy (189) Kindle (28) literature (111) medieval (24) memoir (87) Middle East (26) Modern Library (35) non-fiction (143) Penguin Classics (24) poetry (118) Renaissance (198) sculpture (41) short stories (39) to-read (342) translation (26) unread (35)

Common Knowledge

Date of death
Burial location
Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy
UK (birth)
Bristol, England, UK
Place of death
Rome, Italy
Places of residence
London, England, UK
Davos, Switzerland
Venice, Italy
University of Oxford (Balliol College)
literary critic
Green, T. H. (Brother-in-law)
Symonds, Margaret (daughter)
West, Richard (great-grandson)
Disambiguation notice
John Addington Symonds [1840-1893] is not the same writer as John Symonds [1914-2006]. The former was a Victorian writer with a particular interest in sexual reform and emancipation for homosexuals. He wrote many books on Classical subjects, Renaissance Italy and C19th Romantic poets. The latter was a novelist, children's writer and executor of the estate of Aleister Crowley whom he also wrote many books on. These two important writers really do need their own individual entries.



Reprint. Orig. publ. London : John Murray, 1924
ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
An excellent resource for understanding male homosexuality, this also is full of vivid revelations of Victorian life in general and in particular among the middle and upper classes. Symonds (1840-93) was a prominent man of letters in 19th century England. His memoirs are intimate, but not erotic or titillating, and he is an earnest ethicist.
davidveal | Dec 27, 2015 |
"John Addington Symonds (5 October 1840 – 19 April 1893) was an English poet and literary critic. Although he married and had a family, he was an early advocate of male love (homosexuality), which he believed could include pederastic as well as egalitarian relationships. He referred to it as l'amour de l'impossible (love of the impossible). A cultural historian, he was known for his work on the Renaissance, as well as numerous biographies about writers and artists. He also wrote much poetry inspired by his homosexual affairs." from wiki

Who better then, to write a biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Symonds does a superb job. His lifetime interest, love and knowledge of the Renaissance combines with his sensitive translations of the Italian used by Michelangelo and his compatriots to provide an intimate portrait of one of the greatest artists of the Italian renaissance. The Woeful Victorian is how Phyllis Grosskurth (biographer) describes John Addington Symonds and assuming that this refers to Symond's melancholia then Symonds finds a like minded subject in Michelangelo.

His biography is exhaustive; following the long life of Michelangelo and dealing equally with his triumphs and failures. Symonds in typical Victorian style can be gushing about Michelangelo's unique talent, but he never loses his critical eye when studying a particular work of art. For example his description of the giant David reveals issues that surprised me so much that it led me to look again at the statue (the internet is a wonderful thing). It is the sort of commentary that I would like to refer to when next I am in Florence.

Symonds punctuates his biography with translations of a selection of Michelangelo's sonnets where they comment on issues raised in the book. There are also extracts from letters written by and to his subject, so that the reader is able to make up his own mind as to the character of the man without having to wade through numerous footnotes. Symonds is a master of integrating relevant material into his text. This can lead to an over embellishment of points made, but this is a biography published in 1893 and so the reader should not be too surprised. Symonds has a style of writing that might not suit every reader, concise he is not, but it suits my temperament and I was happy to follow him through.

Symonds does an excellent job of building in the historical background, his feel for the culture of the Italian renaissance allows him to place Michelangelo firmly in his milieu and so the reader can understand Michelangelo's actions, his panics, his irascibility, his deeply religious mindset that towards the end of his life provided him with much comfort. Michelangelo emerges as a man whose immense talent led him into a life that revolved only around his art, there was little time for anything else. His fame and reputation which he seems not to have considered overmuch himself was a bugbear, as his patrons (a succession of Popes) were instrumental in leading him away from the work that he wanted to do. He became an architect because of his intellectual ability and skill in fashioning objects, which were the requirements that his patrons saw fit to use.

Michelangelo was no iconoclast he worked within the system and culture of his times, but it was his unique vision that set him apart from other artists. His continual obsession with the human form that produced such wonderful art eventually led him down a blind alley and his later works seemed mannered. His solitary disposition and his desire not to share his skills meant that unlike many of his fellow artists he did not become the head of a school or workshop. He was a man who wanted to do things his own way and he was reluctant to share out duties. This meant that many of his projects remained unfinished.

There is little to be said about his private life. He felt no attraction to the opposite sex and although he loved and admired the physicality of well formed young men there is very little evidence that this led to sexual relationships. Symonds thinks that Michelangelo's solitary and at times austere characteristics along with his sincere religious beliefs and his obsession with his art filled his life. I have recently read Ross King's [Michelangelo and the Popes ceiling], which provided a good snapshot of the life and times of Michelangelo, but Symonds biography is for those that want to delve deeper and get a fuller picture of a long and productive life.
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3 vote
baswood | 1 other review | Oct 6, 2015 |
A collection of poems and short ballads by 12th and 13th century itinerant bard and students. Interesttin mostly from it's extreme obscurity.
Georges_T._Dodds | Mar 29, 2013 |


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