Robert Snyder’s 1989 documentary, originally broadcast on PBS and now available on DVD, represents a curious profile of a historic figure that was both highly visible yet strangely mysterious. Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) produced many of the world’s most recognized works of art, and this production offers a bold consideration of his extraordinary output. Yet the viewer comes away baffled by the artist’s shadowy personality – we understand that “what,” “how” and “why” aspects of his work, but the “who” seems beyond capture.
Michelangelo’s rapid rise within the Italian art world came without precedent, and his creations permanently redefined popular concepts of sculpture, painting and architecture. Snyder, who spent 10 years producing this film, brings his camera as close to the art as possible – and in the example of “The Pieta,” he managed to have the Vatican remove its bulletproof case encasement in order to accommodate a highly detailed cinematic worship of its beauty. Throughout the film, Michelangelo’s masterworks are viewed in extreme close-ups, and the level of detail in the works – the veins bulging in David’s hand, the intricacies in the expressions of the blessed and damned from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the otherworldly majesty of the horned Moses – will thrill any fine arts scholar.
Complementing the visual aspects of the film is a narration composed entirely from Michelangelo’s diaries and poems and the observations of his peers. This provides much-needed depth in understand what inspired Michelangelo and compelled him to go further in his work, and it also offers depth regarding some of the more notorious chapters of his professional life, most notably his long-running feuds with the Vatican hierarchy relating to various commissioned projects (not the least being the design of the St. Peter’s Basilica dome).
Yet at the same time, this overload of information is lacking basics. There is little talk of Michelangelo’s friends and only strained references to a difficult relationship between the artist and his father. The film is intentionally coy about questioning Michelangelo’s love life – a single excerpt of correspondence sent to Tommaso dei Cavalieri suggests something far deeper than a fraternal bonding, and the film (clearly the product of a gay-unfriendly era) strangely forgets to mention that Michelangelo was inspired to create over 300 pieces of poetry in dei Cavalieri’s praise. The film, however, significantly plays up a late-life friendship with the poet and noblewoman Vittoria Colonna without actually stating there was a romantic affair.
But perhaps this is how Michelangelo would have preferred things. Except for “The Pieta,” he never signed any of his works; he sneaked self-portraits into the ensembles of his frescoes, but shunned formal self-portraits. Ultimately, he didn’t need to be front and center – immortality is bestowed upon the art, not the artist, and Snyder’s film shines a brilliant light on Michelangelo’s work while keeping its master at an appropriately elusive distance.