White, powdery shards fly through the air in slow motion as the camera captures a chisel-wielding figure methodically going to work on an imposing piece of marble. The sculpture’s final form is not yet clear; we see only the deft handling of well-worn tools as the artist deliberately notches his way through the solid stone block.
This must have been what it was like, the film seems to assert. If you could have seen the master at work, it must have looked something like this: A mesmerising slow-dance around a shape only he was truly conscious of, while the rest of the world could only wonder at his skill. In Michelangelo: Love and Death, the audience is taken on a journey from the fiery ‘Battle of the Centaurs’ (1492) via the Laurentian Library and its magnificent staircase to the ill-fated ‘The Deposition’ (1547-1555) as various experts in the fields of art history, sculpture, and anatomy shed some light on the great Renaissance Man’s life and work.
The film paints a fascinating picture of an artist ahead of his time and, simultaneously, emblematic of its greatest achievements. Anatomy professor Peter Abrahams marvels at the fact that Michelangelo’s knowledge of the human body was advanced far beyond that of any medical professionals of the age, as evidenced by the extraordinary detail in his sketches, paintings, and sculptures. Indeed, the right hand of his famous David alone, with its intricately detailed representation of veins and sinews, probably merits its own 90-minute documentary —Francesca Nicoli, a sculptor from Carrara, where Michelangelo’s marble was quarried, rapturously explains the artistic brilliance displayed by the apparent strength of this one appendage. Conversely, we get to know the Michelangelo who was frequently dissatisfied with his own work —he thought the tomb he had designed for Pope Julius II ‘botched’, a ‘great tragedy’, according to one of the two biographies that appeared during his lifetime, and in later life, he took to destroying work he felt was substandard.
Director David Bickerstaff achieves a pleasant balance between the simple relaying of facts dispensed by 21st century experts and a more ethereal immersion in 16th century Florence and Rome, the latter experience aided by a number of readings and musical performances of excerpts from Michelangelo’s poetry. Kate Macoboy (soprano) and Robert Meunier (lute) deliver a stirring, stark rendition of Come harò donque ardire (‘How, then, will I ever have the nerve’, with music by Bartolomeo Tromboncino) that sweeps the audience through the landscape of Michelangelo’s yearning. (There’s something perversely soothing in the revelation that the great Michelangelo, master sculptor, legendary painter, and architect for the ages, felt insecure about his poetry. The film does not delve into whether or not the artist’s doubts were well-founded.)
In this documentary, we are presented with a coherent, intriguing, sensitively curated account of the life of a visionary artist whose work continues to enthral, even though, by all accounts, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with all of it, and would probably have preferred far less scrutiny from posterity.
Michelangelo: Love and Death is part of the Exhibition on Screen series, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 21st and 22nd of June. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.