Michelangelo: Love and Death (2017)

To coincide with a major show at London’s National Gallery, Michelangelo: Love and Death, the latest offering from Exhibition on Screen, retraces the genius of the Florentine master.

Portrait of the Artist

by Laura Bennett

Michelangelo: Love and Death

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Michelangelo: Love and Death, directed by David Bickerstaff for Exhibition on Screen www.exhibitiononscreen.com, is a cinematic journey through the paintings, sculptures and architecture of an artist synonymous with unparalleled creative genius. Combining an in-depth look at some of his greatest works in chronological order and interviews with experts on the great Tuscan artist, the film explores two of the themes most important to this charismatic figure: love and death.

It begins at the beginning, in the village of Caprese Michelangelo, where the artist was born in 1475. Much is made of the fact that, according to Michelangelo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari – the first art historian and best known today for his Lives of the Artists – the young artist was nursed by the wife of a stone-cutter, supposedly drinking in his love of marble with her milk. Born at a time when artists were starting to be seen less as simple craftsmen and more as creative forces in their own right, Michelangelo soon moved to the nearby economic powerhouse of Florence to nurture his talent in the sculpture garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici and as an apprentice to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. His earliest works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, demonstrate his prodigious talent and instinctive understanding of marble carving.

As the budding young artist’s interest in the human body blossomed, he was apparently given the opportunity to dissect dead bodies at the Santo Spirito hospital in return for an exquisite wooden crucifix positioned in pride of place above the high altar.

As Michelangelo’s fame began to grow, wealthy patrons summoned him to Rome, allowing his work to evolve in contact with the ancient art of the capital, such as the famed Laocoon sculptural group. At the age of 25, he made his mark on the Roman art scene with the powerful and touching Pietà, for which the block of marble was quarried under his personal supervision in the mountains of Carrara. The only work the great master ever signed (a sash around the Madonna’s chest bears his name), the mother cradling her dead son served as an advertisement for the young Italian artist.

Before moving on to a discussion of the artist’s most iconic sculpture, the David, the film discusses the links between the intellectual ideas of Neoplatonism and Michelangelo’s suspected homosexuality. Supposedly influenced by such philosophies while at the Medici court in Florence, his Neoplatonic beliefs allowed Michelangelo indulge his love of physical beauty as a means to ascend to a higher spiritual realm.

The genius of Michelangelo’s David lies in the detail: the hands, eyes and pulsating veins. Carved from a narrow block that had already been roughed out by a lesser sculptor and cast aside, Michelangelo worked on the sculpture in private, far from prying eyes as he succumbed to his frenzied creativity. When the finished sculpture was finally revealed, this singular, elegant and powerful work would make Michelangelo’s name as the greatest sculptor of all time.

This was a claim not even the most powerful man in Italy could dare to counter. Pope Julius II subsequently brought Michelangelo back to Rome to have him work on the design for his tomb. A plan that would ultimately prove to be wildly overambitious and therefore never realised, the Tomb of Julius II stimulated yet frustrated the artist’s creative genius before his powerful patron diverted his attention to what would become his best known painting cycle, the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

A labour of love that required real physical suffering throughout its four-year completion, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a work of a scope like no other that challenged the by now mature artist’s ability to create a decorative scheme out of nothing.

Concluding with a look at his later works, including the artist’s transition into architecture both in Florence and Rome, Michelangelo: Love and Death celebrates every brush stroke or chisel mark of the great Renaissance artist and is a must for enthusiasts of the art of the period.

Michelangelo: Love and Death is released in the UK on 13 June 2017.

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