In form, Robert Snyder's "Michelagniolo: A Self Portrait" is strictly classroom stuff. An illustrated essay on the life of the artist, it uses Michelangelo's own words -- taken from his diaries, letters and poems -- together with biographical information from Vasari, Condivi and de Olanda, to map the Renaissance master's arduous journey. Added to this are long shots of his paintings, sketches and sculptures; shots of Florence and Rome, where he spent most of his life; shots of the quarries where he traveled to mine the marble for his works; and heavy dollops of Monteverdi. Nothing new, in other words, nothing adventurous.
But those words! Those words!
Michelangelo was a remarkably conscious -- if not self-conscious -- artist. He knew exactly what his intentions were, what his interests were, what he hoped to achieve and how to achieve it. In addition, he knew all too well the forces that drove him, the vanity, the arrogance, the profane love of art. In all of his writings, he dealt with these matters, chronicling the struggles along with the triumphs, detailing the conflicts in his nature between the pagan and the holy, the political battles with the Vatican, his rising and falling fame and fortune.
The effect of what Snyder and writer Michael Sonnabend show us is to make this consummate Renaissance man, this immortal, appear accessible and all too human -- in fact, a passionate, tortured, seemingly modern artist. More than anything, what this "self-portrait" reveals is the artist's ambition, his lust to be great, to forge a heroic art and to be, as a man, as larger-than-life as the works themselves.
It's a revelation to hear the artist complain about his commission to do the Sistine Chapel, primarily because he wasn't, he felt, a painter, and secondly because it interrupted his Herculean labors on a tomb for Pope Julius II. And equally fascinating to hear him report that in art school, the pride he took in a copy he made from an earlier master caused a fellow student to smash his nose.
He led a life completely absorbed in art, struggling to balance his demons and come to peace with his ego. And continually throughout his life he saw, in the biblical characters he painted and sculpted, reflections of his own internal battles. As a result he identified with the saints and disciples he painted, often putting his own face in place of theirs -- for example, in his painting of the crucifixion of Saint Peter -- as a way of confessing his own personal spiritual crises. With this knowledge in hand, the coiled muscularity in his forms takes on a new resonance, the poised, classical harmonies a new heat and urgency. They are, after all, the works of a man. And however commonplace in form it may be, this filmed portrait does what all biographies strive to accomplish. It delivers that man to us.