Many films have attempted to capture the artist’s creative technique. It’s a challenge because making art is by nature usually a solitary act and a very internal one, and it’s hard to find drama in that; as a result, a lot of artist biopics try to mine their drama from the turbulent relationships the artist has. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965, dir. Carol Reed, based on the novel by Irving Stone) tries to dramatize Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by focusing on the tense relationship between the artist and his patron, Pope Julius II.
Before we start, I feel obligated to explain that the Sistine Chapel was so named because it was built on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, Julius II’s uncle and the holder of one of my favorite papal names simply because it’s amusing to say.
Charleton Heston’s Michelangelo is a brooding man with a profound sense of artistic integrity. He sees himself as a sculptor and resists the efforts of Julius (Rex Harrison) to force him to work in fresco, but having given in, he gradually embraces the project. He refuses to follow Julius’ plan (which just involved painting the 12 Apostles in the triangular pendentives that support the vault, and instead eventually hits on a more sweeping vision. The ceiling will depict scenes from Genesis, the pendentives will depict men and women who prophesied the birth of Jesus, and the zones above the windows will depict the ancestors of Christ.
From that point on, Julius impatiently presses him to finish the work, or at least take the scaffolding down so that people can see whatever work has been done, while Michelangelo defiantly declares he will finish when he finishes. He doesn’t want to take a break because he wants to get the project over with so he can get back to his work as a sculptor.
That’s not really enough to hang a 2 hour and 20 minute movie on, so the film has to invent more drama. Michelangelo has a chaste romance with Contessina de Medici, the daughter of his Florentine patron Lorenzo, who chides him for obsessing about the work and not attending gatherings in his honor. Later he falls ill and she has to nurse him back to health. Julius tells Michelangelo that he is going to transfer the commission to rival painter Raphael, but this turns out to be a ruse to goad Michelangelo to getting back to work. (In reality, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s students, Raphael attempted to replace Michelangelo on the project, forcing Michelangelo to plead his case before Julius.) Julius periodically threatens to or actually does revoke Michelangelo’s commission, before the two men gradually come to understand each other. Although Julius certainly did lean on Michelangelo to speed up the work, the film seems to be exaggerating the number of obstacles the artist faced, and the relationship with Contessina appears entirely fabricated.
On the other hand, first-hand descriptions of Michelangelo’s process describe how physically grueling the work was. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote an important collection of biographies of Renaissance artists, discusses how hard the work was on Michelangelo’s neck, arms, and eyes, and the film captures that quite well. The film is rather interested in the mechanical process of the frescoing, and it gives the viewer a fairly good sense of the basic technique that Michelangelo used.
The other source of tension in the film is Julius’ military campaign. The film provides virtually no explanation at all of these events, but in 1508, Julius sought to counter the rising power of Venice in Italy by forming the League of Cambrai with France, Aragon, and the Holy Roman Empire. By 1510, the League had succeeded in its goals, but then the alliance collapsed and Julius found himself allied with Venice against France in a Holy League. In 1512, Julius was able to temporarily force the French to withdraw from Italy. He died the next year, and thus did not see the French return to Italy triumphantly in 1515.
Rather than delving into this conflict as a subject in its own right, the film simply depicts Julius as struggling to create a Papacy independent from outside control. He fights unsuccessfully against the French, suffering a wound that gradually weakens and presumably kills him. Thus the film contrasts Michelangelo’s successful effort to complete the frescos with Julius’ unsuccessful efforts to create a political order that will outlast him. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not developed well enough to be really compelling, since the film just milks Julius’ defeats for more obstacles to Michelangelo’s work. Will Julius find the money to pay for the frescos? Will the French destroy the Sistine Chapel as Julius predicts?
Probably the biggest problem, however, lies in its two stars, who are both miscast. Heston’s famously histrionic acting style leaves no room for subtle characterization, and he is unable to convey any sense of an artist finding his inspiration. The thing that finally gets him on-board with Julius’ project is seeing a cloud formation that rather absurdly suggests that famous Creation of Adam fresco. What drives this Michelangelo is unknowable because Heston can’t show us his process beyond what the script tells him to say.
Harrison does a better job as Julius, coming off as a highly-cultured and ambitious man, but ultimately he seems too much a 20th century Englishman to be a 16th century Italian pope. I kept expecting him to tell Michelangelo about the precipitation on the Spanish plains. Harrison bears a strike resemblance to Iain Glen, who certainly could have pulled off what the film was going for with Julius. So maybe it’s time a remake?
The film also makes the bizarre choice to open with a 13 minute lecture about Michelangelo’s work as an artist. I certainly applaud the film’s desire to educate the viewer about art history and give them a context for the film, but honestly, just fast forward past this bit; it’s deathly dull and nearly kills the whole film.
Want to Know More?
The Agony and the Ecstasy is available at Amazon. So is Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo. Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a non-fiction treatment of these events and a good corrective to the film. Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 work, The Lives of the Artists is one of our most important primary sources about the great Renaissance painters and their age.