Copyright 1991
Sunday, March 17, 1991 TELEVISION

Cover storyLocation giant among ‘Giants’
ANN HODGES, Houston Chronicle TV Editor

It’s a beautiful day in Florence, and all the student sculptors are busy, busy, busy-playing dodge ball.

Young Michelangelo Buonarotti is the best student sculptor of the lot, and he’s also the best ball player. Already you know that young Michelangelo is headed for trouble. He’s too good for his own good.

That’s the opening scene of “A Season of Giants,” TNT’s international miniseries version of the life and times of Michelangelo and two fellow giants of the Italian Renaissance.

The artistic musketeers of this ambitious four-hour two-parter are taken from the history books, for a group portrait painted in thick coats of dramatic license.

It’s been 500 years since Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael created their masterpieces. But their names and their works have inspired artists and art lovers through the ages.

“A Season of Giants” premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday on TNT, followed by the customary instant reruns at 9 p.m., same nights, same channel. More encores are two four-hour runs of the whole thing at 11a.m. Thursday, March 21, and 1 p.m. Sunday, March 24.

The chief player in this multinational production cooperative is Italy’s RAI-1, in association with Tiber Cinematografica of Rome. That accounts for this film’s most successful ingredients-the Italian locations, costumes and the attention to authentic atmosphere.

The international cast does its part pretty well.

It’s headed by British actor Max Frankel, last seen as the dashing count who won the heart of “Young Catherine” in that Russian-set TNT two-parter. Frankel plays Michelangelo with all the earnest suffering that a young genius obsessed by his art can muster.

American actor John Glover is a quite unexpected Leonardo da Vinci, rather jolly elder genius. He’s so famous he can afford to be charitable to the young upstart who dares to sneer at his painting and to challenge his title as the greatest of them all.

Andrea Prodan, another Brit, is Raphael, the high-living ladies’ man who’s just beginning to make his mark as a painter and who worships at the feet-and steals from the techniques-of the two already-famous masters.

Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham is Pope Julius II. History calls him “The Warrior Pope,” but history remembers him more fondly for reunifying the church and setting the stage for an unprecedented era of artistic achievement. His greatest achievements were the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Cathedral and having the good sense to hire Michelangelo to do the Sistine Chapel.

“I think of Julius as an early LBJ,” Texan Abraham told his producers. “His size, his appetites, his demand for excellence. Johnson was regarded as something of a buffoon, yet many of the world’s powerful leaders respected him more than any other American president, Julius approached that stature.”

Ian Holm is Lorenzo di Medici, Florence’s great leader and patron of the arts. Steven Berkoff is the fanatical Friar Savonarola, whose religious zeal threatened to kill off the creative spirit that di Medici had so carefully cultivated.

No miniseries would dare be caught dead without a few obligatory minutes (and that’s about the size of it here) of grope-and-bundle in the boudoir. Italy’s Ornella Muti is the ornamental lady who volunteers herself as Michelangelo’s muse, but soon becomes the girl of Michelangelo’s tormented dreams. And after that, the mistress of the randy Raphael.

Most of the supporting roles are by Italians and the changing accents do get a bit difficult to tune into at times.

It’s hard to give this show a proper review, since the preview tape was a very rough cut, with no music and no dialogue looped into most of the pivotal crowd scenes. From what I did manage to make out, though, it’s kind of a spoonful of sugar that makes artistic medicine go down.

The script by Britain’s Julian Bond and producer/creative supervisor Vincenzo Labella is economy-sized and simplified. But it does point up that in the time of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Raphael, great art was to the lives of the masses as important as the not-so-great art of TV is today. And, even in re-creation, it’s fun to see great masterpieces created-Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and “David;” Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” (“Your “Last Supper” is a legend,” Raphael gushes when he meets the great da Vinci.)

The story begins in 1492, the year Columbus is discovering you know what, and Lorenzo di Medici is dying in Florence.

Michelangelo is Lorenzo’s fair-haired boy and favorite protégé. But after Lorenzo dies, that and the splendid cloak his mentor leaves him won’t buy Michelangelo a glass of vino.

Michelangelo adores his real father and vows to make him proud. But that flinty patriarch hates his eldest son’s profession. “A stonecutter!” he sniffs. It’s a disgrace to the family name, and he’ll never make a fortune at it. Lorenzo was Michelangelo’s “one hope of salvation from a life of mediocrity and poverty, and now he’s dead and gone.

Michelangelo has his eye on one big, cast-off piece of marble, “a giant that cannot be conquered,” the sculptors of Florence say. But Michelangelo knows better. “There’s a figure in there somewhere-alive, imprisoned in that block,” he says. “Only a great sculptor will be able to find it and set it free. But one day, when I have freed it, it will be the pride of Florence.”

He does make good on that promise, one day, by creating his great masterpiece, “David.”

But meanwhile, when Savonarola’s gang goes on the prowl against “pagan art,” Michelangelo moves to Bologna, where he finds a new rich patron and his beautiful muse, Onoria.

Leonardo da Vinci is already a famous artist. He’s given up sculpting to concentrate on painting, and he spends all his spare time working on would-be inventions. His detailed drawings of those marvels are the forerunners of today’s bicycles, airplanes and submarines.

By now, Michelangelo is back in Florence, has done “David” and is drafted by city leaders for a game of one-upmanship. He and da Vinci are to be artistic gladiators-each given half of a magnificent new city hall with orders to paint upon it scenes glorifying Florence.

While they’re doing the dueling artists number, Raphael of Urbino drops in to introduce himself. That ambitious young artist admits he wants to crib a few pointers from Florence’s superstars.

As this tale ends, Michelangelo is called to the Vatican to paint the Sistine Chapel, and the work that he had expected to be his crowning achievement nearly becomes his nemesis.

To re-create the splendor of Renaissance Italy, the company shot four months in Rome, Florence, Carrara, the medieval town of Viterbo, and the Orsini-Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano. That castle fortress was built in the late 15th century, and they say it looks today much as it did in Michelangelo’s time. It treasures include paintings dating back to the 1400s.

Not everything was the real thing. The “David” was a 17-foot plaster cast of the original, and Florence’s famed Piazza della Signoria, home of “David” for many years, was a sound stage mock-up at Rome’s Cinecitta studios.