Copyright 1991

‘Giants’ maybe, but not turtles

A new cable miniseries deals with the adventures of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael-and there’s not a pizza munching ninja turtle in the bunch.

Nope, they’re gifted artists of the Italian Renaissance in A Season of Giants at 8 p.m. today and Monday on TNT.

British unknown Mark Frankel stars as sculptor/painter/architect Michelangelo Buonarroti. John Glover is his rival, eccentric artist/scientist Leonardo da Vinci.

Andrea Prodan is Raphael, the closest thing the era had to a teen heartthrob. (As depicted here, he’s mobbed by screaming, grabbing young women everywhere he goes, and in that haircut he looks a little like Brian Jones anyway.) F. Murray Abraham plays Julius II, the warrior pope who prompts Michelangelo’s masterwork, the vault of the Sistine Chapel.

Admittedly, this four-hour offering from TNT and Italian television sometimes makes you wish for the other Michelangelo and company, a few quick samurai chops and a “cowabunga, dude.”

Devotees of American miniseries probably won’t care for Giants’ leisurely pace and the relative lack of bedhopping. (Michelangelo has nightmares after bedding a fair beauty, and otherwise only makes moon eyes at a male friend.)

The show’s emphasis on the turbulent politics of the period (1492-1508)-as with a subplot involving a fanatical friar (Steven Berkoff) and his violent followers-can also be confusing.

Michelangelo is the central character but, other than an ongoing struggle to please and impress his overly critical father, he’s not very sympathetic. Like all the other Italians here, he’s mostly sullen, glowering and difficult. When the pope proposes he paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel, for instance, he turns the job down flatly: “I have no interest in the roof of a barn.”

Still, Giants offers some glimpses into some of the pressures behind the creation of some of the world’s masterpieces.

According to Julian Bond and Vincenzo Labella’s script, for example, Michelangelo only takes on the Sistine Chapel project after Pope Julius II, angry with the artist’s lack of progress on his massive tomb, threatens to attack his native city-state of Florence.

We see an assistant’s first reaction to da Vinci’s painting The Mona Lisa: “But it looks nothing like her!”

The miniseries’ most enjoyable scenes involve the verbal jesting between Michelangelo and da Vinci, played nicely by Glover with a mix of childlike wonder, biting wit and insufferable pride.

Leonardo dismisses the muscles of Michelangelo’s forceful figures as so many “bags of walnuts under the skin.” Michelangelo warns Leonardo that his experimental wings “will burn if you fly too high.”

When the leaders of Florence commission the two artists to compete on wall creations, they spend as much time squabbling as working. “The light’s incomparably better on your wall,” grumbles Michelangelo. “BAD LUCK,” retorts da Vinci.

They were Giants, but they still acted like children.