Copyright 1991
Sunday, March 17, 1991


‘GIANTS’ paints portrait of an artist

The fairest dramatization of any artist’s life is one that depicts his or her muse, the inspiration for a lifetime of work.

“A Season of Giants,” a two-part TV biography of Michelangelo, achieves this splendidly, from its opening scenes of Italy’s majestic landscapes to its inside look at Italy’s opulent city-states.

The TNT miniseries, airing at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow (and repeating at 10 each night), is also good at sideshows: the pope who wants his legacy to include a chapel of priceless art and the townspeople who turn out in droves to admire the latest work of art.

When it comes to fleshing out the actual subject of the miniseries, however, “A Season of Giants” falls short.

Imagine trying to capture the complexity of a Renaissance painter on the TV screen. Or to explain to the average American viewer the confusion of Italy’s several city-states that ruled proudly and independently. Throw in that this is a co-production between America’s TNT and Italy’s RAI-1.

But “A Season of Giants” makes a game attempt at the above-and not only when it comes to Michelangelo. It profiles the artist’s chief rivals, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Time is also spent with Friar Girolamo Savonarola, Florence’s “hammer of God” who wanted to stamp out “pagan” art; and with Pope Julius II, the “Warrior Pope.”

When it’s not busy name-dropping a who’s who of the Italian Renaissance, the miniseries tries to illustrate the nature of Michelangelo’s favored medium: marble that must be wrested from steep quarries but treated gently by the artist’s tools.

If you don’t know your Medicis from your Borgias, or Florence from your Bologna, handsome costumes and settings might not be enough to hold your interest.

Michelangelo, played by Britain’s Mark Frankel, (he was featured in TNT’s recent “Young Catherine” as Count Orlov), is attractive to dramatists because he was as passionate about his art as he was haunted by it.

As shown here, he faced one obstacle after another. His father disapproved of his career, referring to Michelangelo as “a common stonecutter.” Florence, his favorite city, was at one point anti-art under the grip of religious fanaticism. He was constantly given assignments from his patrons that he didn’t want. He was afraid that romantic love would interfere with his art. And he was repeatedly manipulated by his most prominent employer, Pope Julius II, played by F. Murray Abraham.

The best moments in the miniseries come when one character is reacting to another. When da Vinci and Michelangelo take cheap shots at one another, they aren’t Giants but the most human of men consumed by jealousy, pride, and the fear of not getting the next big project.

John Glover has the most fun in the cast playing da Vinci, the epitome of the Renaissance man, a writer, painter, inventor, even would-be flier. The conversations he provides are the few seconds of needed levity in the two-night production.