My previous post wound up with the words “I got a job as assistant to a cinematographer making an educational movie about Michelangelo. But that’s a tale for another day.” That tale, first published May 10th 2009, is below.
It’s the 6th of August 1962. I’m sitting on the steps outside the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral, trying to work out whether I’m a student, an ex-student or merely a tourist. I’ve recently arrived from Marseille, where I spent some weeks—I’ve no idea how many; and I have not yet located my fellow-students of Italian language and literature. They are not the reason I’m here, but it would be nice to find them.
On my first night in Florence I stayed in lodgings full of young Americans, college students probably, doing the grand tour of Europe. The next morning they were lounging out in the back gardens, an abundant wilderness overgrowing various slabs and ruins. I was told it’s the site of a yard where Michelangelo learned to sculpt. The students are discussing the next stages of their itinerary: Florence is just another overnight stop. I’ve no plans to go anywhere. My objective is to stay abroad as long as possible, go back home a day or two before term starts in October, to sort out some clothes & books.
I know exactly what date it is, because news vendors have today announced the shock death of Marilyn Monroe at only 36. Don’t come to Florence in August. The heat is intolerable. I’ve moved into cheaper lodgings (with dormitories) overlooking a quiet piazza. Residents take a siesta with the shutters closed against the midday sun, which only mad dogs and Englishmen would go out in. I try it once but am forced to seek the shade to avoid being fried alive.
At least the Duomo casts a cool shade on these steps. My photo, from Google Maps, must have been taken at a different time of day, but it shows to advantage the deliciousness of the cathedral, like an ornate wedding-cake. I sit waiting for Godot, in no mood for contemplating sculpted marble, even if it looks good enough to eat. Food is my main concern now. I could sleep anywhere, as in Paris, but if I run out of food money, I’ll have to surrender my passport at the British Embassy, and get the fare back home. (Which is what I did, at the end.)
A man sidles up and asks, in what I would call a Brooklyn accent, whether I would be interested to work in a movie. Politeness prevents me from laughing out loud at his clichéd pickup line. I flinch at his physical closeness. He is sensitive to my concern, and hastens to introduces himself, with a business card, as Leo Rogelberg, cinematographer, Coronet Films, Chicago. Why me, though? Hunch, he says. I look intelligent, with time on my hands—and needy. I’m not exactly a tramp; my ragged clothes are clean, but I’ve had a problem with footwear, my broken sandals having been fixed up with string. I’m in no position to turn him down. Working for an American movie-maker smells like money. Leo sets me straight.
Coronet Films have given him a low budget for an educational film on the art works of Michelangelo: painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, sculptor, architect, his main surviving wotks in Rome and Florence. He had much trouble in Rome. The Vatican wouldn’t give him permission to film in the Sistine Chapel. So he had to make do with a series of colour photographs, carefully pasted together, filming those as if they were the real thing. His van was broken into, his cine-cameras stolen. Coronet weren’t exactly sympathetic.
So, he now wants an assistant who’ll work for peanuts, often salami sandwiches and Coca Cola whilst we’re filming. (He bought me a few beers after work too, when we got to know one another.) Again, I’m in no position to refuse. I am to be lighting technician, that is, I will set up the lights, switch them on and off; I will help carry the equipment; and I will chalk scene references on the clapperboard, holding it up to the camera at the beginning of each take. There must be many whose climb to movie stardom started on a lower rung.
Our first assignment was in the Battisteria, a polygonal building facing you as you sit on the Duomo steps. After much negotiation, we got permission to film at night, when there were no visitors and we could set up lights as we wished. We were supposed to pay for a museum attendant’s overtime, but the budget was too tight. We opted for plan B: to be locked in the building from closing time in the evening till opening time in the morning—fifteen hours.
Incarcerated in this Tomb of the Medici (I guess it had the dual function of baptism and entombment) for hour upon uncomprehending hour, in an eerie, bleary sleepless stupor, I remember best gazing dully at the breasts of Night. I suspect that Michelangelo used a young man for a model, adding breasts based on the shape of a pomegranate. Or perhaps androgyne, popularly known these days as transgender?
There’s something disturbing about Day too, with his threatening stare from blank stone eyes. I wonder if anyone else in the centuries since Michelangelo had spent as many solid hours incarcerated in a tomb with them for company.
It was like a “vigil of arms,” which consisted in keeping a long silent fasting watch in some gloomy spot—a haunted one preferred—over the arms a knight was about to assume. The only difference being a generous supply of the usual snack foods given in lieu of my wages.
Another day, we entered the Duomo to shoot the Florentine Pietà, or Deposition from the Cross. (The artist carved several others.) This one, a late work, has Jesus with apparently one leg, a peculiarity about which art critics speculate and disagree. The hooded figure of Joseph of Arimathea is a self-portrait of Michelangelo as an old man. It’s in the Cathedral museum today but in 1962 it was the centrepiece of its own chapel. A “typical American family” had been recruited as unpaid extras, to admire it. I had to read out the script at a certain speed, in a loud clear voice, to synchronise shooting and actors. You’d think statues were easy to shoot, compared to children, animals and demanding superstars: but to a beginner they are complicated enough. I put all I had into the reading, as if I would be in the final cut, and not replaced by a voiceover.
I won’t bore you with details of all the subjects we covered, but my proudest moment was to play the artist himself, in a scene when he stands on the bank of the river Arno, tossing in pebbles abstractedly. Only my hand was in the shot, and for all I know, it was cut out in post-production.
Soon after meeting Leo on the cathedral steps, I had tracked down my fellow-students, and briefly considered signing up for summer courses with them al’Università degli Studi di Firenze. But I thought better of it, chose to remain, for the time being, an ex-student. But I did start going to the student canteen, and quite coincidentally met a sculptor.
Our most dramatic task was to film the original Statue of David, situated in the Accademia Gallery. Leo had asked me to look out for one, as he was obliged to commission a fig-leaf. Our film was to be shown to schools across the USA, some of which might be pressured not to display male genitals even in marble form. A quick Google search reveals that this attitude still lurks here and there.
When Queen Victoria visited the newly-opened Victoria and Albert Museum, a fig-leaf was hung on its cast of David. Not that ladies were ever offended when the anatomically correct details on this fine piece were put on open display. The director of the Museum reported:
The antique casts gallery has been very much used by private lady teachers for the instruction of young girl students and none of them has ever complained even indirectly. (Source: V&A Museum website: “David’s Fig Leaf”.)
Quite right too. It might have been educational for some of them. The museum attendants at the Accademia Gallery seemed to think we were perverts when we asked to climb a stepladder for measurements of the parts in question. Our request was refused. We adopted a workaround: under their still-disapproving glare, we measured David’s right big toe. In the gallery shop we bought a postcard of the statue, and used arithmetic to calculate the required coverage. Our fig-leaf was rather simplistic, made from plaster of Paris lightly rubbed with olive oil to look like polished marble, not as classy as the one in the V&A.
Here’s a clip from the resultant movie. I especially like this bit of the voiceover:
… standing on the brink of the great adventures that life can bring. Michelangelo’s thorough knowledge of anatomy emphasizes this….
…though the footage fails to emphasize one part.
Follow this link to watch the entire film, a mere 16 minutes long.
Before we parted, Leo typed out a “To whom it may concern” testimonial, which I kept proudly for many years. We promised to keep in touch and never did. The Web has nothing to say about him after 1968, when he had a company doing documentaries. But I’ve written to another documentary company, run by two Rogelbergs. I think they must be related to Leo! Will let you know the outcome. (see comments below)