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Cinematic IntermedialityTheory and Practice$

Kim Knowles and Marion Schmid

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9781474446341

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474446341.001.0001

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Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo

Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo

(p.23) Chapter 2 Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo
Cinematic Intermediality

Steven Jacobs

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Dealing with Michelangelo’s famous 1513 statue of Moses, Antonioni’s 2004 short film Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo (literally The Gaze of Michelangelo) is an impressive meditation on the encounter between film and sculpture. By means of the dynamic, immaterial, two-dimensional, and volatile images of the film medium, Lo Sguardo evokes the static, material, three-dimensional, and durable forms of sculpture. Antonioni not only confronts the heroic and muscular statue of the Old Testament prophet with his own old and weakened body, he also juxtaposes visual and tactile perception: the gaze (the director’s eyes and glasses are explicitly framed) is paired with tactility as Antonioni’s hands are touching the marble surfaces. Rearticulating some of the discussions and concepts central to sculptural theory since the eighteenth century, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo also demonstrates that the medium of film not only represents, reproduces, or duplicates artworks but that it also reconfigures, re-imagines, and remediates them.

Keywords:   Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Michelangelo’s Moses, Film and Sculpture, Optic vs Haptic, Film on art, Statue, Pygmalion Effect

Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo

Figure 2.1 Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004).

sculpture versus filM1

Sculpture and film seem to be opposites. Whereas sculpture is an artistic practice that involves not only static but also material, three-dimensional and durable objects, the cinema produces kinetic, immaterial, two-dimensional and volatile images. However, film has also been applauded as a medium perfectly suited to represent sculpture. Sculptures invite movement on the part of the viewer, as shifting positions in space are necessary to see and experience them in the round. By means of editing and camera movements, cinema constructs such mobility, which, in addition, came to be seen as perfectly complementary to sculpture’s immobility. Because of its dynamic nature and its integration of multiple perspectives into a single experience, film can make manifest the stability as well as the spatial properties of sculpture. These qualities have made the extensive cinematic visualisation of sculptures highly attractive throughout film history, as demonstrated by widely divergent films such as Ein Lichtspiel: Schwarz Weiss Grau (László Moholy-Nagy, 1930), (p.24) Die steinernen Wunder von Naumburg (Curt Oertel and Rudolf Bamberger, 1932), Visual Variations on Noguchi (Marie Menken, 1945), Thorvaldsen (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1949) and L’Enfer de Rodin (Henri Alekan, 1957), among many others. In recent years too, prominent filmmakers and artists have created important cinematic studies or reveries of sculptural volumes: Static (Steve McQueen, 2009), Concrete & Samples III Carrara (Aglaia Konrad, 2010), The Eternal Lesson (Christoph Girardet, 2012), Inventory (Fiona Tan, 2012), Rotations (Javier Téllez, 2012–13), The Beginning: Living Figures Dying (Clemens von Wedemeyer, 2013), It for Others (Duncan Campbell, 2014), The Night Gallery (Mark Lewis, 2014) and The Hidden Conference: A Fractured Play (Rosa Barba, 2015).2

Michelangelo’s Moses

Another remarkable recent film dealing with sculpture is Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo (2004) by renowned filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, whose interest in the visual arts has marked many of his films.3 Soon after its release, Jonathan Rosenbaum called Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘most interesting film since Red Desert (1964)’ and ‘one of the first truly durable reflections to date on digital cinema’.4 This 19-minute-long film opens with an intertitle – the only textual information in the film apart from the credits – stating that ‘in 1985, Michelangelo Antonioni suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. In 2004, through the magic of cinema, he made this visit to San Pietro in Vincoli.’ In this church, situated on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, the ninety-two-year-old film director contemplates the famous statue of Moses made by his illustrious namesake, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), whose art had been explored by filmmakers earlier. Apart from the curious biopic The Agony and the Ecstasy (Carol Reed, 1965), the famous Renaissance sculptor and painter had been the subject of several interesting documentary films such as Michelangelo (Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, 1964) and Michelangelo: A Self-Portrait (Robert Snyder, 1989). Noteworthy is Curt Oertel’s impressive Michelangelo: Das Leben eines Titanen (1938), which tells the story of the dramatic life of Michelangelo simply by showing a succession of locations and artworks, without actors. With the help of sound effects, skillful lighting and impressive (often subjective) camera movements, Oertel turned the contemplation of art into a thrilling cinematic experience. In addition, he succeeded in evoking the plasticity of Michelangelo’s sculptures, including his 1513 statue of Moses, and the texture of their marble surfaces. In 1950, the film was recut under the supervision of Robert Flaherty and Robert Snyder, and rereleased as The Titan, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The statue of Moses was initially part of Michelangelo’s design of an (p.25) elaborate monument honouring Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II, who was known as the ‘Warrior Pope’. Michelangelo received the commission for the design of the monument in 1505.5 However, facing numerous difficulties and disappointments, the project pursued the artist for more than forty years – Ascanio Condivi, in his Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti (1553), describes the history of the Julius monument as ‘the Tragedy of the Tomb’.6 Only in 1512, with the decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling complete, could Michelangelo resume work on the mausoleum that would contain about forty sculptures. Between 1512 and 1513, he completed three statues for the project: the Dying and Rebellious Slaves (now in the Louvre, Paris) and Moses, which is retained in the final version. After the death of Julius in 1513, Michelangelo was forced to change the whole design, transforming the freestanding monument into a variant of the traditional wall-tomb, for which he carved The Genius of Victory (now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence) and four unfinished Slaves (in the Accademia in Florence) during the 1520s. Throughout the following years, Michelangelo struggled with the della Rovere family, the descendants of Julius, until a compromise was reached in 1545 and a greatly reduced tomb ended up in the Rovere family church of San Pietro in Vincoli, as opposed to Saint Peter’s in the Vatican. The final version of the monument consists of only a few sculptures, most of them being life-sized or even bigger, including the colossal and awe-inspiring Moses – a figure increasingly identified with the Pope in Renaissance Rome.7 Michelangelo presents the prophet as a powerful figure who looks to his left, holding the tablets of the Law under his right arm while he grasps an impressive beard between his hands. In combination with the horn-like protuberances on his head (based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate) the beard gives Moses an inhuman, demonic aspect.

Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo also draws attention to the other statues that are part of the monument, such as the figures of Leah and Rachel situated in the niches on either side of the Old Testament prophet, representing the Active and Contemplative Life (roles Dante assigned to them in the Purgatorio). In between these statues are massive volutes surmounted by herms, while the upper part of the monument includes the reclining figure of Pope Julius, flanked by a prophet and a sybil. The considerable changes of scale in the final assemblage of the figures, which was unveiled in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in 1547, has almost nothing in common with the initial project and the high hopes with which Michelangelo had started. As a result of these major alterations, the massive figure of Moses seems somewhat too big for its new context. According to Linda Murray,

the pose, with one leg advanced slightly in front of the other, the turn and immense prominence of the head, with its majestic flowing beard, the (p.26) exaggeration of the facial expression, would not be so strikingly obvious were the figure seen at the height and distance which were envisaged and allowed for in its conception.8

Despite its somewhat unfortunate final display, the Moses statue, expressing the terribilità of the Old Testament prophet, the artist and his Papal patron, remains impressive. As Murray noted, many interpretations of the figure have been made,

ranging from Moses’s rage at the Jews’ idolatry of the Golden calf to the symbolism of antique River Gods, to an anguished spiritual self-portrait, or the confrontation of the Active and Contemplative Life, for which a suitable companion figure [of Saint Paul] is hypothesised.9

One of the statue’s famous beholders, admirers and interpreters was Sigmund Freud, who visited the statue for the first time in September 1901 and went to see it again on many occasions. ‘Every day for three lonely weeks of September 1913,’ Freud wrote, ‘I stood in the church in front of the statue, studying it, measuring it and drawing it until there dawned on me that understanding which I expressed in my essay.’10 In this 1914 essay, entitled ‘Der Moses des Michelangelo’, Freud wrote that ‘no piece of statuary has ever made a stronger impression on me than this’, and he further associates Michelangelo’s rendition of the Prophet with the moment in the biblical narrative when the prophet descends from the mountain the first time, carrying the tablets, and finds the Hebrew people worshipping the Golden Calf, as described in Exodus.11 But Freud also describes Moses in a complex psychological state. Rage is in his eyes and in every muscle of his body, but the tension in the body and the fondling of his beard also show hesitation. According to Kenneth Gross, Michelangelo’s Moses evokes for Freud ‘a Hebraic (if not a Freudian) calm, a repose more curiously haunted, more fraught and opaque than the classical calm’.12 Ready for a moment to leap up in wrath, Michelangelo’s Moses is in between two states and Freud precisely draws our attention to ‘bodily forms that appear to be moved and restrained, awakened and depressed by forces that are never fully their own’.13 As a result, the statue of Moses evokes change and movement – an aspect that makes the statue perfect for film.

Light and Eyes

Freud’s analysis and detailed descriptions resonate in Michelangelo Antonioni’s long, hard look at the sculpture in Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo. Despite the digital trickery that made it possible to represent Michelangelo Antonioni walking without a cane, the film is quite simple. Its minimal action (p.27) consists solely of Antonioni entering the church of San Pietro in Vincoli to look at Michelangelo’s Moses and some of the other statues of the monument. He also touches the statue and then leaves the church again. Having no dialogue or voice-over commentary, the film is almost silent. We can vaguely hear Antonioni’s footsteps among the muffled sounds and muted echoes in the church. Towards the end of the film, a choir quietly sings a Palestrina Magnificat while Antonioni walks away from the monument and leaves the church, passing into the light of the Roman streets.

The presence of this light is telling. The first and last shots of this 15-minute film show us the open church doors and sunlight entering the darkened interior, almost like the light beam of a film projector. Light not only is a prerequisite for cinema, this film reminds us; it also makes sculpture visible and even palpable. Light modulates the marble volumes, creating contrasts between the polished surfaces and the dark pools of shadow. In so doing, Antonioni situates himself in a long tradition of filmmakers who have used light and shadow to evoke the plasticity of sculptures, from the opening sequence featuring Ancient Greek statues of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) to the haunted statuary in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête (1946) and the great documentaries on sculpture such as Moholy-Nagy’s Lichtspiel (1930), Dreyer’s Thorvaldsen (1949) and Alekan’s L’Enfer de Rodin (1957). Oertel’s Michelangelo: Das Leben eines Titanen (1938), too, uses spectacular chiaroscuro effects in order to give volume to many Michelangelo sculptures, including his statue of Moses.

As every museum curator knows, the display of sculpture needs particular care with lighting – it comes fully into its own in the presence of natural, changing daylight. Michelangelo’s Moses has a special bond with sunlight. This became much clearer after a recent restoration of the entire Tomb of Pope Julius II. According to Antonio Forcellino, the restorer and architect entrusted with cleaning the masterpiece,

Michelangelo used lead to polish only the parts of the statue that jut out the most – the ones hit by direct sunlight – and left the others with a more rustic finish, using pumice stone and sand. Thus, the sculpture takes on a completely new depth, with a pictorial quality.14

These pictorial qualities were already mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his description of the statue in his Vite (1550/1568), where he states that it is ‘delicately carved, downy, and soft, and drawn out in such a way that it seems as if the chisel has become a brush’.15 Furthermore, it became apparent that Moses looks to the side because he is searching for a beam of light streaming through a window that once existed but was later removed. For Michelangelo, the light had a great value as a symbol of the direct relationship between Moses and God.

(p.28) Light, vision and optics are also emphasised in other ways in Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo – literally Michelangelo’s Gaze, and released in English as Michelangelo Eye to Eye. Tellingly, the first shot of the monument shows us the face of Pope Julius, which is then followed by a close-up of his closed eyes. Likewise, the first image of Moses is a close-up of the Prophet’s eye, taken from one side with Antonioni out of focus in the background. While Maurizio dell’Orco’s camera elaborately explores the sculpture, inserts show us a gazing Antonioni. Respecting classical eye-line matches, Roberto Missiroli’s editing even suggests an exchange of glances between the Old Testament figure and the ageing film director. Extreme close-ups of Moses’s eyes are followed by a close-up of Antonioni wearing glasses. Subsequently, an over-the-shoulder shot of Antonioni looking at the monument enables us to see the surfaces of marble through his glasses. We literally look at the statue with Antonioni and look through his eyes. His glasses, forcing the cameraman to adjust his focus, are an optical device tallying with a long tradition of contraptions and strategies of looking at sculptures in indirect ways, with the help of mirrors or coloured windows, in flickering torchlight, or with rapidly blinking eyes, as Goethe did in front of the statue of the Laocoön.16

Antonioni seems to suggest that looking at Michelangelo’s Moses directly is difficult, almost impossible. The first shots focusing on the monument do not show us Moses but the statue of Julius and various other details of the upper part of the monument, as if we need to avoid the monumental figure that draws all attention. Only after a few minutes do we see a first glimpse of the Moses figure, an extreme close-up of his eye with the director out of focus in the background. It is as if looking at Moses or looking into his eyes is physically impossible – an effect that was already mentioned by Giorgio

Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo

Figure 2.2 Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004).

(p.29) Vasari, who stated that ‘it seems that while you gaze at the statue, you feel the desire to ask for a veil to cover his face, so splendid and radiant does it appear to onlookers’.17


The emphatic focus on eyes and vision, however, is balanced with an outspoken interest in touch and hands. The film’s English title – Michelangelo Eye to Eye – is misleading, as Antonioni’s exploration of the Renaissance monument could as well be properly labelled Michelangelo Hand to Hand. The camera, for instance, focuses on Moses’s expressive hands fondling his beard. In addition, the film contains several shots showing Antonioni touching and caressing the marble, which was selected in Carrara by Michelangelo himself. Furthermore, at a certain moment, it looks as if Antonioni’s hands are drawing in air, delineating the contours of the sculpture, as if he ‘looked’ with his hands or as if he ‘felt’ the statue without touching it.

With this explicit juxtaposition of visual and tactile perception, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo rearticulates some of the discussions central to sculptural theory since the eighteenth century. In his 1778 treatise on sculpture, Johann Gottfried Herder linked the difference between painting and sculpture to the distinction between sight and touch but he also noted that the apprehension of sculpture is not a literally tactile experience but a visual perception that was closely connected to a tactile exploration.18 Herder also emphasised the kinesthetic apprehension of sculpture since it involved a mobile kind of viewing, which does not seize on the statue as a fixed form but senses its wholeness as it glides over its surfaces. Clearly different from the simultaneity of painterly viewing, the apprehension of a sculptural shape could never be assimilated in a single fixed image or moment.

These ideas marked theories on sculpture throughout the nineteenth century; they were particularly important in the 1890s, at the moment of the film medium’s inception. In Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst (1893), which would become a key reference for early formalist accounts of sculpture, Adolf von Hildebrand advocated the idea that the apprehension of free-standing sculptures was dependent on a painterly model of formal coherence.19 Although he recognised a tactile or ‘haptic’ way of seeing, which differs from a painterly one in which stable forms were dissolved in atmospheric effects, Hildebrand’s idea of vision was essentially two-dimensional. Inspired by perception psychology, Hildebrand was convinced that our spatial mapping of the world involves two-dimensional representations. He consequently conceived plastic form not so much as a three-dimensional shape but rather as the two-dimensional view of an object which presented its (p.30) overall shape with greatest clarity. The apprehension of a piece of sculpture was thus marked by the tension between a clearly defined stable image and a mobile kinesthetic experience of the shifting partial views. Modern sculptors, who had liberated sculpture from their architectural anchoring, had thus to overcome the many variable forms of a sculpture in the round by defining a principal viewpoint from which the sculpture became manifest as a satisfying whole – an issue that was also a major problem for the photography of sculpture, as art historian Heinrich Wölfflin had noted in a series of articles published between 1896 and 1915.20

It is noteworthy that Michelangelo’s Moses is a free-standing sculpture that became part of a linear arrangement of the wall-tomb (in contrast with the original design of the free-standing mausoleum). As a result, Antonioni’s camera is not able to move around the sculpture as, for instance, Roberto Rossellini’s did in the famous museum scene in Viaggio in Italia (1953), in which Ingrid Bergman visits the classical sculptures of the Farnese Collection in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Nor was it possible to put the massive Moses on a rotating pedestal to explore all sides of the statue, as is often done in many key documentaries on sculpture, such as the short films by Hans Cürlis in the 1920s and Dreyer’s film on Thorvaldsen, or even in feature films involving statues such as in the sequence featuring Ancient Greek gods in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963). In contrast, the camera scans the Moses figure from the front and sides; its slow gliding over the surfaces evokes Antonioni’s own tranquil movements, which are also echoed in the slow and steady rhythm of the editing.

Through these camera movements and the shifting camera positions, Antonioni emphasises the sculptural qualities and the solidity of Michelangelo’s statue. In so doing, Antonioni makes manifest one of the key qualities originating from the intriguing encounter between cinema and sculpture. On the one hand, film enables us to ‘feel’ the three-dimensionality, weight and even texture of sculptural volumes. On the other hand, however, film inevitably transforms sculptures into pure optical phenomena. Even the most heavy and solid volumes are turned into floating, airy shapes on the screen. Film disconnects the sculpture from the viewer; it gives to sculpture a kind of imaginative field quite apart from the viewing subject, that is akin to painting. Film transposes the sculpture from its real and physical space to an imaginative realm. What is more, with its possibility of changing or shifting points of view, film even perfectly answers to what Alex Potts defines as a crucial feature of sculptural viewing: the ‘interplay between a relatively stable apprehension of the overall shape of a work and an unfixed close viewing of the modulations of form and play of light on the surface’.21 Filmic explorations of sculpture make this ‘haptic’ approach possible. Lo Sguardo di (p.31)

Carving Cameras: Antonioni’s Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo

Figure 2.3 Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004).

Michelangelo fully appeals to an intimate, embodied and multi-sensory viewing, recognising haptics and texture as essential components of the film medium, as scholars such as Vivian Sobchack, Laura Marks and Jennifer Barker have demonstrated.22

The materiality of the sculpture is further emphasised by focusing on a form of interaction between the statue and a beholder – in this case Antonioni, who finds himself both behind and in front of the camera. By linking the director and the sculpture through editing or by including the sculpture and its beholder in the same shot, Antonioni emphasises the concrete presence of the statue, not only as a marble object but also as a (super)human character. According to William Tucker, ‘sculpture, of its nature, is object, in the world, in a way in which painting, music, poetry are not’.23 This ‘reality effect’ of sculpture, its materiality in space or its physical existence in the ‘real world’, is a recurring topic in seminal theoretical texts on sculpture. In contrast to paintings, sculptures are part of the realm in which we are living; they occupy our space. For Tucker, sculptures and their beholders are united because of a sense of gravity, which ‘unites sculpture and spectator in a common dependence on and resistance to the pull of the earth’.24 For filmmakers – perhaps in part so as to overcome the lack of physical co-presence between the film beholder and the sculptural object – this physical confrontation between sculpture and beholder has proven an attractive motif, as can be seen in numerous scenes involving figurative sculpture: the desecration or destruction of statues in October (Sergei Eisenstein, 1927) or City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931), the touching of a statue’s face in the MoMA garden scene in John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), or the erotic encounters between humans and statues in L’Âge d’or (Luis Buñuel, 1930), Le Sang d’un poète (Jean (p.32) Cocteau, 1931), The Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), One Touch of Venus (William Seiter, 1948) and Laura: Les ombres de l’été (David Hamilton, 1979), among many others. When a sculpture features in a narrative film, it is almost always a figurative statue, as filmmakers tend to present the statue as a substitute for a real person. This dominance of the human figure, however, is inherent in the art of sculpture itself, which does not include still lives or landscapes as the art of painting does. According to Rudolf Arnheim, ‘more radically than the other arts, sculpture is monopolised by the subject matter of the human figure’.25 Precisely because sculpture exists in real space, it gives us a more immediate physical sense of a human presence.


In the process of filming, the sculptures undergo a transformation. By means of Antonioni’s close-ups, details of the sculpture, such as the hands or the beard of Moses or the folds of his clothes, are transformed into an almost surreal, Mount Rushmore-like landscape. Antonioni’s film clearly demonstrates that the medium of film not only represents, reproduces or duplicates artworks, but also that it reconfigures, reimagines and remediates them. Like all interesting films on art, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo transforms or translates the original artwork from one medium to another, creating a new hybrid. Details, which are seen simultaneously by the beholder facing the original, are in a film unfolded in time by means of camera movements and editing techniques. Furthermore, film also frames the artwork in a way selected by the director or cameraman – the statue becomes part of another image. As in other interesting films about sculptures, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo deals in a highly conscious way with its framings, creating new visual balances and tensions within them. Changing the statue into something else, the film perfectly tallies with André Malraux’s opinions about the transformative power of photography vis-à-vis artworks. According to Malraux, his illustrated art books such as Le Musée imaginaire (1947) and the three-part Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (1952–4) ‘have found in sculpture – which black and white prints reproduce more faithfully than they do paintings – their privileged domain’.26 In the case of the reproduction of sculptures, Malraux recognises that photography is not a simple transparent medium. He acknowledges that ‘the angle from which a work of sculpture is photographed, the focusing, and, above all, skillfully adjusted lighting, may impart violent emphasis to something the sculptor himself merely hinted at’.27 Photography, consequently, does not represent sculptures but it translates, transforms or ‘metamorphosises’ them. Malraux advocates that sculpture benefits from photography (more than painting does), not because photography is more faithful to sculpture, but because (p.33) photography acts more forcefully upon objects that demand to have a point of view imposed on them.28 Photographic reproductions bring sculptures to the two-dimensional space that is the realm of photography and film.

One element of the impact of filming on a piece of sculpture is exemplified in Antonioni’s shifting viewpoints, alternating low-angle and high-angle shots, which bring to mind discussions on the ideal viewpoint of the Moses sculpture. In 1878, for instance, Anton Springer claimed that the strained state of the figure, the disproportionate limbs, the illogical heaping of drapery over the right knee, and the ignoble face would disappear if the statue were placed on high and seen from below, as Michelangelo originally intended.29 Seen from below, the figure is transformed. The proportions are ‘corrected’ by the increase in the depth of the lap and the reduction in the length of the torso. What is more, a low-angle view also exchanges the impression of tension and anger, so strong in the level views, for greater composure, dignity and majesty.

Pygmalionism and Death

Film not only transforms the statues; it also makes them move. The cinema mobilises sculptures in many ways. Film not only subjects stable statues to a narrative dynamic or to the passing of time; it also turns them into moving shapes and patterns through montage and camera movements. In addition, the encounter between a sculpture and a film camera makes the confrontation between movement and stasis explicit. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of movement versus stasis also invokes the confrontation between life and death. Film not only mobilises statues; it also animates them, makes them alive. Suggesting visual, psychological and physical forms of interaction between himself and the Moses statue, Antonioni acts as a modern Pygmalion, the legendary Cypriot sculptor who created his own perfect female out of ivory. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the beauty of his virtuous statue was so breathtaking that the sculptor fell in love with his own creation and beseeched Venus to bestow life upon it. The artist’s wish was granted and the cold ivory turned to warm flesh at his touch.30 Not surprisingly, the motif of a sculpture coming to life was cherished by many filmmakers, as their medium is based precisely on the animation of the still image. Antonioni, too, presents cinema as a Pygmalean medium. With the help of camera movements, editing and light, it is, first and foremost, the film that animates the static sculptures. Like Pygmalion, Antonioni touches the sculpture. Not coincidentally, he even touches Moses’s knee, evoking a popular legend stating that, upon the completion of the Moses sculpture, Michelangelo struck the right knee asking, Perché non parli? (‘Why aren’t you talking?’). There is a scar on the (p.34) knee thought to be the mark of Michelangelo’s hammer.31 With his gesture, Antonioni not only evokes Michelangelo’s own fascination with the myth of the living statue in relation to the Moses sculpture; he also situates himself in the tradition of literary Pygmalean fantasies about the Moses statue by authors such as Salomon Ludwig Steinheim, Giuseppe Revere and Freud.32

In The Dream of the Living Statue, Kenneth Gross notes that the idea of a statue coming to life is bound to the opposing thought: that the statue was once something living, ‘a creature stilled, emptied of life, turned to stone or bronze or plaster’, and that cultural history abounds in fantasies in which living beings are turned into stone, whether through love, grief, terror or jealousy – including such figures as Niobe, Aglauros, Echo and Atlas.33 Represented on film, static sculptures seem to come alive, but they are always regarded as dead matter when juxtaposed with living beings. The association of sculptures with death is related to their function in the film’s narrative, as well as in reality: sculptures often memorialise luminaries or are funerary monuments – something that is also the case in Michelangelo’s monument for Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli. In addition, Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo turns and twists the relations between life and death, or movement and stasis, as the muscular and perennially young Moses figure is contrasted with the sculptural features of Antonioni’s old and rigid face, almost stagnated due to a stroke. In front of the sculpture, he is hardly moving, evoking the statuesque beauty of the characters in his modernist masterpieces of the 1960s – L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Il Deserto Rosso (1964). As the intertitle at the beginning of the film states, it is through the ‘magic of movies’ that we see the director, who was confined to a wheelchair since the 1980s, visiting the sculpture on foot. Moses’s monumentality becomes more powerful through the encounter with the vulnerable body of Antonioni, who is confronting his own mortality at the age of ninety-two. In so doing, the funeral monument of the quintessential ‘Renaissance Pope’ also becomes a work of commemoration for Michelangelo Antonioni. This is emphasised by the film’s soundtrack, which consists only of the muffled sounds of the city streets, vague echoes of footsteps and creaking wooden church furniture reverberating in the church interior. The silence of the statues, their muteness (represented as if we long for them to speak) contributes to their solipsistic inaccessibility and mystery, mirrored by Antonioni’s own meditative silence.


(1.) This article elaborates on some of the arguments discussed in several chapters in Steven Jacobs, Susan Felleman, Vito Adriaensens and Lisa Colpaert’s (p.35) Screening Statues: Sculpture and Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), in which Antonioni’s film is only briefly mentioned.

(2.) See Penelope Curtis, Sculpture on Screen: The Very Impress of the Object (Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, 2017).

(3.) See Dominique Païni (ed.), Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo: Antonioni e le arti (exhibition catalogue) (Ferrara: Ferrara Arte, 2013); Steven Jacobs, ‘Between EUR and LA: Townscapes in the work of Michelangelo Antonioni’, in Ghent Urban Studies Team (eds), The Urban Condition: Space, Community, and Self in the Contemporary Metropolis (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999), pp. 324–42; and Angela Dalle Vacche, ‘Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert: Painting as ventriloquism and color as movement’, in Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 43–80.

(4.) Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘The Gaze of Antonioni’, Rouge (2004). Available at <http://www.rouge.com.au/4/antonioni.html> (last accessed 4 August 2020).

(5.) Linda Murray, Michelangelo (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980), pp. 54, 97–102 and 164–6. See also Erwin Panofsky, ‘The first two projects of Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II’, The Art Bulletin, 19–2 (December 1937), pp. 561–79.

(6.) Ascanio Condivi, ‘The life of Michelangelo Buonarroti’ (1553), in Life, Letters, and Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 52.

(7.) Brett Foster, ‘Types and shadows: Uses of Moses in the Renaissance’, in Jane Beal (ed.), Illuminating Moses: A History of Reception from Exodus to the Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 353–406, in particular p. 393.

(8.) Linda Murray, Michelangelo (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980), p. 99.

(10.) Sigmund Freud, ‘Letter to Edoardo Weiss’ (12 April 1933), in Edoardo Weiss, Sigmund Freud as a Consultant (New York: Intercontinental Medical Book Corporation, 1970), p. 74.

(11.) Sigmund Freud, ‘Der Moses des Michelangelo’, Imago, 3–1 (1914), pp. 15–36. English translation included in Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIII, 1913–14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), pp. 209–38. This interpretation is contradicted by many other commentators. MacMillan and Swales, for instance, state that the statue depicts the moment when Moses sees God, as described in Exodus 33. See Malcolm MacMillan and Peter Swales, ‘Observations from the refuse-heap: Freud, Michelangelo’s Moses, and psychoanalysis’, American Imago, 60–1 (March 2003), pp. 41–104. See also Jerome Oremland, ‘Freud and Michelangelo’s Moses Statue’, Doppio Sogno: Rivista Internazionale di Psicoterapia e Istituzioni, 10 (2005). Available at <http://www.doppio-sogno.it/numero10/ing/13.pdf> (last accessed 4 August 2020); Mary Bergstein, ‘Freud’s “Moses of Michelangelo”: Vasari, photography, and art historical practice’, The Art Bulletin, 88–1 (March 2006), pp. 158–76; and Asher Biemann, Dreaming of Michelangelo: Jewish Variations on a Modern Theme (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 57. The figure of Moses continued to fascinate Freud until the very end of his life. One of his last publications was Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (Amsterdam: Albert de Lange, 1939).

(p.36) (12.) Kenneth Gross, The Dream of the Moving Statue (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), p. 187.

(14.) Alessandro Serrano, ‘Michelangelo’s “Moses” shines once again’ (6 February 2017). Available at <http://www.italianways.com/michelangelos-moses-shines-once-again/> (last accessed 4 August 2020).

(15.) Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 434.

(16.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘Observations on the Laocoon’, originally published in Propyläen, I, 1 (1798) and republished in John Gage (ed.), Goethe on Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 81.

(18.) Johann Gottfried Herder, Plastik: Einige Wahrnehmungen über Form und Gestalt aus Pygmalions bildendem Traume (Riga and Leipzig: Hartknoch & Breitkopf, 1778). See also Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 28–34.

(19.) Adolf von Hildebrand, Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst (Strassburg: Heitz & Mündel, 1893).

(20.) Heinrich Wölfflin, ‘Wie man Skulpturen aufnehmen soll’, Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, VII (1896), pp. 224–8; VIII (1897), pp. 294–7; and XXVI (1915), pp. 237–44.

(22.) Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Laura U. Marks, The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); and Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

(23.) William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1974), p. 107.

(25.) Rudolf Arnheim, ‘Sculpture: The nature of a medium’, in To the Rescue of Art: Twenty-Six Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 88.

(26.) André Malraux, Psychologie de l’art (Geneva: Skira, 1947), p. 17. See also André Malraux, Les Voix du silence (Paris: Gallimard, 1951); and André Malraux, Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (Paris: Gallimard, 1952–4).

(28.) See Henri Zerner, ‘Malraux and the power of photography’, in Geraldine Johnson (ed.), Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 116–30.

(29.) Anton Springer, Raffael und Michelangelo (Leipzig: Szeemann, 1878), p. 241. See Earl E. Rosenthal, ‘Michelangelo’s Moses, dal di sotto in sù’, The Art Bulletin, 46–4 (December 1964), pp. 544–50.

(30.) Victor Stoichita, The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

(p.37) (31.) This anecdote can be found in numerous texts on Michelangelo’s Moses, particularly in tour guides. It is also often mentioned in compilations of legends and anecdotes regarding the lives of famous artists. Similar anecdotes appear in biographies of other famous sculptors such as Donatello. See, for instance, Emil Pirchan, Künstlerbrevier: Vom Arbeiten, Leben und Lieben der Maler, Bildhauer und Baumeister aus zwei Jahrtausenden in aller Welt (Vienna: Wilhelm Frick, 1939), pp. 58, 21.