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The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo Mass Market Paperback – March 3, 1987
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About the Author
Irving Stone (1903-1989) was born in San Francisco. He wrote several books in a genre that he coined the “biographical novel,” which recounted the lives of well-known historical figures. In these novels, Stone interspersed biography with fictional narrative on the psychology and private lives of his subjects. He also wrote biographies of Clarence Darrow and Earl Warren, and short biographies of men who lost presidential elections.
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At the heart is Michaelangelo, a man so driven by his talent he literally cannot do another thing except create. Supporting his ne'er do well father and brothers insures he will never have wealth from his paintings and sculptures, but that doesn't matter to him. His passion defines the title; the ecstasy he feels when he is immersed in chipping away the marble to get at the figure hidden inside; the agony he endures dealing with the Popes, the critics, those who manipulate and betray him.
At 758 pages, this is a rather long and sometimes difficult read (just trying to pronounce all those Italian names in my head stopped forward progress) but so worth it. In the end, I learned a lot about the politics and history of the times, and got a glimpse into the heart of a man whose art the world still treasures.
Although Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was born on 6 March 1475, the book opens on April of 1488, when Michelangelo was 13 y/o.
If you take Wikipedia’s entry on Michelangelo’s life, you’ll have a cliff note version of the novel, however, The Agony and the Ecstasy is not only the "biographical novel" of Michelangelo; but much more than that, it is the story of the Italian Renaissance in all its glory. Through Michelangelo's eyes one gets a full feeling for Florence and Rome at the time. Stone paints with a broad brush the stories of wars, feuding princes, religious machinations, and the wonderful art that the Renaissance produced.
This novel is also an analysis of the struggle that is necessary to create. We experience the creation of just about every major work of art of Michelangelo and the personal struggles that went into the creative process. We see the artist as he struggles with family, princes, popes and other artists to get his designs accepted. Michelangelo started an apprentice on painting at age 13. He convince his father to allow this by having his master pay to his father instead of the opposite. However, Michelangelo soon discovers marble, and from there on he is smitten by sculpting. In Michelangelo’s own words:
“The painter draws to occupy space, the sculptor to displace it.” (p.78)
“...the painter draws to externalize, to wrench a shape out of himself and set it on paper; the sculptor draws to internalize, to pull a shape out of the world and solidify it with himself.” (p.78)
“No, no, cutting stone does not take strength out of you, it puts it back in.” (p. 82)
“If I don’t have wonderful sculptures to show that the years have passed, then my memories will be truly bitter.” (p. 618)
His work was commissioned and interrupted by the powers that be: The Medici’s, the popes, and royalty: making him move—back and forth—from Florence—his true home—to Bologna, and Rome.
In his 89 years of life ( died 18 February 1564) he had three loves: Contessina Medici (consumated), Vittoria Colonna (not consumated and she died a virgin even though she was engaged at age 4 and was married), and Tomasso de Cavalieri, an apprentice thirty years his junior (not consumated, but Michelangelo was accused of having a sexual affair with him.
The book is truly the glory of a life well lived as the artist dies leaving a truly monumental body of work behind. A masterpiece that is a pleasure to read.