The book: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone
The edition: Arrow Fiction paperback, 777 pages, with bibliography, glossary of Italian words and a list of where Michelangelo’s works are to be found at present
The story: of the life and work of Michelangelo Buonarroti, from the day he joins Ghirlandaio’s bottega at 12, to the day of his death at near 90.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: oh how I loved this book. It may be because it was unexpected (I had not read anything this good since 2010 — huh, early 2010 — and, come on, after all it’s not fiction, it wasn’t supposed to be that good! I
am was not a fan of biographies, as you can see 🙂 ), but still.
There isn’t much plot once you know something about Michelangelo’s life (and I did), but Stone was able to keep up the tension work by work and obstacle by obstacle as Buonarroti encountered them during his life. And he made it all come to life so fiercely, Michelangelo’s passion, and the Roman court’s intrigues, and the purity of the marble in Carrara, and the Sistine Chapel, its colors, and how Michelangelo cannot step back from that work even though he wants to, but he knows he can make it perfect and so he cannot stop short of perfection. It was all so lively that for the whole time I was reading this book I dreamed Italian Renaissance dreams each night! 🙂
To be fair, this book is not perfect either. At times I got a bit confused at the many courtiers and side characters and missed their family relations altogether. And I was disappointed by the last part, which seems to be written in a hurry, years going by so fast you don’t realize it and the whole Last Judgment completed before you take notice. It may well be that Stone wanted to mirror the way years go by faster as you grow older (I think there is a poem by Michelangelo on that subject), but I would have preferred if he kept the pace of the first three quarters (and yes, even if it meant 1500 pages instead of 777, I’d have read them with a passion).
What I liked: the way the author dealt with historical parts. Context is very tricky, and I have seen very good books trip on the historical frame and go off babbling about this battle and that intrigue while the reader is left yawning (cue The Cathedral of the Sea). Here, on the other hand, it is done wonderfully, with all the historical and political context told through the deeds and acts of some of the characters, be they Popes or Medicis.
What I didn’t like: Michelangelo himself, extremely proud as he is. True, he had a God-given talent, but in this book he is all too conscious of that, and what’s more it is a pity the book never dwelt on where talent comes from.
“Art is like washing an ass’s head with lye,” observed Francesco, for the Tuscan’s wisdom is a web of proverbs; “you lose both the effort and the lye. “
and for their love of a bawdy comment as well:
“I have no interest in the female form.”
“You’re summarily dismissing half the figures to the world.”
“Roughly, yes.[…] For me, a woman to be beautiful or exciting must be absolutely still.”
“Perhaps you just haven’t put them into the proper positions.”
In the author’s own words: I found descriptions of Michelangelo’s creative fire at work fascinating:
He had removed the outer shell. Now he dug into the mass, entered in the biblical sense. In this act of creation there was needed the thrust, the penetration, the beating and pulsating upward to a mighty climax, the total possession. It was not merely an act of love, it was the act of love: the mating of his own inner patterns to the inherent forms of the marble; an insemination in which he planted seed, created the living work of art.
Hammer and chisel in hand, he stood back from the galvanic male figure before him, still faceless,standing on a rough-gouged base to show the material from which it had emerged, thinking that from the very beginning the marble had yielded to love: pliable, vulvar. With marble he was the dominant male; his was the choice, his the conquest. Yet coming together with the object of his love, he had been all tenderness. The block had been virginal but not frigid; it had been set on fire by his own white heat. Statues came out of the marble, but not until the tool had penetrated and seeded its female form. From love came all of life.
And another thing I loved was the scalpellini‘s simplicity:
The scalpellino’s words are few and simple, matching in length the single blow of the hammer. When he chips at the stone he does not speak at all: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven: no word from the lips, only the rhythm of the shoulder and the moving hand with the chisel. Then he speaks, in the period of pause: one, two, three, four. The sentence must fit the rest count of four or it remains unsaid or incomplete. If the thought must be involved it will be spaced between several work counts of seven, filling two or three counts of four. But the scalpellino has learned to confine his thinking to what can be expressed in the single four-count pause.
Links to better understand this book:
- A list of Michelangelo’s works, with pictures for most
- The Sistine Chapel on the Vatican Museums’ website
- Some of his poems
Random thought: I remember seeing a scene from the movie, but would like to see it whole next time.
Read this if: if you are in any way interested in Renaissance Italy, art, sculpture, or anything in between, do read it.
Counts as: Travel with books – Rome; Italy in Books #8