The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

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This was a bestseller when it was first published in 1934 (ETA – oops, sorry, 1961, not 1934!), and it’s still a stunning book now, a novel about the life of Michelangelo. For some reason, I hadn’t read much about Michelangelo previously. When we “did” the Renaissance at A-level, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at their height of their fame, so, when asked to name some famous figures of the Renaissance, everyone chorused “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello” :-), but we were only asked to write about two of them and I chose Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Michelangelo comes across in this book as being a far more attractive character than either of those two – so dedicated to his work, and supporting his family.

And I hadn’t really realised that he’d have preferred to focus solely on sculpture, and was more or less bullied into painting the Sistine Chapel by the Pope of the time, Julius II. So much of his life and career was dominated by powerful figures demanding that he do this, that or the other. It’s well known that some of the leading talents of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo da Vinci, moved around between different courts, but it’d be nice to think of that as being like the top football clubs all competing to sign the best players, whereas in fact it was mainly about politics and Michelangelo only got a limited say in where he was going to go next, and even less say in what he was actually going to do when he got there.

The chaos of the Italian Wars comes across very well in this, as does the decadence of pre-Counter-Reformation Rome. The two cities in which Michelangelo spent most of his time were Florence, his home city, caught up in power struggles between the Medicis, Savonarola and the invading French and Habsburg armies, and Rome, where wealthy families competed to have one of their own elected as the next Pope. Even within the world of the arts, there were feuds, rivalries, factions and power struggles. And he just wanted to get on with his sculptures.

There was one particularly touching scene, and I’ve got no idea whether it’s based on fact or whether it’s a work of the author’s imagination, but I really hope that it’s based on fact. Bartolomeo Pitti, a minor member of the well-known Pitti family of Florence, came to Michelangelo and commissioned a sculpture from him, saying that it would mean the world to him and his wife if they could “help a work of art to be born”. Then there was a follow-up scene, equally touching, in which the completed sculpture – and the sculpture itself is certainly real, and still in existence, known as the Tondo or the Pitti Madonna – was taken round to the Pittis’ home, and Bartolomeo Pitti and his wife and family were absolutely overjoyed with it. Such a contrast to the Popes and some of their powerful families and their aggressive demands for works with which to show off.

It’s a long book. Michelangelo lived to be 88. And it’s absolutely wonderfully written. I only wish that I’d come across it sooner. Very, very highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

  1. Chris Deeley

    Oh dear! The Agony and the Ecstasy was published in 1961 and later made into a film. It was “Lust for Life”, a story about Vincent van Gogh, that was published in 1934. Both books are great, but Stone’s efforts in putting together the later work were outstanding and much appreciated by the Italian government and – dare I say it – the cognoscenti.

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