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The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (1961)

by Irving Stone

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Dramatizes the life of the Renaissance artistic genius Michelangelo, recalls his love affairs, his disputes with cardinals and popes, and his years of working on the Sistine Chapel.

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I debated about whether or not I should put this on the Classic bookshelf... I still might change my mind. This book was a roller coaster of emotion and history. Regardless of who Michaelangelo was, he lived through 80 years that were packed with monumental moments- both in his life and in the greater world.

I loved the author's musings on God and the purpose of life. I loved the thought process- however constructed- that the author invented from Michaelangelo towards his creations. In short, Stone put an impressive amount of work into this and created something that enhanced my desire to go to Florence and Rome, and see those masterpieces for myself. ( )
  OutOfTheBestBooks | Sep 24, 2021 |
Turns out that 16th century Florence (beset by European political intrigue and general collapse) is exactly where I needed to go to escape from a London heatwave. ( )
  st3t | Aug 3, 2020 |
Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy
A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo

Signet, Paperback [1987].

12mo. 776 pp. Note, Bibliography, Glossary, “Present location of Michelangelo’s works” [759-76].

First published, 1961.
Signet edition, 1987.
57th printing per number line, n.d.


One: The Studio
Two: The Sculpture Garden
Three: The Palace
Four: The Flight
Five: The City
Six: The Giant
Seven: The Pope
Eight: The Medici
Nine: The War
Ten: Love
Eleven: The Dome

Present location of Michelangelo’s works


This is Irving Stone’s eighth, perhaps most thoroughly researched, possibly longest and certainly most famous novel. In my long-forgotten youth, I read his first two books, Lust for Life (1934) and Sailor on Horseback (1938) about Vincent van Gogh and Jack London respectively, and I remember liking them a lot. But neither left an impression comparable to The Agony and the Ecstasy, which I read at around the same time and which left me with what appears to be a lifelong fascination for Michelangelo’s life and art. I also have vague memories of reading some of Mr Stone’s late novels, such as those about Schliemann (The Greek Treasure, 1975) and Darwin (The Origin, 1980), but if they left any trace at all, it has disappeared long time ago.

The extent of Mr Stone’s research can be gathered from his impressive and thematically organised bibliography. He had a lot to choose from. As he says in a brief prefatory note, one 1927 bibliography listed 2100 printed sources about Michelangelo, including articles and theses. Of these, amazingly, only five percent were written in English and only another three percent were translated into it. Several hundred titles were added until 1960, the percent in English unspecified. Mr Stone has listed very little of all this, only books from which he took something for his novel, but even they make an imposing list. In addition to plenty of biographies, art studies and primary sources dedicated to Michelangelo alone, there are quite a few volumes about anything from the history of Greece and Rome to the art, politics, manners, customs and everyday life in Renaissance Italy.

Perhaps the most fascinating, though least important, primary source is not listed in this bibliography. It was yet unpublished at the time. These are all 495 letters that have survived in Michelangelo’s hand. They were translated complete into English for the first time by Charles Speroni on Mr Stone’s request. He simply wanted to have them handy for his research, but then he had the brilliant idea to share them with everybody. So, in 1962, the letters were published as I, Michelangelo, Sculptor.

Better research, as I keep saying, doesn’t necessarily make better fiction. Neither does a brilliant style. “The fact remains that the four greatest novelists the world has ever known”, Somerset Maugham wrote in 1941 about Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, “wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.” Irving Stone is hardly in the same league as any of these, including the grossly overrated author of The Karamazov Brothers (1880), but he shares something with them. He is no distinguished prose stylist, but he is a fantastic storyteller and a fine character draughtsman. The text is loaded with historical detail, including plenty of Italian words and phrases translated in situ, yet remains lucid and readable. The seams of scholarship seldom show. These proved, again, to be some of the most engrossing closely printed 750 pages in my reading life. (Please note: not the easiest or the fastest; merely the most engrossing.)

The novel opens when Michelangelo is 13 years old and about to become an apprentice in the painting studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, a well-known Florentine master. He would rather visit nearby Settignano and be a scalpellino (stonecutter), but meanwhile why not learn the technique of fresco painting? It’s a wild ride from there. The Medici Palace, Lorenzo the Magnificent and sculpture lessons with Donatello’s heir; the fanatic rants of Savonarola, the Medici’s fall from grace and a flight from Florence; Rome as a stinking pit and Bologna as a gastronomic heaven; the Battle of Cascina and the battle with Leonardo (to say nothing of Perugino); Julius II and his popish megalomania; the agony of dealing with philistine patrons and envious colleagues; the ecstasy of carving in marble or painting affresco supreme beauty: all that and a great deal more is described with page-turning vividness. As for Michelangelo himself, his volcanic personality emerges fully formed already in his teens:

“Doctors are allowed to dissect one body on a special day of the year, in front of the City Council. Other than this it is the worst crime in Florence. Put it out of your mind.”
“My mouth, yes; my mind, no. I’ll never sculpture accurately until I see how a human body works.”
“Not even the Greeks dissected, and they were a pagan people without a Church to forbid. Nor did Donatello need to cut into a human body for his marvellous knowledge. Do you need to be better than Phidias and Donatello?”
“Better, no. Different, yes.”

It is hilarious to see the usual disclaimer, titled “Publisher’s Note”, on the copyright page stating that “names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” The truth, of course, is precisely the opposite.

To be sure, most of this book is pure speculation. Michelangelo’s life is extremely well-documented, far better than the life of Shakespeare who flourished almost a century later at the opposite corner of Europe. But a great deal has been lost, can never be recovered, and must be supplied through massive amounts of scholarship and imagination. Mr Stone evidently put both into his novel. We shall never know for sure, but he probably got closer to Michelangelo’s life and personality than many a novelist and art scholar. Nor do I think “modern scholarship” has done much better in the last sixty years.

Why is such a ridiculous “Publisher’s Note” necessary at all, I wonder? Well, one never knows in the present Age of Political Correctness. Nowadays everybody craves to be offended by everything. Who can dare predict the ways in which Mr Stone’s Michelangelo might prove offensive? Gay readers might be offended that he is not made explicitly homosexual. As a matter of scanty facts, if sexuality was of any importance to him (not impossible but very unlikely), Michelangelo was probably bisexual: his sonnets to Vittoria Colonna are hardly less passionate than those to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Like I said, today you never know. Some people might be offended that Michelangelo is not more devoutly Catholic. Others might object he is not African American or Asian. And so on, and so forth. Biographical novels are especially offensive commodities.

Mr Stone never forgets the most important part: Michelangelo’s work. Pietà, David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling receive proper attention all the way from conception to completion, but so do Michelangelo’s often neglected achievements in architecture and poetry, to say nothing of his virtually forgotten (or indeed lost) early works such as his reliefs Madonna on the Stairs and Battle of Centaurs, the wooden crucifix for Santo Spirito in Florence, and his first stand-alone all-around figure (a Hercules, sadly lost). Mr Stone is never content to tell us Michelangelo carved this or painted that. The author wants to know why the artist chose to express a certain theme in a certain way. How did he conceive his works? What did he think and feel about them? What did he want to express? These are dangerous waters to sail for a novelist who fancies himself biographer. But it’s still more dangerous to catch a plane and simply fly high above those waters. Mr Stone sails – on a stout and well-stocked ship.

Another wonderful thing about Irving Stone is that he captures not only the restless intensity and fierce determination of Michelangelo’s character – a perfectionist who strives “to capture naked truth through nakedness” and a workaholic for whom sculpture and painting are life and living, while eating, sleeping and everything else are “painful breaks when his work must stop” – but also his artistic revolution and the colossal impact he had on his contemporaries, what the Italians call terribilità. This is a wonderful but rather difficult word to translate. I believe it means something like the ability to strike people with awe verging on terror.

It is difficult today to appreciate Michelangelo’s shocking originality. But compare his athletic and determined David in marble, portrayed before the battle, with Donatello’s frail and feminine bronze figure with Goliath’s head at his feet, and you can get some idea of it. Only six decades separate the statues, but the spiritual gulf between them is immeasurable. Only Michelangelo could, and did, depict Moses with horns, God truly creating Adam in his own image, and Christ, not as a meek peacemaker, but as a terrifying figure in the middle of the Last Judgment – and naked, of course. Michelangelo defined the concept of the Artist as Hero full three centuries before Beethoven popularised it. This pompous phrase, “Artist as Hero”, means something very simple, namely an artist who accepts the world only on his own terms and, if his genius is powerful enough, changes it profoundly. Michelangelo certainly qualifies.

As Somerset Maugham noted once, genius may not be an entirely different thing from talent, but this is not to say it depends much on the purely artistic gifts. Michelangelo’s art, like that of Irving Stone but on a far higher plane, wholly transcends technical skill. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a century or so later, was just as good a sculptor. And yet even his masterpiece Ecstasy of Saint Teresa seems ordinary compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà. Raphael, Michelangelo’s famous contemporary, was certainly a better painter. But his famous frescoes in the Papal Rooms, easily among the highest points of the Italian Renaissance and lovely though they are, look awfully conventional compared to the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. But that is another story!

It is always sad when you have to part with old friends, be they books or bipeds. I am happy to report this was not the case with The Agony and the Ecstasy. The novel remains just as compelling as I remember it from my youth in the Stone Age. Bringing to life a colossal genius like Michelangelo seems like an impossible task. But Irving Stone has come as close to doing this as it is humanly possible. That his novel is a success is most eloquently shown by the fact that lit and art snobs dislike it, and so do people for whom Michelangelo is just another tourist attraction while they sleepwalk their way through Florence and Rome. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 1, 2020 |
A good companion to Storey's "Oil and Marble," but focused on Michelangelo instead of Leonardo (Leonardo hardly appears). Stone also does a good job explaining some Italian political history during Michelangelo's lifetime. It is long-winded and the metaphors for sculpture are over the top, but the characters are plausible and we do appreciate Michelangelo's drive and accomplishments.

> For Michelangelo, the marbles cried out, "People are good!" while Savonarola was thundering, "Humanity is evil!" ( )
  breic | Apr 27, 2020 |
Michelangelo's love was sculpting, and his relationship with the Medici family both his doing and undoing. He was forced into his Sistine chapel gig, and took 40 years to finish the work on Julius' tomb. His useless brothers and father all depended on him for income. This book tells of his love for some of the men and women in his life. ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
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He sat before the mirror in the second floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy-lidded.
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1st ed. (1961): The agony and the ecstasy, a novel of Michelangelo.

Please distinguish between this work, Irving Stone's 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo, and the similarly titled The Agony and the Ecstasy: Short Stories and New Writing in Celebration of the World Cup edited by Nicholas Royle. Thank you.
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Dramatizes the life of the Renaissance artistic genius Michelangelo, recalls his love affairs, his disputes with cardinals and popes, and his years of working on the Sistine Chapel.

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