The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
He sat before the mirror of 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 dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-coloured eyes well-set but heavy-lidded.
–Irving Stone - The Agony and the Ecstasy - c.1961 - pg 7
This is a big book; over 750 pages of small print and crowded pages. So when I began to read and wasn’t all that impressed I thought I’d end up tossing it. The prose felt forced, stilted and somewhat boring. But as I read on I did get more and more interested. At the same time however, the style of prose doesn’t really improve. I enjoyed the book while reading it, but it was never a case that I simply couldn’t put the book down. In fact on a few occasions I wasn’t all that bothered to pick it up.
Despite this flaw I would still recommend the book. The life and times of Michelangelo Buanarotti are well worth reading about, and this book covers everything. Maybe that is part of the problem. Michelangelo had such a full life there is almost too much to write about. First and foremost he is remembered as an artist; the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s David are two of the greatest works of art of all time.
But as well as the art, there is also the fact that he lived through a time of political and religous upheaval. Almost fostered by Il Magnifico, and then having to live through the corruptions of other members of the de Medici family. To watch works of art be destroyed because of the religous beliefs of Savanarola; to have to compete with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance must have been one of those “interesting times” that the Chinese saying warns about.
I think most people are aware of some details of Michelangeloâ€™s life, if only from school, but this book gives the reader the opportunity to learn so much more. Much of it is based on Michelangeloâ€™s actual letters, and biographies of the time. In the opening few chapters, for example, there is a sentence attributed to Torrigiani:
I felt his bone and cartilige crumble like biscuit
This description of Torrigiani’s thoughts on breaking Michelangelo’s nose with a punch is almost the exact phrase used by him, as reported by Benventu Cellini. Indeed the later meeting between Torrigiani and Cellini is also mentioned in the book.
Of course this is a fictional biography. The reader learns about Stone’s interpretation of what Michelangelo was feeling and thinking, his interpretations of the artist’s works. That has to be born in mind, we cannot accept it as truth. At the same time however it is a very well researched book, and the bibliography at the end of the book will enable any interested reader to read further on the topic.
One aspect I didnâ€™t like about the novel was that every so often Stone would use an Italian phrase and then translate it. In certain situations this is acceptable. To illustrate different dialects, as when he describes how the Carrarini stone cutters chopped off the end of their words, giving them almost a different language. But in other places it seems out of place. We should know that the characters are speaking Italian, we donâ€™t have to be told. And I donâ€™t think it adds to any atmosphere or tone, simply means that Stone has to say somethings twice. Once in Italian, and then again in English.
Overall I enjoyed this book, but Iâ€™m not sure if Iâ€™d ever reread it.