The Agony and the Ecstasy by

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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

ISBN: 0099416271
Wikipedia on Michelangelo; Michelangelo.com; Art of Florence
Read with Historical Favorites – group site

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 Michelangelo’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 Michelangelo’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 didn’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 don’t have to be told. And I don’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 I’m not sure if I’d ever reread it.

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7 responses on The Agony and the Ecstasy

  1. I couldn't get through it once, partly because I felt Stone made Michaelangelo so nauseatingly cheerful and goody-goody that he was unbearably dull.

    Considering Michaelangelo was in fact furiously jealous of Leonardo Da Vinci and taunted him for not being able to finish his horse statue, I'm not sure if that's an accurate portrayal.

    It also felt a bit too much like travel literature for my liking.

  2. I read it with one of my online groups.

    I thought that Michelangelo in thie book was far from cheerful, quite an obsessive and probably very difficult to like. Also there is considerable mention of the fact that he hated/was jealous of Leonardo and saw himself in competition with him. Plus plenty of mention of his taunts regarding the uncastable horse, and indeed other non finished works by da Vinci.

    Although I'm sure that Stone did alter aspects, or maybe interpret them :) After all Torrigiani always said that the reason he punched Michelangelo was that he had been taunting him, and other artists, about their ability. Which was not reported in the novel.
    Twitter: ecnef

  3. I just need to read the darned thing for history. I tried to, I really did but I could barley get past the third page I was bored to the point of torture.

  4. It does start slowly, but once I got past the first few chapters it became more interesting. I wasn't particularly enamoured of Stone's style of writing, but Michelangelo had an interesting life, and I think Florence and the De Medici family are fascinating
    Twitter: ecnef

  5. Remember Florence? And that wonderful restaurant? And David. Sigh. David. And the endless sirens. And the mimes EVERYWHERE.

    We must go on holidays again sometime.

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