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The Agony and the Ecstasy

Michelangelo up close and personal, the perfect travel companion for a trip to Italy

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a must read if you are travelling to Tuscany, Florence or Rome (your trip will be infinitely more interesting) or if you are remotely interested in art history or the Italian Renaissance. And even if you are none of the above, this is a worthwhile book. The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarotti – Italian sculptor, painter, poet and architect – and a very enjoyable lesson in history.

First, a disclaimer; biographical novels are the low-brow cousins of biography, but as long as they are well-researched and you can live with their made up elements, they are often a great deal more readable. Also, let it be clear from the beginning, The Agony and the Ecstasy is not amazingly written. Stone seems at times a bit too taken by his subject and occasionally dives into melodrama.

HOWEVER, if you can live with this, The Agony and the Ecstasy is a completely unputdownable book.

Michelangelo, the creator of the David sculpture in Florence (carved when he was 25 years old!), the frescos and the dome of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and much more, is universally acknowledged as one of, if not the, most brilliant sculptor of all time.

We meet him at 13 years old, towards the end of the 13th century and at the height of the Italian Renaissance, as an apprentice for another Florentine artistic genius, Domenico Ghirlandaio. The Medici’s, Florence’s ruling banking family, quickly spot Michelangelo’s talent and take him under their wings.

During the renaissance, art was as much an instrument of power as a sign of wealth, and as Michelangelo’s stature rises, he becomes a chess piece in Florence’s various squabbles with other city states, in particular that with Rome. Even in death, Michelangelo was a symbol of political power. Dying in Rome at the age of 89, Pope Pius IV ordered his body to be buried in the St. Peter’s Basilica; the Florentines, eager to claim him as their own, stole his body and brought it back to Florence.

In The Agony and the Ecstasy we follow Michelangelo’s struggle to survive as an artist, his fickle patrons, his love of sculpture and his frustrations at being asked to paint, his strained relationship with Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, and his hermit like existence. Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is his self-imposed puritan work ethic, which drives him to single-handedly complete the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel, an astounding feat. Stone convincingly describes his obsessive dedication.

His progress became swifter as he stepped inside the marble, so passionately tearing out deepening layers that he felt as though he were standing in the midst of a snowstorm, breathing its flurries, closing his eyes at the moment of the hammer impact.

The book was originally published in 1961 and went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies. There is no doubt that it’s thoroughly researched, Stone lived and breathed Michelangelo for years while writing it. He moved to Italy, worked in a quarry and as an apprentice for a marble sculptor, had all of Michelangelo’s 495 surviving letters translated and used countless primary sources.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy gives a captivating insight into the history of Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the breeding ground for a staggering number of artistic and creative intellects. It is as much a story about history and art history as a story about Michelangelo. To spice it all up, with have all the sinister intrigue, the power struggles, the betrayals and the love stories; a potent mix of entertainment and history.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone is published by Arrow Books, 755 pages.