The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

He was five-foot-four and barely 100 pounds soaking wet.  If you saw him on the street, he was scraggly, unkempt, and often covered in white dust.  He was a loner with virtually nothing resembling social graces.  Despite this, his was “an awesomeness that cowered popes.”  He was praised and cursed in equal measure in his lifetime, labeled master and monster both for what he could achieve, and for what he claimed he could not achieve… and did anyway.  Among the pieces he left behind are such works as this:


and this:

He claimed he could not paint.  It was not his medium.  But when pressed to do so by the Vatican or face the consequences, he learned and gave us this:

Any of this would have been enough for a single lifetime, but he was also an architect, a poet, a musical composer, and a city defender.  But he was first and foremost a sculptor and a student of the works of his God.

His name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.  He has been hailed as the greatest artist who has ever walked the earth.  Even those who may favor another will put him near the very top of their own lists for his is a name that resonates across time for skills undeniable.  His personal belief, which is one I’ve taken to heart in all of my own studies of art, is that every work is the artist’s self-portrait.

Admittedly, it has been too long since I’ve given due reverence to the man and his works.  My path to studying both art and history led me to the Renaissance very early on, and it’s impossible not to run into Michelangelo at virtually every turn.  Respect and admiration are all I know how to feel in regard to this great artisan, so when it comes to Irving Stone’s classic historical novel, my encounter with it was going to be heavily biased.  It’s either a masterwork worthy of Michelangelo’s name, or it’s not, let’s be honest.  I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a lot of years as a direct result of both the subject and the feature film starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison, which is also a work I admire.

When it comes to movie adaptations, as we all know, the rule of thumb is the book is better.  Rarely does it turn out otherwise.  In this case, as much as I love the film, it barely scratches the surface.  The film focuses on the painting of the Sistine Chapel, which took four years.  This book starts with our protagonist at age 10, continues through the film’s limited time span, and beyond to the point of Michelangelo’s final breath.  Long as it is, this book is also rich beyond words, much like the art of its subject.  It doesn’t feel like a novel of the late 1950s; it could have been written today, such is the timeless effort that has gone into it.  Renaissance Italy is brought to magnificent life, bringing to bear the power trips and egos of those who would control it.  At the center of the storm is an artist who merely wants to honor his deity and sculpt in marble.  You wouldn’t think that’d be so much to ask, until you consider that the other characters in this book are also the who’s who list of that time and place: Leonardo da Vinci, Pope Julius II, Lorenzo di Medici, Savonarola, and so forth down the line.

As a history geek, this book hit all of my buttons at once and held them there.  There’s very little in the way of info dumps despite how much info is actually packed into the tale.  Fact is, there is so much history that readers unfamiliar with this era may seem overwhelmed no matter how good an author’s skills can be.  I don’t usually recommend fiction as an introduction to history, but in this case, this is one of those rare times where I’ll proclaim this to be on the short list of historical fiction fit to serve that function.  As one who has studied art, art history, and the zeitgeist of Christianity as a means to further understanding both the art and the history, this book just absolutely nails it on all counts.  There is more spiritualism here than any Bible thumper is capable of delivering from a pulpit.  There is more art appreciation than in many textbooks you can name.  And the art the book discusses… it speaks for itself.  Behind it all is an unassuming man with a gift and a drive to use it, and the characterization is at once humble and righteously indignant as befitting everything I’ve ever read about him.

In short, this book is a literary masterpiece, capable of being appreciated on a number of levels as befitting the subject matter.  It is the story of a life well-lived and well-challenged.  It’s a story so powerful that it overcomes the narrator who insisted on making his Michelangelo sound like Woody Allen for some reason.  If you can, read the print version.  If you get the audio, just try to imagine a Charlton Heston voice over.  That’s what I did.  Eventually you just get used to it, and the story carries you the rest of the way.  For those who already have an appreciation of the man and his art, or for those who want that appreciation, I cannot recommend this enough.  It’s a life changer of a novel.

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

  1. I agree. This is one of my favorite Irving Stone books and he’s one of my all-time favorite authors. Today’s historical fiction is more fiction than fact. I read once that if Irving Stone said in a book that it was raining in Rome on April 3, 1883, you could know that it actually was raining in Rome on that date. His books were that true to life. An incomparable author writing about an incomparable artist.

    Liked by 1 person

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