The Agony and the Ecstasy depicts Michelangelo’s struggle to become the embodiment of Renaissance humanism. In the course of the novel Michelangelo must overcome the interference of his family, religious dogma, political intrigue, papal patronage, military campaigns, and artistic jealousy to realize his artistic ambition.
Despite his father’s opposition, twelve-year-old Michelangelo becomes an apprentice, first to painter Ghirlandaio and then to Bertoldo, a sculptor, who directs a school financed by Lorenzo de’ Medici, patron of Florentine art.
Michelangelo quickly wins Lorenzo’s esteem, meets his children (among Them two future popes, Giulio and Giovanni, and Contessina, his first love), suffers the first of several attacks by jealous colleagues (his nose is broken by Trigiani, whose later appearances always threaten Michelangelo), and through forbidden dissection learns anatomy and physiology he needs.
Eventually, Savonarola, a reforming priest, comes to power, and his crusading zeal threatens Lorenzo de’ Medici’s family and the Florentine art world.
When Savonarola gains political, as well as religious control, Michelangelo flees Florence and travels to Bologna, where he meets the sensuous Clarissa Saffi and carves the Bambino that attracts the attention of Leo Baglioni. In Rome for the first time, Michelangelo meets Jacopo Galli, a banker, who commissions a sculpture; Giuliano Sangallo, an architect; and Bramante, another architect, and an adversary.
In Rome, Michelangelo carves the Pieta, learns about the whims of religious patrons, and becomes interested in St. Peter’s – the building of the new St. Peter’s will embroil him in controversy and ultimately consume his last years. Michelangelo return to Florence, where he carves “the Giant,” a sculpture of David which becomes the symbol of Florence. There he meets Leonardo da Vinci, his principal rival, and Raphael, the painter – the three become the triumvirate of Renaissance Italian art. Jealous of Leonardo Michelangelo competes with him as the two artists paint frescoes for the rulers of Florence.
Word of Michelangelo’s work reaches Pope Julius, who forces Michelangelo to work in bronze, rather than his beloved marble, and to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is Julius who resolves to build a new St. Peter’s. Julius is followed by two Medici popes who only add to Michelangelo’s problems: Giovanni, by forcing him to work with marble from Pietrasanta, an almost inaccessible region, thereby making Michelangelo an engineer, and Giulio, against whose forces Michelangelo must use his engineering talents to fortify the city of Florence.
The Medici popes are followed by Pope Paul III, who commissions Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment and who, after bitter disputes about the ongoing building of St. Peter’s, appoints him as the architect for the cathedral. The dome, Michelangelo’s last creation, is the appropriate capstone for his creative efforts. In addition to achieving artistic acclaim, he finds an assistant, Tommaso de Cavalieri, who is to complete St. Peter’s, and Vittoria Colonna, the female epitome of Renaissance humanism and his last great love.
Stone presents Michelangelo as the idealized Renaissance humanist, the artist whose commitment to his work becomes a religion and whose creative efforts are no less than godlike. In fact, his commitment to art is such that it alienates him from society, makes him a misunderstood recluse, and, in becoming the outlet for his passion, prevents him from finding love.
Because art becomes a religion, art cannot be commercialized; the artist is not a businessman. Overly generous to his parasitic family and deaf to the warnings of his banker/agent Galli, he lives in relative poverty, unlike Leonardo and Raphael. Also unlike them, he works alone, refusing to compromise his work by using, even in the Sistine Chapel, other painters.
Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, despite their stature, exist in Stone’s novel primarily as foils, artists whose deficiencies help define Michelangelo’s greatness. Other characters serve to demonstrate the plight of the artist whose superior work is often prey to the jealousy of less talented colleagues. Torrigiani breaks Michelangelo’s nose, itself part of a work of art, as Stone carefully points out in the first paragraph of the novel. Later Vincenzo, an inferior sculptor in Bologna, defaces Michelangelo’s St. Petronius because of jealousy.
Perugino’s vicious attack of Michelangelo’s work motivated, according to Raphael, by envy and despair: Michelangelo has made Perugino;s work obsolete. Another act of “desecration” is committed by Bandinelli, who breaks into Michelangelo’s studio during the attack on Florence. “The forces of destruction march on the heels of creativity.”
Despite the obstacles posed by such critics, Michelangelo succeeds because of his own talent, which is shaped by his mentors: Ghirlandaio, who instructs him in painting; Bertoldo, who instructs him in sculpture; de” Medici, Il Magnifico, whose Platonic Academy instructs him in poetry and in the blending of classical and Christian cultures that characterizes his work. Even after his death, Lorenzo’s ideas and influence inform Michelangelo’s art. The women in the novel serve primarily as symbols that ultimately are related to Michelangelo’s work.
Contessina, Lorenzo’s daughter is inaccessible, because of her exalted position, and purity; Michelangelo has bound to her aesthetically, spiritually, and mystically. Clarissa Saffi, a fictional rather than historical character, represents the emotional and physical side of love, and she is accessible. According to Michelangelo, she is the female form “already carved” and is the incarnation of love in its “ultimate female form.” During the Florentine War he thinks of both women, and when their images merge, they become one, “the figure of love itself.”
This blending is analogous to the blending of classical and Christian in his work. The Agony and the Ecstasy is a lengthy, sprawling novel, a large canvas peopled with characters from all walks of life. The historical characters serve to provide a cultural and intellectual milieu, a background for Michelangelo. Many of the fictional characters are from the lower classes, which tend to be sentimentalized and contrasted with the corrupt and ambitious upper classes. Nowhere is this conflict of values more apparent than in the juxtaposition of the Topolinos, the stonecutters, and the denizens of Rome.
Themes and Meanings
In the Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone uses Michelangelo as a working definition of the idealized artist, a creation who is, simultaneously, a godlike creator. Early in the novel Michelangelo refer to God as the “first sculptor” and as the “supreme carver”; later, he refers to artists as the species “apart”who will speak for God. “To draw is to be like God,” asserts Michelangelo, who claims elsewhere that sculpture is “my faith.” As he gazes at his Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo recalls Genesis, and Stone has him, in analogous terms, see all that he has made and “find it very good.”
This extraordinary analogy is extended when Michelangelo sees himself as not only God the Father, but as “God the Mother,” source of a “noble breed, half man, half god”: as God the Mother, he inseminates himself with his “creative fertility.” Stone thus incorporates sexuality within religiosity and provides his readers with a new metaphor involving the equation of sex with sculpture. In its coarsest terms, the relationship is described by Beppe: ”What you put into the ladies at night, you can’t put into the marble in the morning.” In more elevated terms, the conflict between art and sexuality is akin to the traditional opposition between the body (sex) and spirit (art).
Given that conflict, the sculptor expresses his relationship to marble in sexual terms; having expended himself on the marble, he has no creative energy for personal relationships. For Michelangelo the act of creation involves the “thrust, the penetration, the beating and pulsing: toward climax. Blocks of marble are seen as “virginal”; the chisel penetrates and seeds its female form. Conversely, when he makes love to Clarissa, the sexual act is expressed in terms of sculpture: He uses a “chisel” on the “warm living marble” of Clarissa’s body, which had been earlier described as being “already carved.” Through the use of the analogy Stone explains Michelangelo’s relative lack of sexual interest in women (Clarissa is a fictional character), but Stone avoids dealing with his subject’s bisexuality.
Stone also addresses the incompatibility of art and business. During most of his life, Michelangelo is totally dependent on the patronage of the wealthy, especially the papacy, and their whims and eccentricities prevent him from expressing himself in his beloved marble. Although a creative god in theory, the artist is, as Michelangelo ruefully acknowledges, a “hireling,” below a tradesman in status. Rather than financing the artist and allowing freedom of expression, the patrons exercise their vanity and force artists to work on inappropriate projects.
Running throughout the novel is the notion that the artist exists only to be exploited both artistically and financially. Lodovico may not approve of his son’s vocation, but he extorts money from him. Michelangelo is, in truth, his father’s “quarry.” Finally, he recognizes that both his Holy Fathers and his earthly ones have exploited him. It is only the committed artist who can survive, even thrive, in the midst of such materialism. Michelangelo’s commitment allows no distractions and necessitates mastery of every phase of art: painting, poetry, sculpture – he masters them all.
Like the amateur film director who wishes to control all phases of the filmmaking process, the sculptor wants to control the marble from the time it is cut from the quarry until the carved statue is safely installed. Therefore, readers learn that Michelangelo can cut stone, that he can build roads to the quarry, that he can protect his work from the ravages of war. According to Bertoldo, the stone “works with” a sculptor like Michelangelo.
The Agony and the Ecstasy, perhaps Stone’s most acclaimed novel, is a worthy successor to Lust for Life (1934), his first venture into the artistic world, and the two novels contain many of the same themes. Stone’s other novels concern, for the most part, political figures as diverse as Eugene V. Debs and Mary Todd Lincoln; he returned to the world of art in Depths Of Glory (1985), a novel about the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
In his genre, the biographical novel, Stone has no American equal in quality or quantity, though Andre Maurois is a worthy foreign rival. The lack of competition is understandable, given the demands of the genre and the lack of critical appreciation for it, despite its popular acceptance. First, the research is formidable, for the biographical novelist must know not only his subject but also his times, including history, religion, politics, science, and the arts.
Second, because they believe that less imagination and creativity are required in “history’, critics value fiction over fact. As Stone points out, however, a biographical novel is not simply history or biography; a biographical novelist must select and shape his material to give it dramatic structure and theme. In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone eliminates historical characters, alters them, adds fictional ones, and has them reappear so as to give unity, focus, and theme to his novel. Given the massive amount of material that was at his disposal, tone’s novel is a significant achievement.