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Agony And The Ecstacy
Word Count: 1985
The Agony and the Ecstacy 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 Trrigiani, whose later appearances always threaten Michelangelo), and through forbidden dissection learns the anatomy and physiology he needs.
Eventually Savonarola, a reform 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 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 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
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Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Sistine Chapel, Bartolommeo Bandinelli, David, Lorenzo de Medici, Raphael, Night, Renaissance architecture, Michelangelo and the Medici, Battle of the Centaurs
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