2011 Historical Fiction Challenge, Art, Art History, Book Review, Catholic History, Classical History, Creative Biography, Irving Stone, Italian History, Michelangelo, Reformation, Renaissance

Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a biographical novel of the life of Michelangelo.  The story begins when Michelangelo is a young apprentice and ends with his death at 89.    All in all, the book is put together brilliantly.  Michelangelo was tormented throughout his life – never left to satisfy himself as he was always at the mercy of political and religious leaders’ desires.  The reader is afforded an intimate look at how difficult and dangerous Michelangelo’s days were – Popes, Cardinals, and Political leaders were assassinated regularly; even Michelangelo’s own life was threatened on more than one occasion.  Michelangelo was forced to create at the whim of various Popes for the majority of his life, under threat of being thrown in prison if he were to deny his services to the Vatican.  Not only is the political atmosphere interesting to witness, but so are the personal relationships Michelangelo has with his family and friends, as well as other artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli are all alive and working during Michelangelo’s days (Donatello had died not too many years before), so much of what they are doing, and their works in relation to Michelangelo’s, is included.  Stone gives modern day readers an incredible look at what it was like to live during the Reformation and Renaissance, for the artist and for the everyman.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are so many characters in this book, it is almost ridiculous.  Of course, the book is nearly 800 pages long and spans nearly 80 years of Michelangelo’s life, so this is appropriate.  It was difficult, though, to connect with characters other than Michelangelo.  There are certain people, like Topolino family – stone cutters who tend to be more a family to Michelangelo than his own biological one is- as well as Tommaso and Il Magnifico who are written very well,  even beautifully, and who truly demonstrate the good nature possible in humanity. They are also written (as are some of Michelangelo’s masters) with a clarity of inspiration and impact on Michelangelo’s life and works, so that hundreds of pages (decades of time) after they are no longer in Michelangelo’s life, their presence is still felt in his creation.  Conversely, there are the rotten apples as well – such as the irritating Popes (some better than others, but almost all a nuisance and dictator to Michelangelo) and the disgusting Aretino of Venice, who spends his life earning money by blackmailing others.  The different people and portions of Italy, too, become characters.  There are the Florentines – lusty, artistic, and wealthy; the Romans – dangerous, dark, self-involved; the Carrara – interdependent, suspicious, isolated; the Bolognese – joyous, hearty, uncultured.  As Michelangelo travels and interacts with these different people, their cultures come to life and these too have lasting impact on Michelangelo’s works and methods.  The only complaint would be that Michelangelo is truly the only character in the book to be cared about which, while granting the fact that this is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, is still somewhat disappointing given the number of characters involved.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

It was surprising to find a few grammatical errors in the book, particularly as this is not a first edition and the book was a #1 NYT Bestseller, but one cannot fault the author for items which should have been caught during the editing process.  Those tiny complaints aside, Stone is a powerful and entertaining writer.  His prose and language are both intelligent, yet fluid.  It would be easy to imagine a book of this length, which takes place 500 years ago, being incredibly difficult to read.  Fortunately, this was not the case.  Stone uses many Italian words and phrases for emphasis, but translates these words into English immediately following their use (in dialogue or description).  This is incredibly effective, as it allows the reader to stay in period and to learn something, but also allows the reader to continue the story without confusion or without stops to search for a word’s meaning.   He is also adept at dialogue in general, as well as in timing/transitioning from prose to poetics.  There are moments where the general prose breaks off into a poem, a letter, or a list – and these moments are seamless and natural.  The chapters, too, are an appropriate length and seem to be pre-planned, so that the right amount of information is covered in the correct amount of time (and this information is also cohesive with the present time/situation in the story).  It was not as vividly written as Lust for Life, which at times seemed to read like one was watching a film; but, it was appropriate to the time and mood of Michelangelo’s life and work.  Michelangelo was much less emotionally extroverted than Vincent van Gogh, and his works were more soulful than passionate, so the prose followed appropriately.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is that it was written with the help 495 of Michelangelo’s personal letters (all translated from Italian for the author to create this book specifically), as well as his contracts and professional records.  This is the same method which Stone used to write his brilliant book, Lust for Life, a biographical novel of Vincent van Gogh, and it works again here, just as well.  It took 6 years from the start of research to the completion of the book, and Stone spent many of those years living and researching in Italy, specifically in the various cities where Michelangelo spent much of his time and which were therefore important to his life story.  This incredibly detailed study resulted in a brilliant work that is both factual and creative – much of the dialogue had to be recreated, of course, and specific happenings in Michelangelo’s travels and studies were also necessarily created by Stone.  With so much historical fact, though, and so much based on Michelangelo’s own letters, coupled with the extensive research that Stone did, the book ends up reading as if it were written by a first-hand observer of Michelangelo’s life.  Stone was careful not to take liberties too far, as well; for example, he wrote in the important decades-long relationship between Michelangelo and Tomasso, including the “scandal” that was invented by a jealous fan and known blackmailer of information (contemporary readers should think of a 1500s-era Rita Skeeter) over their relationship; however, he left the nature of that relationship largely open to interpretation, which seems appropriate as there is not much firm evidence to support either opinion (lovers or just master/apprentice).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+

Interest: Art History, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Italian History, Catholic History

Notable Quotes:

“For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.”

“Still, it is true: people who are jealous of talent want to destroy it in others”

“Listen, my friend: it’s easy to get used to the expensive, the soft, the comfortable. Once you’re addicted, it’s so easy to become a sycophant, to trim the sails of your judgment in order to be kept on. The next step is to change your work to please those in power, and that is death to the sculptor.”

“He knew that many artists traveled from court to court, patron to patron, for the most part well housed, fed and entertained; be he also knew he would not be content to do so. He promised himself that one day soon he must become his own man, inside his own walls”

“Art has a magic quality: the more minds that digest it, the longer it lives.”

“Humanism … what did it mean? … “we are giving the world back to man, and man back to him. Man shall no longer be vile, but noble…. Without a free, vigorous and creative mind, man is but an animal and he will die like an animal, without any shred of a soul. We return to man his arts, his literature, his sciences, his independence to think and feel as an individual, not to be bound to dogma like a slave, to rot in his chains”

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

  1. Jillian ♣ says:

    This sounds AMAZING, Adam. I just added Lust for Life to my to-read list as well. I’m curious about this era, as well as art history. That Michaelangelo spent so much of his time creating at the behest of the Pope is a real shame. I’ve been curious about the predominance of religious artwork during the persiod. Bears investigating. 🙂

    • It was a fantastic book – I enjoyed Lust for Life even better, I think. But they were both incredible. I was fortunate enough to see a co-worker reading Lust for Life and tell me about it, or I may never have discovered these books (which would have been sad, sad, sad!)

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