The Agony and the Ecstasy is the biographical novel of Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence... it is a book that I have wanted to read since I was in my late teens, but just simply never did; and for this I am quite grateful, as I would have missed many of the nuances of the historical references that permeate each page of this book.
Only twice did the thought cross my mind that perhaps the 'agony' was that of the reader trying to slog through the particulars of the Italian Renaissance, while the 'ecstasy' was simply coming to the end of the book! Those thoughts were short lived however as the life of Michelangelo became increasingly compelling in his almost manic need to create from marble. Some of the most beautiful passages of this book are those that are so richly descriptive in showing Michelangelo's greatest love, beyond that of painting, architecture or poetry, that of sculpting marble.
Irving Stone's personal research to write this book took 6 years, and it shows; it covers the life of Michelangelo, from birth to death and weaves throughout it's pages, in colourful descriptions, his family members, friends, and opponents - it recants the bitter rivalry he has with both Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, his struggles with the Popes, the Medici family, and his own family. The intricate descriptions of the streets and Piazzas of Florence are incredible as are those of San Marco and Santa Maria Novella; at times I found myself floundering in the Italian phrases, yet on the whole I came away with such an appreciation of this man's passion and perseverance under the most atrocious and physically taxing conditions.
Perhaps my most memorable, or thought provoking, portion of this book came mid-way through as Michelangelo began, worked on, and completed his Pieta of Jesus and Mary. He poured through the crucifixion account in the book of John, but could find no place where Mary could have been alone with the dead body of her son. He finally concluded that perhaps after He was laid upon the ground by the soldiers and while Nicodemus was gathering the spices for the burial and Joseph of Arimathea was before Pontius Pilate asking for the body of Jesus, that perhaps then, Mary could have cradled her son on her lap.
Michaelangelo's intent was to have those that would view his Pieta in the years to come, to take the place of the biblical witnesses. I was struck by the fact that he was absorbed in the realization that the only emotion that could be displayed would have to be upon the face of Mary, as Jesus was dead and could only be passively sculpted, with his eyes closed.
What fascinated me about all this, and why this portion was so thought provoking to me, is that Michelangelo intentionally made Mary's face without line, without wrinkle, without age; he purposed to sculpt Mary to give the appearance of still being in her teens, younger in appearance than that of her son, Jesus. She is literally void of expression, of experience, of life. Michaelangelo even sought the help of a Rabbi to find him a young Jewish man to use as a model for the figure of Jesus, as he wanted to sculpt an 'authentic Jew'; this fascinated me, because if he had truly wanted authenticity then surely Jesus would have born the evidence of the torture that He endured prior to the cross, yet only the cleanest of puncture marks are reflected, a subtle suggestion of the ghastly spikes that were driven into the body of Christ.
Towards the end of the detailed account, after the Pieta has been placed within St. Peter's in the Chapel of the Kings of France, Michelangelo pays a visit and overhears someone giving credit to another artisan. Michelangelo, that night, enters with his tools into St. Peter's and chisels into the band across Mary's chest, above the body of Jesus...
Maybe it's just me - but I pondered quite a bit about that ..