Where to begin with The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone? I think the best place is to call it like it is, and label Stone’s work an epic. I’ve been living with this book for almost two weeks now, and reading it almost every day; I’ve only just finished. The Agony and the Ecstasy tells the story of the great Florentine artist Michelangelo Buonarroti from age 13, when he first enters an art studio as an apprentice, to his death at aged 89 in
Rome, when he was shepherding the creation of ’s for the Pope. St. Paul
What makes this work so epic is not the length, but rather the scope. The reader is taken from the infallible convictions of a young teenager, desperate to fulfill the burning desire to create beauty, to the closing moments in the lift of an old man who has loved, challenged great men, and been part of the fabric of artistic society for several life-spans. No aspect of growth or development is overlooked by Stone – he propose and paints (pardon the pun) the picture of a human soul throughout the transition of 70+ years. The reader is swept up in the tale, personalizing the experiences, and relating to events in a way that could have been lost had the theme been treated by a lesser writer.
The strength of the book lies in the intellectual exercises that are Michelangelo’s conceptualization of his sculptures and paintings. Stone doesn’t simply say “He got a block of Carrera and starting chipping into it.” Instead, the rational, thought process, and context for each work of art is fully developed for each piece. Obviously, much of this must be conjecture, but Stone uses the eye of an art connoisseur to deconstruct the works that exist and back-tracks to their moments of conception. It’s an interesting process for the reader, and I found these exercises to be the strongest passages in the entire work. Unfortunately, Stone lets the completeness of these passages laps for the works created in the later portion of Michelangelo’s life – having known what Stone could have done with each piece, the absence of these assessments are keenly felt. I did come to the conclusion after the first instance that this was a book written to be read during the age of the smart-phone. While reading about the works of art, it is incredibly useful to be able to Google images for a comparison and better understanding. Those poor bastards who read the book in the 60’s, when it came out, really lost out on getting the full and immediate impact of many of these passages.
That is not to say that The Agony and the Ecstasy is without flaws. Two main problems come to mind. First, Stone often time switches trains of thought without much warning. The reader can be engrossed in one of the artistic deconstructions described above, and in the next paragraph, be treated to a brief historical overview of Papal politics, only to be thrust back into an artistic consideration of some sort. These moments are jarring, but are only really present in the second half of the work, when Michelangelo was being patronized by great men (like Popes and nobility) for whom international politics were of the utmost importance. In this way, I can see Stone’s reasoning for the inclusion of these asides, but as a reader, it really does take you out of the moment.
My second problem is with the very last two chapters of the book. Maybe it was an unfortunate coincidence of my own timing, but I read consistently (ie. a little each day) from the time Michelangelo was 13 until he was 60, then I stepped away for three or four days. When I came back to the last 100 pages, and 30 years of Michelangelo’s life, they seemed rushed. As the end of the third-last chapter (when he was 60), Stone notes that the remainder of Michelangelo’s life would be given over to two of his great loves and some of his best works. If that’s so, why was one third of the man’s life (the busiest time, apparently) compressed into the last seventh of the book? Worse, the last seventh was more about the international and Roman politics that impinged on Michelangelo’s creative abilities than on the man himself. Be it my own poor choice of timing in walking away from the work, or Stone’s seemingly rushed finish to his epic, the last portion of the book falls short in terms of narrative and story telling.
What is strong in the work from beginning to end is the historical research. Part of my own historical research for my thesis relied on contemporary writing and household accounts, so I can easily recognize when Stone has a document in hand to provide him inspiration for a particular event. For example, it’s noted that Michelangelo is so pleased with his grandson’s marriage that he sends the new bride two rings, and she in return sends him nine shirts. I would wager that Stone either had the letters between Michelangelo and his grand-daughter-in-law referencing the items or, more likely, the shop receipts for the purchase of the rings and a house-hold inventory of Michelangelo’s goods at the time of his death which make special note of the presence of Florentine shits. Stone could have then inferred from whom they came. Some of these instances are a little ham-fisted, but that may just be because I’m attuned to them; someone without personal experience in using similar sources might breeze past them without second though.
So then, where does that leave me on a recommendation? If you like fictionalized biographies, this is one for you. If you like books that tell the story of one person’s life from beginning to end (and Stone is telling of the life of an artist, not the man, which is why he starts at 13), then again, this is one for you. I enjoyed it, and found the pros outweighed the cons. I will be judicious in who I recommend this book to in the future – it’s not for everyone, and I could easily understand someone getting turned off of it where I so enjoyed it. I think my next step is to seek out the film of the same name, and see how the story is translated from 700 pages to a 70-page screenplay; I don’t hold out much hope for a faithful adaptation, but it should be interesting none the less. Final verdict? Read it – it’s good!