Old favourites: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) by Irving Stone

You feel you know Michelangelo and his passion for art by the end of the book

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist could have made a comfortable living from painting but it was sculpting that called him. Photograph: Getty Images

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist could have made a comfortable living from painting but it was sculpting that called him. Photograph: Getty Images

 

That this biographical novel about an artist who loved to work in stone should have been written by someone with such a surname is surely appropriate. Aside from that coincidence, the novel’s length and scale are clearly meant to convey the epic nature and grandeur of the artist’s achievements. The artist is Michelangelo and his life story, as told here, certainly reflects the novel’s evocative title.

He could have made a comfortable living from painting but it was sculpting that called him. “To some people, stone was dead; ‘hard as stone’, stone cold’, they said. To him, as he once again ran his fingers along its contours, it was the most alive substance in the world, rhythmic, responsive, tractable, warm, resilient, colourful, vibrant. He was in love with stone.”

Irving Stone brings Michelangelo and his times vividly to life. He spent six years preparing the book, having all 495 surviving Michelangelo letters translated, as well as the records and contracts he kept. He also lived in Italy for several years to become as familiar as possible with the world Michelangelo inhabited.

You feel you know Michelangelo by the end of the book: his family issues, his rivalries, the wonderful (Lorenzo de’ Medici) and appalling (the popes) patrons, the loyal and treacherous friends but, above all, his passion for his art. He could be cranky, hot-tempered, demanding, wilful and opinionated, as well as humble, generous, driven and determined.

He had affairs with women but preferred to sculpt men. He had no interest in marriage and would have made a poor husband; he was married to his art. His work ethic and perseverance were extraordinary; no matter what or how much he disliked the task, it still had to be done properly.

“Art for me is a torment, grievous when it goes badly, ecstatic when it goes well, but always it possesses me. When I have finished with a day of work, I am a husk. Everything that was inside of me is now inside the marble or fresco. That is why I have nothing to give elsewhere.”

You’ll have a heightened appreciation of the works on finishing the novel because Stone strives mightily to convey what might have been going through Michelangelo’s mind and inspiring him as he worked on his masterpieces.

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