Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Irving Stone had a knack like none other for writing poignant biographical novels which still remained true to their sources, with The Agony and the Ecstasy arguably being his most famous and defining work. Fictionalizing the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the all-time famous artist responsible for many immortal creations, the novel takes us on a grandiose and perilous journey through the Renaissance as the artist tries to find his way in life against all odds.
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Irving Stone Takes us In for the Great Study
When it comes to studying history, the task is relatively simple as we must simply learn recorded facts of events which transpired… the veracity of these records and accounts is a whole other question. However, on the other hand, when it comes to studying people the job becomes suddenly a whole lot more complex.
More often than not, accounts about people and their deeds differ depending from one source to the next, to the point where it sometimes becomes impossible to truly ascertain a person’s character. This difficulty was even further multiplied for the more grandiose personalities in history, Michelangelo Buonarroti being a perfect example. Despite this, Irving Stone still took it upon himself to write a profound and novelized biography on the immortal artist, titled The Agony and the Ecstasy.
To explain it as simply as possible, this historical novel is essentially a portrait of Michelangelo from his youthful days up until his demise. We walk alongside him as he makes ceaseless discoveries about life, all while trying to navigate the complex and often-brutal political landscape of Renaissance Italy. We experience his many trials, both happy and tragic, in the domain of love, which ended up strongly marking his existence, for better or for worse.
Perhaps most importantly though, we are taken on a detailed and profound excursion through a probably-misunderstood and tortured genius, the innate special something which immortalized Michelangelo and his works in our history books. We experience with him the creation of his many masterpieces, and with the help of some real historical accounts, we get to see the artist as much more than a name or a figure from the great past… we get to see him as a real person.
Marriage of Fact and Fiction in The Agony and the Ecstasy
With Michelangelo being as famous a figure as he is, there’s really no shortage of books of all types covering his life and anything associated with it. At this stage, I think we can all agree it takes something more, something special for a book about him to stand out from the crowd. I truly believe The Agony and the Ecstasy manages to have this certain something through its presentation which combines fact and fiction seamlessly.
Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life.― Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy
While the narration is presented as if it was pretty much a regular novel, I think it becomes very quickly apparent the author dedicated a good chunk of his life to researching the artist’s life, the time and place he lived in, everyone who surrounded him and anyone he might have had contact with at some point.
I never for a second doubted any of the information presented by the author, and coupled with the regular historical passages, I legitimately felt like I was reading a pure work of non-fiction. In other words, this book being a novel certainly doesn’t stop it from providing us with accurate and detailed historical information.
Additionally, as we follow Michelangelo through his adventures, Irving Stone also takes the time to give us some general information and background history on various aspects of Renaissance Italy. While some of them are fairly basic reminders we were probably taught during our high-school classes, there are other bits of information which delve deeper into the society, its conventions and politics.
Thankfully, all of these educative elements are spaced rather conveniently throughout the whole story and I never felt as if I was overloaded or bombarded with them in any capacity. Education is best when delivered in the correct doses, and I have the impression Stone found the master formula to make them.
The Relationship Between the Artist and Art
As much as The Agony and the Ecstasy ought to be classified as a historical and biographical novel, it doesn’t encapsulate everything Irving Stone sets out to accomplish in a work some might consider his Magnum Opus. There is one consistently recurring theme explored from all possible angles and points of view, and in my opinion, it ended up being the most memorable element of all: the relationship between the artist and his or her creations.
More than simply tracing the life of Michelangelo, the author seeks to dissect his mind, to understand what it was that pushed him to make the decisions he made… in short, to understand his psychology as much as possible. Never having met Michelangelo myself, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the thoughts the author placed in the man’s head, but to me they seemed like the logical extension of his personality based on the facts which are known about him.
Naturally, one can’t discuss Michelangelo without examining his tumultuous journey as an artist, his outstanding and otherworldly creations, and the relationship he had with them. Irving Stone does an absolutely remarkable job at taking us through detailed expositions of nearly every sculpture and painting the artist is known for, capturing not only their appearance, but also their essence.
Every time he describes a statue Michelangelo is working on, he ensures we understand what he’s trying to accomplish, what emotions he’s transferring to his work, what he hopes the world will see in it, and even the small techniques employed to create the insanely accurate details which allowed his work to stand the test of time.
Irving Stone makes apparent the obsessive love the sculptor had for marble above anyone and anything else, illustrating better than any other author I’ve come across the process of lifelong marriage between the artist and his art. For better and for worse, we see how it ended up shaping his personality and dictating his fate, and how it ultimately gave a truly worthy meaning to a life which might have easily been devoid of it in the first place.
The Life of Eventful Torment
Though the novel’s main premise might be of a more educative nature, in the end, it remains a novel with a narration which aims to entertain and captivate the reader. So how exactly does the story fare on this front? Well, if like myself you aren’t exactly very familiar with Michelangelo and only have a cursory knowledge of his works, be prepared to step into a realm of otherworldly highs and absurd lows, into a life with seemingly no respite from anything.
To try to understand another human being, to grapple for his ultimate depths, that is the most dangerous of human endeavors.― Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy
Indeed, as the various historical passages also teach us, Renaissance Italy had its fair share of cutthroat politics and sharp corners to navigate, and it seems Michelangelo was always caught up in the middle of it all. Despite knowing how his story ended, I still found it rather intriguing to see the many roadblocks and dangers Michelangelo had to navigate in order for his genius to be remembered for all time. There is always some conflict or impending crisis lurking nearby, giving the story a bit of welcome intensity which helps to retain our interest.
The world we are navigating is also populated with a large number of historical figures with whom we become fairly well-acquainted, but our study of them all pales in comparison to just how profoundly we delve into our main subject’s life. Stone does everything he can to take us deep inside the artist’s head, to reveal his methods of thinking and the many internal struggles he was forced to contend with.
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I found the author did a rather commendable job at progressively inching us deeper into the man’s mind, slowly acquainting us with the real person behind the historical accounts. When I started this novel, Michelangelo was just a figure I had read about in books a long time ago, but at the end, he felt like the real person he was. This, I believe, is the true hallmark of any great biographical work.
The Final Verdict
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone is, in my opinion, one of the greatest biographical novels of all time. It combines fact and fiction as seamlessly as can be, providing an insightful and extremely educative examination of Renaissance Italy and Michelangelo as a person and an artist. If you are even the least bit interested in the life of an artist immortalized like no other, then I strongly recommend you give this book a read.
(July 14th, 1930 – August 16th, 1989)
Irving Stone was an American writer who was best-known for his collection of biographical novels revolving around famous figures, including artists and intellectuals.
Those include Lust for Life about Vincent van Gogh, as well as The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. Stone was the recipient of the 1956 Spur Award for Men to Match My Mountains, the 1960 Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Berkeley, and the 1961 Commonwealth Club of California Books Award.