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Towers of Books Come Tumbling Down!

I love all kinds of books! For all my friends, I am known on GR as Alicja. I don't stick with a genre, that's boring. Instead you'll get reviews from the most random assortment of fiction and non-fiction works. It's probably due to my interests being as eclectic as my book tastes.


I'm a girlfriend-loving bisexual, science fiction geek, PC gamer, historical fiction devourer, hiker, atheist, history buff, opera lover, vegetarian, kayaker, metal and hard rock concert goer, science nerd, politics debater, world traveler, M/M romance fan, and I have the ability to transform from an adult-like hard-working professional into a screaming fangirl in five seconds flat.

The Agony and Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo - Irving Stone

Rating: 4.5/5

Summary: A biographical novel of the life and art of Michelangelo Buonarroti, sculptor, painter, architect...

Review: I have conflicted feelings about this novel. There is just so much to love, so much that has made a profound emotional and intellectual impact on me. And yet in some aspects it seems incomplete, the presentation of Michelangelo Buonarroti's character is lacking a dimension.

I must clarify something before I go on, even though reading this book required research into Michelangelo's artwork and the politics during the period of Renaissance during which he lived, I am by no means qualified to speak on behalf of the accuracy of the biographical information. All my thoughts below refer to Michelangelo as presented by Irving Stone and discuss his presentation of the character, they are not meant to say anything meaningful regarding the real Michelangelo (especially since I am shamefully quite ignorant of much of the historical specifics of the time period or Michelangelo's life, nor am I one to do more than only make assumptions about a person who lived 500 years ago). Now that I've gotten my little disclaimer out of the way, on to the review...

First, the wonderful... This novel transported me straight into the mind of an amazing artist, drawing vividly emotional passages of a relationship between a sculptor and his marble, an artist and his art. It was beautiful and agonizing (the title fits this novel brilliantly!), it let me experience as close to creating a striking sculpture as my un-artistic self possibly ever could. Stone has a beautiful way with words and he made art alive in his prose, a living, breathing creature of creation. It was breathtaking...

I appreciate a variety of art forms, but have always seemed to be stumped by visual art such as paintings and sculpture. I just can't seem to "see" what others do and that may be tied to my ability of barely being able to draw stick figures. However, I found myself pulling up images of Michelangelo's works of art and staring at them while reading about the process of their creation and the emotional impact on the artist as well as the emotional depth he reached into to create them. I found myself looking at art in a different way, started "seeing" things I've never "seen" before. It helped me open my eyes to art, and not just Michelangelo's. I started looking at other artists' works and found myself having a different set of eyes. I'll never forget this experience and the effect it's had on my appreciation of art.

But beware, unless you are familiar with Italian Renaissance history during that time period, you will need to do research to fully understand what's occurring. Despite this, I enjoyed researching the time period and getting immersed fully into this world. Stone presents a region torn between the old and new. The Catholic Church is being split with the protestant reformation movement, corruption at the highest levels, wars, inquisitions, tensions between conservatives and reformers, freedom of expression/art and modesty/tradition, etc. Michelangelo stumbles through this hectic world with a vision straddling between the Church he was raised with and art inspired by the sculptures and writings of the ancient Greeks; a constant struggle between getting paid commissions and freedom of art. As the powers of the Church push and pull against the old and new, art is being commissioned and burned, appreciated and scorned. Powerful families, like the Medici family, grapple for power bringing wars and discord to Florence, Rome. Stone does an amazing job bringing us right into the fray (although some supplemental information needs to be obtained from additional research).

However, the characterization of Michelangelo seemed incomplete. The most glaring lapse was the confusion surrounding Michelangelo's sexuality. I understand the novel was published in 1961, that the times were different. Honestly, for the purposes of reading a novel such as this I really don't care what Michelangelo's sexuality really was. But it seemed like Stone wasn't even sure how he wanted to present Michelangelo's sexuality so he gave him a confused mix of everything.


When he was young, Michelangelo is presented to have a close friendship with another man in the studio where he trained. His friends tell him many times over that getting so close to him is a bad idea because he has a history of becoming as bastard when a friendship ends. Friendship my ass. This is a clear insinuation of a homosexual relationship, touched upon but never really explored. I didn't even realize this until Michelangelo took a punched to his face after their "friendship" cooled down.

Then we had the awkwardly described relationship with Contessina. Their friendship is beautiful, the descriptions of her beauty innocent. No way Michelangelo had a single dirty thought about her. I did like their relationship, but I hated that it was being passed as a love of his life.

For years Michelangelo seems to be asexual, making allusions to pouring all his energies into sculpture. Have you seen Michelangelo's sculptures? Battle of Centaurs, battling naked men (looked like an orgy before I was able to click on the small image to get a better look). Bacchus? A drunk naked man. David? A hot, muscular naked man. Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? A naked Adam, looking fine if I may say, just like all his other naked men. For a guy taking on mostly Church commissions, he really did sculpt/paint a ton of naked men. And the women? Mostly clothed (he did a couple of nudes in old age although they seemed to have a masculine quality to their bodies), mostly clothed mothers with naked sons running around.

When Stone writes about the process of creating these works, there were moments I blushed. The descriptions of how he poured his body and soul into the art, painting each naked muscle with such concentration were definitely homoerotic. But no, Stone made a point a few times to make sure Michelangelo told his friends that men were for sculpting/painting and women were for loving just to make sure the reader was aware that despite all the homoeroticism Michelangelo was really straight. Uh, yeah, completely straight...

Then came Clarissa whom he fell in love because, uh, well, she had breasts that heaved. It was yet another one of those awkwardly written relationships where Michelangelo seemed to have erotic thoughts at some of the least erotic descriptions of women ever written. He had sex with her once. And then years later he had sex with her for a few weeks. She was his first and (almost) last, at least as far as Stone's presentation is concerned. And this second and last fuck was a prostitute whom Michelangelo received an STD from. Whether historical records forced his hand or Stone just needed to reassert Michelangelo's heterosexuality, we ended up with a random one-time prostitute in the middle of an asexual (although art-based homoerotic) time period in his life. It was random, odd, and out-of-character.
Then there was Tommaso whom Michelangelo wrote love poems to. Love poems!! Here is one of them:

Love is not always harsh and deadly sin:
If it be love of loveliness divine,
If it leaves the heart all soft and infantine
For rays of God's own grace enter in...

And here is a description of their relationship:
"They became inseparable. They walked arm in arm around the Piazza Navona for a breath of air, sketched on the Capitoline or in the Forum on Sundays, had supper in each other's homes after the day's work, then spent the evenings in stimulating hours of drawing and conversation. Their joy in each other gave off a radiance that made others happy in their presence; and now that they were acknowledged companions, they were invited everywhere together."

If that isn't enough, Stone described Tommaso as "more beautiful even than he ancient marble Greek discus thrower that stood between himself and Tommaso: with broad, muscular shoulders, slim waist, straight slender legs. And yet Michelangelo loved him as a "friend" while making moves on Vittoria described as having "deep green eyes of the most vitally lovely woman he had ever seen, with high color in her cheeks, warm lips parted in welcome, the expression of a woman enormously excited by life. She had a regal bearing, though without hauteur. Beneath the lightweight cloth of her simple robe he envisaged a ripe figure to complement the large expressive eyes, the long braids of honey-gold hair looped low on her neck, the strong white teeth between full red lips, the straight Roman nose, slightly and amusingly turned up at the end, and the finely modeled chin and cheekbones which lent her face strength to match its beauty." And Stone is hoping we'll believe that Michelangelo spent a considerable amount of time running after Vittoria hoping for her to love (and fuck) him back and not Tommaso based on those descriptions?

(show spoiler)

I get it, homosexuality wasn't as acceptable when Stone wrote the book, especially when writing about someone as famous and admired as Michelangelo (someone who by now is more legend than man). But forcing random acts of heterosexuality in such a half-assed way while the rest of the novel vibrates with homoerotic undertones is frustrating and leaves a scattered and incomplete picture of Michelangelo. It left me exasperated and detracted from the rest of this magnificent novel. Despite my extended rant, I really did love this book and it has made a significant impact on the way I look at art and the Renaissance. I still highly recommend it, warts and all.