Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)

I've read one other Irving Stone book (The President's Lady -- a goofy historical romance based on Andrew Jackson and his wife), and while I am a total sucker for historical fiction, I didn't get into Stone's writing style at all. Why then did I just read the extremely long The Agony and the Ecstasy: the biographical novel of Michelangelo, and why do I also own (and plan to read) his Lust for Life, a fictional novel of the life of Van Gogh? The answer might be that I am a fast reader who will read anything. I'm also pretty patient and forgiving if I'm interested in the subject. However, even with all these qualifications, The Agony and the Ecstasy was a bit of a chore to get through.

Stone spent several years researching this epic novelization of the 90 year life of Michelangelo. He lived in Florence and Rome, had all of Michelangelo's letters and papers translated into English, worked in archives and libraries, and spent time with stonecutters, sculptors, painters and architects. While this probably gave his book more historical accuracy than a less intensively researched effort, he seemed to be compelled to fit every tidbit of his acquired knowledge into this book. This results in long lists of the architectural wonders of Florence, who sculpted them, when they were built, and what they are north, south, east or west of. We also get long lists of names of artists, politicians and other movers and shakers in 15th century Italy, along with who their fathers were and a list of their greatest accomplishments. As you might imagine, this distracts a bit from the main plot of the novel.

The plot itself eventually slides into a pattern of hills and valleys where Michelangelo is either excitedly working on a giant art project (David! The Sistine Chapel!) or unable to work because he has made a nobleman mad with his brusque nature or the pope who was sponsoring him just died. The descriptions of his artistic intentions and the process of creating his master works were worth reading, and generally well-written (although there were several rather forced metaphors comparing sculpting to sex, and one very very limpid sex scene that compared sex to sculpting). Michelangelo, like almost all the characters in this novel, is somewhat of a one trick pony. Once his personality is established at the beginning of the book, it stays unchanged until the very end. Each character that Michelangelo comes into contact with can immediately be labeled as a bad guy or a good guy, and with the amount of heavy-handed foreshadowing in the book there are few surprises as things move forward. By far the most interesting characters in the book are the Medici family -- a dynasty whose fortunes are closely intertwined with the history of Italy and Michelangelo's career, and a historical subject I'd really like to read more about.

So, not a glowing recommendation, but certainly worthwhile if you are a fast reader with an interest in art history or Italian politics. You can't borrow my copy, though, because I'm selling this big boy to Half Price Books to make room for less of a guilty (not so pleasurable) pleasure on my shelves.

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