I wonder if Stone would feel honoured or slighted at my brash theft of HIS title "The Agony and the Ecstasy", as the basis for my review of his wonderful work!
Irving Stone's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is an enormous, comprehensive re-creation of the life and death of Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the acknowledged world giants of art. Not only has he allowed us to share Michelangelo's triumphs as a sculptor, painter, architect and poet but he has also compelled us to weep as we suffer with Michelangelo through his struggles with a petulant and greedy family, exile, political and artistic disgrace, chronic financial difficulties and the loss of love made even more poignant by its never having truly been experienced in the first place!
Were the events of this man's life not breathtaking or compelling enough on their own, Stone has also provided us with a lushly detailed portrait of the immensely complicated background of Renaissance Europe - the madness of Savonarola's puritanical tyranny over Florence and his fanatical revolt against the Roman Catholic church; the Medici family's reign over Florence and virtual stranglehold on the papacy and the church bureaucracy; the turbulent camaraderie (or was that spiteful, ruthless competition?) with other artistic greats of the same period such as da Vinci and Raphael; and the political machinations of the ruthless Borgia family.
That Stone can create magnificent prose, the "ecstasy" as it were, is beyond question! Time and again I was awestruck at Stone's creative abilities as a wordsmith. Witness this brilliant re-working of an often used metaphor for time which, in the hands of a less talented writer, may have become merely hackneyed:
"Time was not a mountain but a river; it changed its rate of flow as well as its course. It could become swollen, overflow its banks, or dry to a trickle; it could run clean and pure along its bed or become laden with silt and throw up debris along the shore."
On the other hand, the novel's "agony" was its intimidating length and Stone's absolute refusal to be anything less than comprehensive, scholarly and absolutely accurate in the tiniest detail. While Stone ultimately avoided the fatal trap, this compulsively detailed chronology constantly threatened to push the novel from entertaining and informative into the realm of list-making tedium.
That said, "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is an extraordinary piece of literature and any patient reader will come to its conclusion feeling uplifted, more knowledgeable and well repaid for the effort!
This book about Michaelangelo is in reality a study of what drives a great artist - obsession, desire, hunger, and in his case, family loyalty. It is a magnificent book, a true achievement, but I would caution anyone who reads it to have a glossy book of the actual works on hand for reference. Nothing more frustrating than not knowing what they all look like! At the end of the novel Michaelangelo, David, the Pieta and the Sistine are like friends, and you will be all the richer for it.