The Agony and the Ecstasy Summary
by Irving Stone

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The Agony and the Ecstasy Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel, spans most of Michelangelo’s life: It begins with him as a twelve-year-old and concludes with his death approximately eighty years later. Although Stone covers most of Michelangelo’s life, he seems most concerned with Michelangelo’s apprenticeship and early work; when Michelangelo reaches sixty, approximately two-thirds of his lifetime, the novel is practically completed. Struggle appears to be more interesting than success. Because of the mass of details, many gleaned from previously untranslated letters about Michelangelo’s long life, Stone had to shape his material, to provide dramatic structure to the history of a man and his time.

As Stone presents him, Michelangelo is the complete artist: painter, sculptor, poet, architect, and, ultimately, engineer. The Agony and the Ecstasy depicts Michelangelo’s struggle to become the embodiment of Renaissance humanism. In the course of the novel Michelangelo must overcome the interference of his family, religious dogma, political intrigue, papal patronage, military campaigns, and artistic jealousy to realize his artistic ambition.

Despite his father’s opposition, twelve-year-old Michelangelo becomes an apprentice, first to painter Ghirlandaio and then to Bertoldo, a sculptor, who directs a school financed by Lorenzo de’ Medici, patron of Florentine art. Michelangelo quickly wins Lorenzo’s esteem, meets his children (among them two future popes, Giulio and Giovanni, and Contessina, his first love), suffers the first of several attacks by jealous colleagues (his nose is broken by Torrigiani, whose later appearances always threaten Michelangelo), and through forbidden dissection learns the anatomy and physiology he needs. Eventually Savonarola, a reform priest, comes to power, and his crusading zeal threatens Lorenzo de’ Medici’s family and the Florentine art world.

When Savonarola gains political, as well as religious, control, Michelangelo flees Florence and travels to Bologna, where he meets the sensuous Clarissa Saffi and carves the Bambino that attracts the attention of Leo Baglioni. In Rome for the first time, Michelangelo meets Jacopo Galli, a banker, who commissions a sculpture; Giuliano Sangallo, an architect; and Bramante, another architect and an adversary. In Rome, Michelangelo carves the Pieta, learns about the whims of religious patrons, and becomes interested in St. Peter’s—the building of the new St. Peter’s will embroil him in controversy and ultimately consume his last years.

Michelangelo returns to Florence, where he carves “the Giant,” a sculpture of David which becomes...

(The entire section is 612 words.)