Art · Books · Travel

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Half the fun in traveling, for me anyway, lies in anticipating the trip itself. Knowing I would have loads of flight time on my trip to Italy this summer, I scoured around looking for a novel that would give me solid information as well as the mood and atmosphere appropriate for a first time trip of this magnitude. I settled for E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, only halfway through realizing I’d already read it. Ergh.

After I got home, I was sharing pictures from the trip with mom. She casually said that seeing David in Florence was probably just like in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Huh?  Click, click to google I go. Are you kidding me?  This was the very book I needed to read to prime the pump before I went.  Better late than never, I ordered a cheap used copy of Irving Stone’s 1961 biographical novel about Michelangelo.

Great. Now, I have to go back to Florence and see all the churches and streets, palaces and chapels, that I walked right by without realizing their significance the first time. I also am adding Rome to my short list of places to visit a first time.

The older I become, the less I know, it seems. There are so many significant things in this world that I know nothing about. Art and art history are just a few of the huge gaps in my education. Nothing like a really good story though to caulk in a few of those gaps. This is what words can do for you. They can teach you at the same time painting a picture or creating a movie in your mind. This story of Michelangelo Buonarroti, arguably one of the world’s greatest artists, does just that. Stone describes beautifully the relationship this artist had with the stone of Tuscany:

Florence spoke to him. The stones spoke to him. He felt their character, the variety of structures, the strength of their impacted layers. How wonderful to be back where pietra serena was the material of architecture. To some people stone was dead; “hard as stone”, “stone cold,” they said. To him, as he once again ran his fingers along its contours, it was the most alive substance in the world, rhythmic, responsive, tractable; warm, resilient, colorful, vibrant. He was in love with stone.

David. We sweated and waited and waited and sweated in line at the Accademia Gallery to see this famous hunk of stone.  I actually had thoughts of trading my spot for another gelato, but my pal Becky wouldn’t allow it.  Grace that I didn’t  We walked in out of the July heat and there he was in all his glorious nakedness. Oh. My. Goodness. Knowing nothing of the artistic process of sculpture and being absolutely ignorant of the story behind this masterpiece, you can’t help but instinctively sense divinity.  Having read Stone’s account of Michelangelo envisioning and then freeing the form that lies within a column of purest marble, well I am again in awe. Stop giggling, Becky. I can hear you all the way from Texas.

His life’s creative collection was mind-boggling. From the Sistine Chapel altar wall and ceiling, which was his pure agony, to the dome of St.Peter’s Basilica, to the architectural fortification of Florence against invaders. And absolutely none of it was easy. He was continuously at the mercy and influence of the Medici family and no less than four popes. Michelangelo’s story is one of the single-minded focus of genius, heartache, struggle and doubt. A highly dysfunctional family of origin rounds out this historic tale.

At the end of his life, this weary artist reflects:

Life has been good. God did not create me to abandon me. I have loved marble, yes, and paint too. I have loved architecture, and poetry too.  I have loved my family and my friends. I have loved God, the forms of the earth and the heavens, and people too. I have loved life to the full, and now I love death as its natural termination. Il Magnifico would be happy for me, the forces of destruction never overcame creativity.

My days of studying the map of Florence paid off as I read about Michelangelo wandered the streets with names they still have today.  His time carving behind the duomo at one point brought him walking down the Via dei Servi, the very street where we stayed this summer. I felt connected and went to sleep many nights this fall dreaming of stone and sun and God’s amazing gift of art.  I highly recommend this very good story. You may or may not learn something, but you most definitely will close the book wanting to board an airplane for Italy.

**sidenote for free: This book took all fall for me to read…partly because I only read it before bed as I had way too many other good reads going on during the day. Plus the cheap copy I bought ended up being a mass market paperback, which I despise….800 pages was an awkward squatty mess. Hardbacks, trade paperbacks or (gasp) the ipad for me from now on.

2 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy

  1. Amazing – I read this in early high school with no thought of travel abroad and very little interest in history, but Stone’s ability to tell the story of the artist’s lifetime struggle to learn and create beauty remains in my mind and heart. This is 42 years later – what a gift.

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