The Agony and the Ecstasy: Novel Summary
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Summary of Book One: The Studio
Each book illustrates one part of the artist’s life and consists of several short numbered scenes. Book One is Michaelangelo’s experience as an apprentice in the studio of fresco painter, Ghirlandaio.
The story opens in the Buonaratti home in Florence, Italy, in March of 1488, where the thirteen-year-old Michaelangelo sits in front of a bedroom mirror sketching his own lean face and finding it ugly and out of proportion. His four brothers are sleeping in the room, and he waits to hear the whistle of his friend, Francesco Granacci, a nineteen-year-old apprentice of Ghirlandaio. Granacci has secretly been encouraging the young Michaelangelo in his passion for drawing. He takes him to the studio of the master on his birthday to apply as an apprentice there.
In the Guild studio, sleepy apprentices sit under the supervision of their master Ghirlandaio, who is forty and one of the most successful and busy artists in Florence. The master says he starts boys at the age of ten; where has Michaelangelo been for three years? The boy answers that he had to waste time studying Greek and Latin at his father’s order.
Michaelangelo is direct and self-confident, and Ghirlandaio responds to him. He tells him to sketch for him, and Michaelangelo quickly sketches the whole studio. Ghirlandaio suspects he had studied with his rival, Rosselli, but Michaelangelo says he has only learned from copying Giotto and Masaccio in the churches. Ghirlandaio says he will start Michaelangelo for the price of six florins a year and his father’s permission. Michaelangelo explains the only way he will be able to persuade his father is if he can earn six florins a year from Ghirlandaio! The master is ready to say no, but the boy is so sure of himself, he gives in.
In the Buonarroti home, his stepmother cooks all day while his father worries over his account books. The upper-class family has five sons but little money. Only his grandmother defends him in his choice to be an artist. The rest believe he is disgracing the family name.
At the Ghirlandaio studio, Michaelangelo meets the other apprentices and learns all he can. The apprentices accept Michaelangelo as a buddy, but he does not feel he fits into fresco painting. He tells them sculpting is the supreme art. The master designs the frescos for churches, and each apprentice is assigned tasks according to his ability. Michaelangelo works a whole year learning skills such as drawing, pen sketches, mixing paints, plastering and color but does not get to apply paint, for it must be done on wet plaster before it dries. Michaelangelo begins to secretly take Ghirlandaio’s master drawings from his portfolio to learn from them because he is impatient at being kept back. The boy dislikes the finished frescos because the figures have no religious feeling.
When he is discouraged, he takes a day off to go back to Settignano and work with the stone masons whom he grew up with. Cutting stone eases his spirit, and the next day he draws the stonemason as a model for Christ on the fresco. Ghirlandaio criticizes the idea of a working-class Christ but uses Michaelangelo’s drawing. Michaelangelo discusses with Granacci art as a form of worshipping God. Finally, Michaelangelo is given a small part to paint, but his figures never fit in with the rest of the fresco, for they are bold and alive.
One day, after a year at Ghirlandaio’s, Granacci shows Michaelangelo a sculpture garden belonging to the Medicis. The word has come that a school will open there with Bertoldo, the last knowledgable sculptor in Italy, as its master. Michaelangelo longs to get in.
Commentary on Book One
The boy, Michaelangelo, like all Florentines, is proud of his city with its artistic masterpieces everywhere—churches, statues, paintings. He passes the house of Dante on his way home. He goes to all the great churches to copy the masters as his own self-education in art, since his father looks down on art as a mere trade. We see a festival day in Florence and the part that great art plays in the culture of the city.
Michaelangelo, however, comes from an upper-class family, and though, impoverished, his father tries to keep up the family name. The Buonarroti fortune had been established in 1250 but all that is left is a farm in Settignano and a house in Florence. The father wants the son to become a merchant so he can win back the family money. His duty, says his father, is “to make money and serve the Buonarroti name” (p. 20). His grandmother intervenes with the argument that it makes no difference if he joins the Wool Guild (merchants) or Apothocaries Guild (painters). Both are a step down for the family.
We learn that the Buonarrotis had been leaders with the Guelphs in the previous civil war; they have been mayors and on the City Council, and his mother’s side of the family, the Rucellais, who were equally as noble as his father’s, had even commissioned a chapel to be made. They were patrons of art, while the Buonarrotis were stingy. Michaelangelo’s mother died when he was young, but he worships her memory and the house in Settignano where he grew up with her.
Everyone from the Buonarottis to the artists to the stonemasons sprinkle their speech with Tuscan proverbs, such as Uncle Francesco’s remark that “Art is like washing an ass’s head with lye; you lose both the effort and the lye” (p. 19). This gives the feeling that even in the sophisticated city of Florence, an earthy connection with the countryside remains, just as we are reminded that the city of Florence is made with the stone from the surrounding hills.
In Ghirlandaio’s studio, the young Michaelangelo tests his unconventional ideas against his master’s. Ghirlandaio believes painting to be the supreme art; it tells stories from the Bible or classical mythology, but the artist is not an interpreter. He mechanically paints, and Michaelangelo sees no life in the fresco figures. His master does not believe in drawing from the nude figure, but Michaelangelo wants to know how the human body works, so he can draw more realistically. Ghirlandaio teaches the older method of draping the figure and merely suggesting the limbs beneath.
The other apprentices don’t understand how the boy knows what people look like under their clothes, but Michaelangelo is observant of everything around him. His hand and eye are completely co-ordinated: “his eye and hand were good working partners” (p. 11). Michaelangelo claims he wants to draw figures “the way God made Adam” (p. 32). He tells the other apprentices that for him, sculpture is the supreme art. “God was the first sculptor; He made the first figure: man” (p. 39). He has resigned himself to be a painter only because the great sculptors have died out. He dislikes the two-dimensional tricks of painting. The apprentices argue that stone is expensive, the subject matter is restricted, and all the great work in sculpture has already been done. This background sets us up for Michaelangelo’s challenges in his chosen art.
Finally, we get his feel for stone when he visits his family home at Settignano and works with the stone masons there. The Tuscan stone has made the great city of Florence, and even the paving stones are works of art.