The Agony and the Ecstasy: Theme Analysis
Creating great art is not a simple affair, as proven by Michaelangelo’s life. He has stamina and is successful, has multiple talents, and the act of creation is itself effortless and joyful. It seems to be primarily the forces of history and society that present the obstacles. Very early in youth, Lorenzo de’ Medici tells him, “the forces of destruction march on the heels of creativity. The arts, finest flowering of each age, are torn down, broken, burned by the next” (Book 3, p. 179).
This is largely the plot of his life. He creates, and the forces of destruction come right behind as religious bigotry, poverty, war, the whims of patrons, or death. Forces beyond his control, such as the fanatic Savonarola who wants to burn all art, or wartime, when he has to engineer the defensive walls for Florence instead of create art, continuously test his will to go on.
To begin with, there is the prejudice held by his father and even other artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, that carving stone is for tradesmen. The Buonarrotis are an old noble family of Florence, and his father wants him to do something to enrich and uphold the family position. Somehow he has to satisfy family honor and his need to create art at the same time. He does, but at the great cost of giving all his earnings to his relatives—father, four brothers, aunt and uncle, and later, nephews and children of his apprentices.
He also is in fierce competition with other artists like Leonardo or Raphael, not only for reputation, but for the rich commissions. The disfigurement of his broken nose occurs from a jealous rival, Torrigiani, whose mediocre work he later has to fix. Here he also wins, gaining the respect of other, especially younger artists, until near the end of his life, he is called Il Divino, the divine Michaelangelo, and given the building of St. Peter’s dome because he is the only one who can do it.
For sheer physical triumph, there is his building of the road to open the Pietrasanta quarry and bring stone down the mountain, which no one had done before, an incredible engineering feat.
The worst obstacles come from war and religious fanaticism. War not only interrupts his work, it threatens to destroy it, as during the sack of Rome, or when the arm is broken off the David during a riot in Florence. He thinks of stone as eternal, but it can be smashed or defaced. His statue of Julius is melted down for a canon. Savonarola and the Inquisition represent the ignorance that tries to destroy art and artist, but he outlives both.
Every book centers around a major work of art—his David, Pieta, Moses, Sistine paintings, St. Peter’s—and in each case, there is a patron, a pope, a war, his family, or poverty to contend with. At the end of his life, at the age of eighty-eight, he feels he can say, “Il Magnifico would be happy: for me, the forces of destruction never overcame creativity” (Book 11, p. 756).
Lorenzo de’ Medici warns Michaelangelo, “Nobody misses the loss of another man’s freedom” (Book 3, p. 179). He speaks of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, in which art is being destroyed by religious fanatics. Michaelangelo is realizing the artist will not be able to live in such a world, and Lorenzo points out that freedom has to be a personal matter. It is not guaranteed. Michaelangelo is proud, like his father, and does not allow others to dictate to him. The novel suggests that Michaelangelo’s sense of integrity and freedom contributed to his success in many important ways.
His statue of David becomes a symbol of freedom to Florence, erected while it is a free republic. Michaelangelo decides that David should stand alone, without the head of Goliath, and be without all support: “David was a fighter, not a brutal, senseless ravager, but capable of achieving freedom” (Book 6, p. 400). The artist takes on the strength of the figures he carves, and like David, stands alone throughout his life, fighting for his integrity, and the freedom of the artist to express truth the way he sees it. When the arm of the David is broken, during one of the many political takeovers in Florence, he reflects that it is symbolic of the loss of freedom.
In his dealings with Pope Julius II, Michaelangelo explodes when he is suddenly refused entrance to the palace, and his contract for the tomb is cancelled. He leaves town and refuses to come back though the Pope sends a party of courtiers after him. Baglioni begs him to return to Rome. The Pope could have him thrown in prison. He replies: “I will not allow any man to treat me as dirt” (Book 7, p. 465). He soon gets the reputation of being difficult but wins grudging respect. Michaelangelo tells his brother, “Every man’s courage is important. I believe God loves independence more than He does servility” (Book 7, p. 471).
Certainly, Michaelangelo would not be able to portray heroic figures if he were not himself made of such stuff. His David, Madonna, Christ, Moses, God, and Adam inspire awe, for they have the divine spark in them. When he has a choice to rush through the Sistine ceiling, doing what the Pope wants, with a group of helpers, the result is mediocre. It would serve his own ends to finish the painting quickly, since he hates the job, so he can go back to marble, but he explains to the elder Sangallo that if he does a sloppy job, he cannot be called an artist.
It was in the marrow of his bones to create only the finest he could produce; to create far beyond his abilities because he could be content with nothing that was not new, fresh, different, a palpable extension of the whole of the art. He had never compromised with quality; his integrity as a man and an artist was the rock on which his life was built. (Book 7, p. 511).
To everyone’s amazement, he paints the whole act of Creation on the Sistine ceiling, alone, to ensure the highest standards. To the end of his life, he does not back down or change his art based on other people’s ideas or the conditions around him. He is true to his inner vision and his vocation, even when threatened by the Inquisition. He explains to Sangallo, if he lets things slide even once, he is lost as an artist.
Religion is Not Convention
The forces of ignorance show up most clearly in the areas of politics and religion in Michaelangelo’s Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fanaticism of Savonarola fooled everyone at first because it was a reform movement. The Inquisition was only feared for its violence. Ignorance in religion manifests in its most ugly form as the insistence that everyone believe and act the same way. It assumes that outward conformity is the same as religion.
Michaelangelo’s religion is of a different order. Most of his subjects are religious, but he avoids convention in painting, for he wants to dig deeper, find both the personal and universal meaning of each figure. “It was a need in his nature to be original” (Book 4, p. 223). When he carves a crucifixion for Prior Bichiellini’s altar, he cannot stand the idea of the tortured Christ. Instead, he thinks of Christ like the Prior himself, “cheerful, hearty, dedicated, serving all humanity in God’s name, with a great mind and noble spirit that gloried in living” (Book 4, p. 223).
He thinks through every statue, his art leading him to his own deep religion: “What had the violent end to do with God’s message of love?” (Book 4, p. 223). The Prior is pleased with his crucifix and comments, “Every artist’s Crucifixion is a self-portrait” ( Book 4, p. 224). The Prior is one of the few men who recognizes Michaelangelo’s genius and teaches him to trust himself. When he doesn’t know how to interpret the figure of Matthew, the Prior tells him: “You must invent your own Matthew. . . . Walk away from the books; the wisdom lies in you. Whatever you carve about Matthew will be the truth” (p. 498). He teaches him that religion is within.
Michaelangelo’s religion is very personal, but as he works through each interpretation, he feels nearer to a universal meaning as well. When he carves the Pieta, the dead Christ resting in Mary’s arms, it is profoundly reassuring: “His religious faith he projected in terms of the figures: the harmony between them was his way of portraying the harmony of God’s universe” (Book 5, p. 355).
His critics see the artist as a bit arrogant in his unexpected religious angles, yet he is sincere as he paints the Creation on the Sistine ceiling: “He had always loved God. . . . His faith in God sustained him, and now he must make manifest to the world who God was, what He looked and felt like” (Book 7, p. 539). This idea of finding religion in oneself, and then being able to make it into a universal work of art, is in direct contradiction to the hearing before Pope Paul IV, during the Inquisition. His Last Judgment is called “heretical” because it does not conform to doctrine or convention. Michaelangelo replies, “Never has there been a wall more permeated with a love of God” (Book 11, p. 744). That is not the point for the Pope. They define religion differently. The Pope hides his aggression and cruelty behind a literal convention, which he can use to gain power over others. The Inquisition dies out, and Michaelangelo’s art lives on, with people falling to their knees in its presence. It is obvious who knows more about religion.