The Agony and the Ecstasy: Essay Q&A
1. Why is the book titled The Agony and the Ecstasy?
The title signals the main topic of the novel, the creative process of Michaelangelo. It spends time detailing the way he made his masterworks, the ecstasy of making them, the agony of the attending frustrations.
The sculptor has to see the form in the block of stone and then release that form by taking away the part that doesn’t belong. This is different from painting, which is adding form to blank surface. The sculptor usually plans, working from drawings and models, but frequently, Michaelangelo works directly on the stone, from ideas in his mind, as with the Madonna of the Stairs. It is a search and process: he must “probe, dig, sweat, think, feel and live with it until it is completed” (Book 5, p. 322).
First, the form is released before it can be enlivened. He knows when to release what shapes, for the statues think with him: “although they were not fully born, they were alive in the marble, thinking, telling him what they felt about the world” (Book 9, p. 649). He also has to be an engineer, leaving webbing to keep the structure strong until it is ready to balance. Sangallo tells him, “You’ve built this Bacchus . . . It was a dangerous, and courageous, experiment in construction” (Book 5, p. 333).
Most often, he speaks of carving as the ecstasy of making love: “It was not merely an act of love, it was the act of love: the mating of his own inner patterns to the inherent forms of the marble” (115). With marble “he was the dominant male” yet “all tenderness” (230). In the act of love, he injects his life: “he entered into his composition. After he had completed the sculpture, life would vibrate outward from the figures” (Book 5, p. 345).
Even when he paints the Sistine ceiling, a physical torture, he is in ecstasy making his conceptions materialize. Cardinal Giovanni asks him why he works so hard: “Art for me is a torment, grievous when it goes bad, ecstatic when it goes well; but always it possesses me” (Book 7, p. 530).
The difference in his art as compared to say, Ghirlandaio’s, his first master, is that his forms have life, and his master’s have “no substance” (Book 1, p. 38). Michaelangelo wants to be a creator like God. This is clear in his painting of the Creation in the Sistine. He says his ideas come from God; he worships God by bringing them forth. Adam, David, Moses are alive and immortal in paint or stone: “It was his job to impregnate the marble with manifest spirit” (Book 5, p. 355).
2. How did Renaissance Humanism contribute to Michaelangelo’s ideas of art?
The Renaissance is a title given to a period from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in European culture, representing a rebirth of classical ideas from Greece and Rome. It began in Italy in Tuscany, centering in Florence, later Venice, then Rome, and from there, to Europe. The medieval Christian church had to allow for a new worldview to be integrated within Christianity. This was “Humanism” or the classical ideals of perfection.
If medievalism exalted God and degraded the human as sinful, the Renaissance saw “man as the measure of all things.” It was a time of the expansion of human knowledge in science and the arts. The struggle between these two philosophies is shown in the novel as Michaelangelo tries to create his body of work. He was trained as a humanist in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, a great center for the new ideas. The glory of the human spirit and the freedom of the mind were the most important beliefs, derived from Plato. Opposed to the humanist ideas are the fanaticism of Savonarola and the Inquisition.
The Plato Academy in Florence with its great thinkers, Pico, Ficino, Poliziano, and Landino, disseminate a new view of human worth. Humans have divine reason and can therefore understand and participate in God’s creation. Michaelangelo’s art demonstrates these ideas in his heroic human figures. He learns the forbidden knowledge of anatomy through dissection to show the beauty of the human form accurately. He tells Baglioni, “all forms that exist in God’s universe can be found in the human figure” (Book 5, p. 291). He paints even God and angels in human form. The humanist emphasizes human potential rather than human sin. The artist sees no shame in nude sculpture: “For Michaelangelo the marbles cried out, ‘People are good!’ while Savonarola was thundering, ‘Humanity is evil’” (Book 3, p.173).
Michaelangelo believed it the artist’s duty and privilege to create perfection in life through the arts in an imitation of divine order. He says to Spina, who warns him of his dangerous position in Florence: “I am fulfilling the law of Moses through an art form, to compensate for the spiritual degradation of Allesandro and his bullies” (Book 9, p. 656). Michaelangelo integrates the nobility of classical art with his deep religious feeling to prove that humanism does not intend to replace religion, but to glorify it: “If my soul is to be saved, it can only be through sculpture. That is my faith, and my discipline” (Book 3, p. 170).
Freedom of thought is important for the development of humans in their search for God. This is exhibited by Michaelangelo’s soul searching to interpret the figures, his striving for originality of vision, and in the way he executes his work. It is said in Ghirlandaio’s studio that the new apprentice Michaelangelo had not been there for three days when it was known, “he breaks the rules.” Older ideas of art called for mere execution of known motifs, and that is why art was considered a trade. Michaelangelo elevates his subjects and the status of his art by infusing them with individual genius.
He is encouraged in his originality by Prior Bichiellini who runs a humanist school within the church. He tells Michaelangelo: “There are no forbidden books. We insist that our students remain free to think, inquire, doubt. We do not fear that Catholicism will suffer from our liberality; our religion is strengthened as the minds of our students grow mature” (Book 4, p.194). This is a humanist creed. Michaelangelo is always irritated by drapery, by the sack-like medieval figures who have no real human bodies. The Sistine paintings of giant nude figures represent humanist art; the Inquisition’s act of painting breeches over the genitals is a last gasp of a medieval worldview.
3. What is the ideal of the “Renaissance Man”?
When Michaelangelo comes to Lorenzo’s palace as a young apprentice, he just wants to learn sculpture from Bertoldo. He hated school and now he wants to learn his trade and nothing else. Lorenzo de’ Medici, however, wants to create a classically beautiful Florence full of educated and great men and artists. He forces Michaelangelo to attend the Plato Academy and read great literature and philosophy, to learn to write poetry. He wants him to be well rounded, not just the tradesman that everyone assumes a marble carver is. How could a noble statue be carved, equal to classical art, if the carver has no thought, no mind, no spirit? Without stretching himself through discussions with other great minds, his creativity would have fallen on barren ground. The idea is that human nature can be perfected. Michaelangelo strives to be a great man that he may be a great artist: “An artist working at the top of his powers exists in a realm beyond human happiness” (Book 10, p. 687).
Michaelangelo learns his lessons well. He becomes sculptor, painter, designer, engineer, architect, and poet. As a gentleman and courtier, he also has access to the highest social circles, though he is not interested in court life. He is a Renaissance Man, excelling in many interrelated areas; above all, in the realm of spirit and ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is the other often named “Renaissance Man,” or genius in many areas, with his knowledge of science and art equally well developed. The well-rounded intelligent man or woman (Contessina and Vittoria Colonna are educated Renaissance Women) was considered knowledgeable in many areas rather than being a narrow specialist, thus fitting the person to be an ideal citizen, ruler, artist, or religious seeker. Prior Bichiellini is such a Renaissance Man as well, taking as his province not only religion, but all of human thought and the arts. He liberally allows Michaelangelo to dissect corpses in the hospital when he could be excommunicated or hanged. Lorenzo is a soldier, a ruler, a thinker, a courtier, a patron of the arts. Finally, the well-bred courtier was supposed to be skilled in polite society, being able to master the arts and literature for conversation or performance. The true Renaissance Man or Woman would leave behind a legacy not only of excellent achievement, but an enlargement of the human spirit.
4. How did Raphael, Michaelangelo, and da Vinci differ in their styles?
These are the three giants in an age of great art. They are mentioned in the novel as rivals, and Stone briefly sketches the other two and their interactions with Michaelangelo.
Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) was from Urbino, but studied the Florentine art of Da Vinci and Michaelangelo while keeping his own style, and did much of his important work in Rome where he was extremely influential. He was prolific from an early age and much loved for the sweetness, grace, and balance of his compositions. His portraits, his Madonnas, church frescos, cartoons for the Sistine chapel, his architectural decoration and design in Rome are his important contributions. He was known as a superb draftsman. He also helped develop the process of reproductive engravings of artwork.
Raphael, unlike Michaelangelo, was known for his courtly behavior. In the novel, Michaelangelo is scornful of Raphael’s carousing and life at court, while he spends all his time in work. Cardinal Giovanni asks Michaelangelo why he can’t enjoy himself like Raphael? Why does he work so hard? Michaelangelo replies that “For Raphael the creating of a work of art is a bright spring day in the campagna; for me, it is the tramontana howling down the valley from the mountaintops” (Book 7, pp. 529-30).
This metaphor contrasts their creative processes, their styles and also their personalities. Raphael was diplomatic, had a studio with fifty apprentices, harmonious and well run. Michaelangelo was short-tempered and preferred to work alone because no one could live up to his standards. Raphael’s circle did not like Michaelanglo’s Sistine work, but in the novel, Michaelangelo predicts what actually did happen in the change of preference to his work later: “[People say] Raphael has grace, Michaelangelo has only stamina . . . Rome is beginning to say Raphael has charm, but Michaelangelo has profundity” (Book 8, p. 560). They were not only rival artists but rival architects in Rome. Michaelangelo undid much of Raphael’s plan for the basilica of St. Peter’s.
Raphael’s paintings were considered the ideal Renaissance style and taught as the standard in art academies. Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites in Victorian England pointed out Raphael killed the spirit of art, as Michaelangelo had also accused. Stone depicts Michaelangelo in his old age, however, admiring Raphael’s masterpieces, such as the School of Athens, noting that it was executed with “integrity of craftsmanship,” with “lyricism and romantic charm” (Book 11, p. 753). Michaelangelo, on the other hand, from his own day to this is noted for his terribilità, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was from an older generation, though he died a year earlier than Rapahel. He was handsome, aristocratic in bearing, and popular in society, like Raphael. He is known for those most famous of all paintings, The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and his drawing of the Vitruvian Man (the Canon of Proportions). The Mona Lisa’s smile exhibits his technique of rendering human emotion through physiology. The Last Supper is studied for its brilliant composition and characterization. His smaller total output is due partly to some faulty experimental techniques. Reference to this is made in the novel when he ruins his fresco for the Signoria in Florence.
Michaelangelo took an instant dislike to da Vinci because of his dandified appearance, his confidence, and his put-down of sculpture (“less intellectual than painting”; Book 6, p. 386). Michaelangelo counterattacks by mentioning that da Vinci’s sculpture is deficient in technique and cannot be completed. They are both Tuscan artists, and the one thing they have in common is their passion for work. da Vinci’s range of interests is larger, however, and he does not focus on one thing for too long. Even in the novel we hear about his inventions taking precedence over his painting commissions. From Michaelangelo’s point of view, da Vinci is irresponsible, but from his notebooks, we now see how brilliant and far sighted were da Vinci’s investigations into fields besides art. He had designed a submarine, a calculator, a tank, helicopter, canals, and other inventions. He was utilized as a war engineer for Caesar Borgia. He investigated the scientific principles of solar power, plate tectonics, optics, anatomy, hydrodynamics, and geometry. His Milan studio was both an art school and a scientific and inventor’s workshop. He collected information on his own and other painter’s techniques for The Treatise on Painting.
Da Vinci and Michaelangelo mellow in their relationship by the time they meet in Rome. Da Vinci tells Michaelangelo that he has studied his work and revised some of his thoughts on painting (for his treatise). He warns Michaelangelo that no one can come after him, for he has taken his style as far as it can go. This proved true, for Michaelangelo’s style bred Mannerism, an artificial copying of Renaissance style with unnatural poses and distorted proportions. Michaelangelo lived longer than da Vinci and Raphael (1483-1520), but together they represent the epitome of the High Renaissance genius in art.
5. Why were Italian politics so violent at this time and why was the Church involved?
The Italian wars which laid waste the country for centuries to come lasted from 1494 to 1559. They began because of dynastic disputes over Milan and Naples but became power struggles among internal and external factions. The country was divided into duchies or city-states such as Genoa, Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, and others. The rival ruling dynasties of these duchies, such as the Borgias and the Medicis, played out treacherous and vindictive reprisals on one another. The city-states began to pay foreign mercenaries to fight for them, as Florence paid the French to defend them against the Medicis.
By the end of the fifteenth century, European powers were making regular forays into Italy, carving out pieces for themselves. Italy was a trade center, wealthy, full of antiques and treasures, and it was weak through constant civil war. When the French King Charles VIII invaded Northern Italy in 1494 and marched unopposed into Florence, because it wanted to rid itself of the Medicis, it set off a fifty-year period of continuous warfare. Michaelangelo lived through this time, producing his great art in spite of conditions. Both he and da Vinci were pressed into becoming war engineers, though Michaelangelo was never interested in politics.
The Catholic Church participated directly in the wars. Rome was one of the political city-states, ruled by the Pope from the Vatican. The Pope was both a spiritual and political ruler, and many popes were conquerors as well, hoping to get more money for their coffers. They played their part in the balance of power within Italy. In 1508, Julius II, the first pope Michaelangelo struggled with, who made him paint the Sistine ceiling, allied with the Holy Roman Emperor to curb Venice. He kept shifting alliances as battles were lost or won. The European countries of France, Germany, and Spain considered Italy the fulcrum of Europe, the pivot of the balance of power. They continued their greedy attacks. From Venice to Naples there was widespread death and destruction, with the plague coming along in the wake.
Though Lorenzo de’ Medici and his daughter, Contessina, were some of the more enlightened humanist thinkers of the age—those who fostered a vision of a civilization unified by the grandeur of human endeavor—most of the Medici family who came to power helped to ruin Italy.
The ruling dynasties entered the church as political ground. When Michaelangelo first comes to Rome, it is a dump compared to Florence, ruled by a Borgia pope. The Medici were often made Cardinals as teenagers (like Giovanni and Niccolo) and waited their turn to become Popes. As the novel details, it was like an aristocratic mafia, and the Cardinals and Popes all had children and mistresses and spent lavishly. Each time a Pope died there was the agonizing wait for the announcement of the next. Which dynasty would gain the upper hand? The Roveres, the Ridolfis, the Borgias, the Medici, or some of their allies? This is why Michaelangelo would get a commission from one Pope that would be cancelled by the next. It was unstable and dangerous ground.
In 1512 Giovanni de’ Medici, who had grown up with Michaelangelo, became a bloody Pope, attacking and destroying the whole town of Prato. In 1527, Guilio Medici, Pope Clement VII, ran away while German and Spanish troops sacked and destroyed Rome.
This fifty years of ensuing war destroyed Italy as a proud and independent power, the birthplace of the Renaissance and all its great art and ideals. For the next 400 years it was overrun by other countries and lost much of its glorious art.
One of the most famous political treatises written at this time was Machiavelli’s The Prince. He had learned the humanist ideals of Florence but became its leader during the turbulent wars. He wrote a pragmatic manual on how a ruler should keep power using “force combined with prudence.” Lorenzo sadly sees the beginning of the end as he tells Michaelangelo, “the forces of destruction march on the heels of creativity” (Book 3, p.179). The Florence that gave rise to the rebirth of culture, that brought forth Michaelangelo and Leonardo, also opened the doors to its own destruction.