The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 2
Summary of Book Two: The Sculpture Garden
Book Two details the year of beginning apprenticeship in the sculpture school of Lorenzo de’ Medici with the last master of sculpture in Italy, Bertoldo di Giovanni.
Michaelangelo is drawn to the sculpture garden, looking at the statues and lurking in the shadows. He racks his brains for a way to get in to the school, but he still has two years of his apprenticeship with Ghirlandaio. Just then Ghirlandaio announces that Il Magnifico (Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence) has commanded two of his apprentices be sent to the new sculpture school, and he picks Michaelangelo and Granacci. Michaelangelo is beside himself at this miracle but has a hard time persuading his father, for cutting stone is even lower than painting.
Unlike Ghilandaio’s studio, the sculpture garden does not have to earn a living since it is supported by the richest man in Italy, the great patron of art, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who also has the greatest library in Europe. Bertoldo, the master, was dying, but Lorenzo persuaded him to pass on his knowledge to apprentices, and he revived. Michaelangelo settles in happily, becoming friends with Rustici and Pietro Torrigiani, apprentices there. Grannaci is not jealous but warns that Torrigiani, though charming, often turns on his friends. One day when Lorenzo himself comes through, he brings his young delicate daughter, Contessina, and Michaelangelo is immediately attracted to her. There is a deep connection between them.
Lodovico had not given his consent to his son to become a sculptor, so Michaelangelo avoids seeing his family at home, coming in late and leaving early. His grandmother tries to give him some money for clothes, but he refuses. His friend Granacci does not like stone and misses the painting, but Michaelangelo is eager. He first has to draw for Bertoldo, and he is ambidextrous, able to draw equally well with either hand. He mentions he wishes they could dissect bodies to study anatomy, and Bertoldo is shocked, but they become friends. He has to unlearn what he learned with Ghirladaio. Michaelangelo stays behind at night, finding pieces of his favorite stone, white Carrarra marble, to practice carving. He is caught doing this by Contessina, who starts coming to the garden every day with her father or with Pico and Ficino, the Platonic scholars. When she is around, he feels a “heightened consciousness” (p. 80), though they do not speak. She speaks to Torrigiani, and he is jealous.
Bertoldo holds Michaelangelo back, as Ghirlandaio had done. He is not allowed to touch stone for two years, though the others are already competing for prizes. The apprentice Soggi leaves, but Michaelangelo resolves to be patient. His father threatens to pull him out of the school if nothing happens and if he does not start earning money. Bertoldo pushes Michaelangelo and seems never satisfied with anything he does. He lets him work in wax and clay but not stone. Finally, Michaelangelo is summoned to the Medici Palace to view a new piece, a marble faun. In the palace, he sees masterpiece after masterpiece, enchanted especially by the marble faun. He begins to sketch it, when Contessina appears. She is frail, the member of a consumptive family, but she feels Michaelangelo in the palace and is drawn to him, for he gives her strength.
Michaelangelo secretly begins to make his own copy of the marble faun out of a piece of marble in the garden. When Lorenzo sees it, he gives perceptive feedback on it, and Michaelangelo immediately changes it. Lorenzo is impressed and explains that he and Bertoldo have been purposely testing him, but now, convinced he could be the heir of Donatello, Il Magnifico invites him to move to the palace. He summons Ludovico, Michaelangelo’s father, asking for permission to patronize his son and asks if he can assist his own career. Ludovico asks for a lowly place in the customhouse, and is given it.
Commentary on Book Two
Michaelangelo’s conversations with his new master, Bertoldo, and with Lorenzo de Medici are the most important revelations of the theory of his art in this section.
Bertoldo teaches him how drawing is different for painting and for sculpture. The painter tries to “wrench a shape out of himself” while the scultptor pulls a shape from the world and internalizes it before beginning to sculpt (p. 78). Drawing is thus a preparation that can blot out ignorance of a subject and “establish wisdom in its place” (p. 79). “To draw is to be like God when He put breath into Adam” (p. 79). Bertoldo is showing him how to infuse life into the work of art at its conception, where Ghirlandaio could not do that.
When they begin sculpting, Bertoldo quotes his master Donatello saying sculpting is the art that removes ”all that is superfluous from the material” (p. 89) and brings to light what is in the artist’s mind. This is an important tenet for Michaelangelo’s art.
The background material constantly offered about Florence and its history is significant for understanding the rich tradition Michaelangelo moves in. One can imagine the young artist dazzled by generations of Florentine art, not just in the palace, but in the street, in every church, building, and hand-chiseled paving stone. The great shapers and thinkers of the European Renaissance are working for Lorenzo as well: Pico and Ficino. They spread a new and noble sense of civilization that contrast to the petty party feuds in Italy and in Europe as a whole. Lorenzo stands for the new humanist culture based on classical philosophy, especially Plato. The glory of the human spirit, and the freedom of the mind, were the hallmarks of this unifying cultural movement that began in Italy and spread throughout Europe.
Though Lorenzo is a soldier, he is a philosopher and artist at heart, as well as a loving father. He takes great care of his little daughter Contessina because his wife and another daughter had just the year before died of consumption. He gives her Pico and Ficino for tutors and educates her. When she meets Michaelangelo in the palace she is reading a Greek manuscript from her father’s library. The Renaissance is the first period of western history when aristocratic women were allowed to be educated like men. Contessina has a mysterious bond with Michaelangelo that will last all their lives.
The interchanges between Michaelangelo and Lorenzo show that the young boy, even at fifteen, knows his own mind and speaks to the ruler of Florence as an equal. He does not flatter his patron; he desires to call him simply “Lorenzo,” and he tells him what he wants, as he did with Ghirlandaio. Lorenzo is a good judge of character, and says, “Do not ask me in future what you must do. I have come to expect the unexpected from you” (p. 103). Lorenzo and Bertoldo had tested Michaelangelo before they decided to invest time and money in him, for though they could see his talent, they knew he needed stamina to be great. He passed the test. We have been shown that even at this early age, nothing will stop him, and that he cares for nothing but his art.