The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 3
Summary of Book Three: The Palace
These scenes unfold the years between the ages of 15-17 when Michaelangelo is singled out to live in the Medici palace with his master, Bertoldo.
Bertoldo is old, and with Michaelangelo sharing a room with his master in the palace, it is thought he can impart his knowledge more easily. Michaelangelo is surprised by the cupboard holding Bertoldo’s clay models of his life work. The models are small in stature. Bertoldo tells his pupil he must produce a body of work for the next fifty years as Donatello did. Michaelangelo cannot believe his good luck, living in a palace, with all needs fulfilled, an allowance, new clothes, and full time for his art. He is accepted as a member of the family and becomes friends with Contessina, who is his age. Also in the house is the famous Plato Academy, and though Michaelangelo is not interested in academic knowledge, he is taught the classics, poetry, and philosophy by the greatest masters of the age: Pico, Ficino, Poliziano, and Landino. The Academy is the great university, press, and library of the time, attracting great scholars from all over the world. In the Medici palace he meets the leading artists and thinkers and collectors of the age.
Michaelangelo learns the nature of carving stone from his master—how to carve with the block, not crush the crystals, how to find air bubbles, use rhythmical strokes, and work on all parts at once. He learns to make his own chisels. But his master cannot teach him what his own ecstasy with the stone tells him. The sculptor and stone are one, and it is an act of making love, of worshipping God all at the same time. He sees that the marble cannot be forced against its nature; it is a partnership.
The Academy, meeting with Lorenzo in his palace, discusses the corruption of the Church of Rome that tried to excommunicate Lorenzo and use its troops to conquer Florence. For this reason, they decide to invite the monk, Savonarola, to come to Florence. He has been preaching purification of the Church. What Michaelangelo learns from this group is that religion and knowledge can co-exist, as well as great works of art, for these men are the new Humanists who believe that man is noble and not sinful.
Michaelangelo is proud of his new position, but Torrigiani, his friend and fellow apprentice becomes jealous and quarrelsome. When Michaelangelo goes home in new clothes, Rustici makes fun of him, and his family is hurt by his success, even when he deposits his weekly allowance of three gold florins with his father. His father tells him he is only a workman to the palace, and his brother Lionardo, tells him art is a vice and mentions the rumors about Lorenzo de’ Medici’s debauchery. This is hard for Michaelangelo to swallow, for he admires the virility, learning and passion of Lorenzo, who is the only one who truly understands and respects his art. Lorenzo is more of a father to him than Lodovico.
Michaelangelo next tries to share his good fortune with the Topolinos, the stonecutters who raised him as a child. Contessina helps him pick out presents for all of them, and he distributes them to his second family. Michaelangelo is taught how to write sonnets by Benivieni, who shows him it is like creating a structure from marble. The young apprentice spends time with these great minds at the palace and at their villas. He draws from live models, transfers to clay, and experiments with stone, waiting to do his first large work.
Just then Piero, Lorenzo’s oldest and arrogant son, summons Michaelangelo to sculpt his wife Alfonsina in marble. They treat him like a servant, and he refuses. Piero tells him to leave the palace, but Lorenzo comes to tell him no one will order him out of his own home. Contessina tells her friend to make it up with her brother, for he can cause trouble.
The Plato Four want Michaelangelo to choose a classical theme, but Lorenzo says he must choose his own theme. The first thing he wants to sculpt is the Madonna in memory of his mother. He draws all the famous Madonnas in Florence, but impatient with the ideas of others, he draws women of the streets and fields with their babies. He wants to find “the spirit of motherhood” (p. 138). For Michaelangelo, the first stage of sculpting is to come up with his own interpretation of the subject. With Mary, he decides it must be the moment of her decision to give her baby up to his future fate, the crucifixion. He makes a heroic Mary with the baby secondary. When he begins sculpting, he turns his back on everyone, Bertoldo, and his friend Torrigiani, because he needs privacy. When he wants to work all day, refusing to go to Giovanni de Medici’s hunt in the country, Contessina tells him he cannot ignore other people and make enemies.
The Academy is pleased with his Madonna because she is Greek and heroic. He had done the work completely on his own. Lorenzo gives him money as a reward and suggests Michaelangelo travel to see art, but he gives all his money to his father. In an argument with Torrigiani, his friend hits him, smashing his nose, and Michaelangelo is laid up in the palace to heal while Torrigiani runs away from Florence to escape punishment. Michaelangelo’s face is disfigured for life, but Contessina helps him to recover his self-confidence. Lorenzo treats him like a son, visiting him, and giving him presents.
Poliziano suggests the next sculpture be a scene of the Battle of the Centaurs and reads the scene from Ovid to him. Bertoldo tries to show him how the Romans did battle scenes, and how he did them, but again Michaelangelo wants to find his own way. The most beautiful form to him is the male figure, and he does not like drapery. He wants nude models, but this is not allowed. So he goes to Settignano and draws the half-clothed laborers at work. Meanwhile, his brother Lionardo has become a Dominican monk and joined Savonarola’s religious campaign against art. He tells Michaelangelo his pagan theme is evil. Lorenzo is now sorry he brought Savonarola to Florence and tells Michaelangelo to continue his work.
The friendship with Contessina becomes deeper. The two are greatly attracted but disciplined in their affection, for she is a Medici. The family perceives the attraction and think she is old enough to stay with her future in-laws, the Ridolfis. She leaves for a long visit. When the two meet again, they speak of her marriage to Piero Ridolfi, and they hold hands with tears in their eyes, for they know their intimacy is coming to an end.
Michaelangelo goes to hear Savonarola preach at San Marco, the monastery where his brother is. Savanarola is charismatic as he preaches the impurity of the Church and the city. Michaelangelo is both moved and repulsed. He argues with his brother Lionardo about the wickedness of art, saying, “If my soul is to be saved, it can only be through sculpture” (p. 170). One by one, people are won over to Savonarola, even Pico and Botticelli, who denounces his own art. Michaelangelo, who does not like politics, goes his own way, feeling his purpose is to revolutionize sculpture. Finally, Savonarola attacks the Medici family, and his brother asks Michaelangelo to offer up his sculpture to God by destroying it. Michaelangelo senses the fanaticism in the air and has his marble block brought to the palace for safety.
Finally, Lorenzo prophesies to Michaelangelo that the forces of destruction will win. Savonarola wants to destroy the flowering of the age, and “Florence will slip back into darkness”(p. 179). Bertoldo, seeing the greatness of the frieze Michaelangelo has competed, admits that he has been wrong and can teach the boy nothing. The pupil tells his master that he has taught him everything, and holds his hand as the old man dies. Bertoldo declares him his heir as he was Donatello’s.
There is a feeling of transition in the air of Florence. The sculpture garden breaks up. The Academy rarely meets. Savonarola gains power as the Medicis lose favor. Lorenzo becomes ill and on his deathbed sends for Savonarola, asking his blessing. When he dies, Michaelangelo is devastated, for Lorenzo had not only been a patron but a father to him.
Commentary on Book Three
When Bertoldo tells Michaelangelo to lock his valuables in the chest, the young artist says his hands are his only valuables. Much is made of the fact that Michaelangelo has an ascetic nature. He loves beautiful objects but does not desire to own them. This is one more way the fun-loving and sensuous Florentines do not relate to the boy. He would rather sleep on the ground with the stonecutters of Settignano than in a palace bed: “He could think of no difference between ‘Life is to be enjoyed’ and ‘Life is work’” (p. 107). He makes enemies because he values his work more than anything else.
Yet, he wants affection, and for this reason, Lorenzo and his daughter, Contessina, are his main supporters and friends. Though he is attracted romantically to Contessina, and she to him, they control their feelings because she is above him and must uphold the family name. Still they remain friends even after her marriage. Granacci has also remained a steady and reliable friend and business manager, with good advice and commissions for Michaelangelo. Granacci is never jealous of his friend’s success, unlike Torrigiani. Michaelangelo’s family however continues to be unappreciative, especially his brother Lionardo, now one of Savonarola’s fanatics. Just as Michaelangelo found his place in the world, it falls apart with the death of his master and patron. Florence itself may prove unfriendly to his ambition. Lorenzo is aware that the greatness of Florence, which his family had built up for three generations, is failing, and that the destructive forces are jealous and follow such a flowering of civilization. He accepts this as inevitable somehow, even asking for Savonarola’s blessings at his death.
Michaelangelo and his master, Bertoldo, are affectionate but differ in many of their ideas of sculpture, for Michaelangelo admires large heroic figures, and Bertoldo, a smaller, more elegant scale. The boy calls marble a piece of meat, as did the stonecutters, for he has their eye for stone. He, like they, judges marble by what it looks like in the first rays of the sun, an idea others laugh at as superstitious. He also likes the strong male figure as the epitome of beauty. He is inspired by sketching working class men with strong muscles, or real mothers with their babies. He would like to sketch nudes and hates drapery. This goes against the niceties of Donatello and Bertoldo, his pupil, who use convention in their design.
His master had told him to sketch and model before buying the stone. Michaelangelo, however, buys the stone first because it helps to tell him what he can do with it. Finally, Bertoldo wants to help supervise the sculpting, but Michaelangelo insists he must sculpt alone in privacy in order to find and release the form in the stone. He goes beyond his own clay models. In his vigorous style, he achieves a synthesis of Christian and pagan ideas. In this short time, he has emerged as the heir of the great Italian sculptors, though he cannot guess what his prospects might be on the eve of change in Florence.