Friday, April 18, 2008

The Agony and The Ecstasy : A Book Review and an Essay on Michelangelo

Let me first accept, that this might turn out to be a long post. I have almost lived Michelangelo's life in the last couple of months as I read this book. Would not like to edit any thought that is coming to me about this book.
Beauteous art, borught with us from heaven,
will conquer nature; so divine a power
Belongs to him who strives with every nerve.

If I was made for art, from childhood given
A Prey for burning beauty to devour,
I blame the mistress I was born to serve.
-Mihcelangelo Buonarroti

He strived with every nerve, he served with every nerve and he rejoiced his creation in ecstasy through the years of agony he suffered with his every nerve. The story of Michelangelo is as interesting a read as his life must have been. Michelangelo said "Life is but to suffer, to work", a self induced agony of living a life that he knew was bringing the best moments the arts he traded in ever saw. The book takes you through the life of the great master of art and makes you live the moments which made him create the works he did. The book achieves a rare feat of exploring an artist's mind, without writing any critical essay on the work of art he creates. The book, though written in 1961 makes you feel that the book is a live account of Michelangelo's life, the way he lived it, 500 years back. This makes "The Agony and The Ecstasy" a phenomenal book.

Author : Irving Stone
A small research on the author of the book, Irving Stone, would make you realize the reason behind the success of creating such an Epic from a life which was illustrious in all sense. Irving Stone had a real love for art which shows both in the list of the books he has written and also in the book when he describes the creation of Michelangelo at every point.
"The Agony and The Ecstasy" is his second celebrated book after "The Lust for Life" (which was a biographical novella on Vincent Van Gogh). A note worthy appreciation that you feel after the reading the book has to be the fact that 95% of the long bibilography for this book is written in Italian and not English. Irving Stone followed the path of Michelangelo to create this masterpiece. This American writer, stayed in Italy for years , translated innumerable Italian documents (especially the 495 letters written by michelangelo), worked as an apprentice to a Sculptor Charles de Tolany to understand what goes through the mind of marble carver when he is making his sculpture, all this to write a masterpiece on life of a great master. Irving stone has also been awarded with many honorary awards for this by the Italian government.

A little criticism (which I am not sure if I am qualified enough to write)

The book moves through each phase each year of life of Michelangelo detailing the various events that were happening around in Rome and Florence as Michelangelo was spending the years creating his great work. The book details beautifully the first 60 years of Michelangelo's life, slowly unfolding the events of life, along with his sculptures, panting and poetry with a rare panache. It is the last 20 years that I am a little disappointed for. The last 20 years that made him dwell in to a trade which was not his through his life - Architechture, and which also details probably the most intense and greatest of his love - Vittoria Colona. Both the style of writing and detailing on his work on marble and painting, as well as his early love stories with Contessina Medici and Clarissa, seems to be a more interesting read.

Life of Michelangelo - as you live through the book

Stone has divided Michelangelo's life into Eleven chapters to make readers live each stage of his life come through in most intersting manner. Following is a small summary of what each phase is for for the Master's life.

Book 1 : The Studio : This part of the biography, is about the early years of Michelangelo Buonarotti. It describes how Michelangelo lived with his family, his father Lodovico who did not like art as profession, his step mother Lucrezia who has treated him like her own son, his grandmother who supported Michelangelo in all his confusions. This book is about Michelangelos first brush with art of painting at the Ghirlandaio's Studio. His fascination and experiments with painting. Michelangelo's childhood beautifully flows with introduction of some of the very best of renaissance artists. At Ghirlandaio's , he met Grannici with whom he was to share a life long friendship. The book also depicts his relationship with his brother Buonarroto with the stone cutters Topolino, who were like a second family to him throughout his life. Most importantly the book details development of Michelangelo's passion for art and his hard work.

Book 2 : The Sculpture Garden : The sculpture garden of the first family of Florence, Medici, was the place where Michelangelo was to put the foundation of his career. Here he meets his enemy Torrigiani as a fellow sculptor for the first time, he meets the first love of his lfe, the one who would influence his feelings of heart till his death - Contessina, daughter of the great Lorenzo Medici, Il Magnifico who exposed michelangelo to the world, so that he can be a learned man. The Book introduces Michelangelo to Lorenzo whose philosophies Michelangelo inherited for his life and Bertoldo from whom he learned sculpture.

Book 3 : The Palace : With Lorenzo insisting Michelangelo's company, he shifts to live with the Medici's in the Palace with a closer learning of the art from Bertoldo. The Plato four formed by the four of the greatest thinker of his time, stimulates his mind, makes him think about philosophy, spiritualism and religion and the purpose of each. They teach his the art of Poetry, which he had kept with him till the very end of his life. He with his christian beliefs had a mind that visualized the beauty of the world inthe most Pagan Greek point of view. If people thinks in the language they speak, Michelangelo started thinking in the language of art from the palace.

Book 4 : The Flight : This book marks the rise of rebellious Savanarola, death of Lorenzo, and growing need of michelangelo to understand the anatomy of human body to sculpt it and to paint it. Michelangelo approaches Prior Bichhelini for help him through his spiritual dilemmas. He dissects later the dead bodies, in the dark of night, without telling that to the world to understand how the human body is inside the skin. It is a treacherous path through blood and muscles that made him the master of understanding the anatomy of human body. He had to flee to Bologna, where in the political background of conspiracies of Piero, he meets mistress of Aldovrandi, Clarissa, the second love of his life. A love that consumed him as much as sculpture in a passionate embrace of expressions.
Book 5 : The City : This book takes Michelangelo to Rome, which becomes home for his second part of life. Rome marred with plague and a corrupt papacy, brings michelangelo closer to the pope as well as his art. This phase of his life makes him work the most as his fames spreads across Europe. He travels places sculpts bachhus and st proculus and other impotant works of his during this period. He meets clarissa again only to make her realize that Sculpture is what he loves the most and nothing else could fit in his life well. But this time marks one of the most beautiful of the sculptures he created - The Pieta. His Pieta was like one that never had been created. It becomes the only sculpture on which he carves his grieved by the confusion of its creator.

Book 6 : The Giant : Book 6 takes us through the part of creation of The Giant - David, the most remarkable and famous of Michelangelo's work. It is this time when he interacts with the best of the renaisance artist with pride, with envy, with emapthy and with respect at different times. His interactions with Leonardo da vinci, Raphael and others who happened to be his contemporaries are interestingly portrayed. The Giant brought about the good things that Florence had seen, marking the silencing of the political turmoil. People used to quote David's installation as a milestone in time, quoting contracts and writings with dates like "4 months after the giant" . His interactions with his friends, Jacopo Galli, Sangallo and others are interesting too. His interactions with Doni for the painting of the holy family made him worldly wise.

Book 7: The Pope : The encounters that Michelangelo had with Pope Julius II are one of the best documented and intersting portion of his life (so intersting that a movie was made out of this chapter of the book starring Charlton Heston). Michelangelo argues, gives up, fights, confronts the pope as he goes on creating the best of his work in times of pope Julius II. The most important of his work in this time was the paintings on Sistine chapel, which he first though was "Not his trade". His work for tomb of Pope Julius II and its commission is also one of the event that Michelangelo had to suffer from for next 30 years of his life.

Book 8 : The Medici : The Medici's again took prominence as a family as the pope after Julius, Leo was a Medici that Michelangelo had known for years. Under his papacy and the rule of cardinals from the Medici family he was to start work on Medici chapel. This marked his tribute to Il Magnifico. His interaction with the signoria (governing committee) of florence too happened in the meanwhile. But the most important part of his life in this phase was the years he spent at Carrara to excavate and chose the best marbles for his work.
Book 9 : The War : His unfinished works on Moses and the 4 captives, his work on the other commissions that he had recieved, Medici Chapel all went into a back burner as Florence faced a war in which Michelangelo comes out to play one of the most important roles in developing the defence. He created the defense around the fortified Florence and was appreciated for the work on it, but a few traitors made Florence lose the war and Michelangelo had to flee for safety.
Book 10 : Love : The later part of Michelangelo's life made him introduce himself to two of the people who loved him the most and admired him equally. Tomasso his apprentice and Vittoria Colona, who herself was a very celebrated and revered writer. The platonic relationship that Michelangelo shared with Vittoria was one of the most important part of his life. He was feeling the energy being poured into to himself as he lived this loved 60s and 70s of his life creating some of the architectural wonders, which too was not his trade.
Book 11 : The Dome : The last phase of michelangelo's 80s went creating architecture that still brings glory and pride across Rome. He had been appointed as the chief architect of St. Peter's Bassilica which he had envisioned along with Sangallo while facing Bramante in times of Pope Julius II. He wanted to create a place which would survive the flow of time and will be a marvel in itself. The Dome of St. Peter's basillica a 335 ft. giant structure talks of the great visionary and his architectural flari. As he dies in the arms of Tomasa, the reader wishes only that he could have lived a little more and could have created the Magic of his art for a few more years.

The Review of the book, which i would like to end here, is of one of the very best books I have ever read. If I were to rate it, nothing less than 4.5* is what I think this book deserves. But with Review does not end my post, If we talk about the book without the works of the master himself, it will mean little. So here is a small snapshot of what Michelangelo built in his life time.

Michelangelo : The Mater Artist

The entire life of Michelangelo was marked with passion for his work and with ups and downs of an artist's world who was concerned only with his trade and nothing else. He had excelled as a Sculptor, as a painter, as a poet and as an architect in his life. Here is a small view of his works as he did in the 90 years of his life. The sheer magnitude of this collections make you think, how did he achieve it in just 90 years !!
Michelangelo the Sculptor

Battle of Centaurs (1492) was one of his first try while working on Marble.

Tondo Taddei, crucifix and Madonna on the stairs were of his early creations :

The Pieta is one of his best work in Marble. The idea of keeping the face of virgin mary young, as she was pure and the purity cannot be withered by age, was what moved me the most while reading the book. Pieta is defintiely a master piece.

Bachhus, St. Proculus, St. Protionious were the next masterpieces that he created at Bologna and Rome.
Then came the Giant David which did not just defeat Goliath but it also stood at 18ft, as a mark of identity for both Florence and Michel angelo.

Michelangelo had spent most of his life, which you can count in decades, carving sculpture for tombs. Both the tomb of Pope Julius II and the tomb of Lorenzo Medici shows the best scupture talent that the world has ever seen.
Tomb of Pope Julius II
Tomb of Lorenzo Medici
Following is a snapshot of other great works in Marble from the best of the Sculptor the world has ever seen :

Michelangelo - The painter

As a painter the two of the most beautiful paintings that Michelangelo ever created can be found at the same place, in the sistine chapel. The ceiling of sistine chaple with the frescos of genesis and the walls with last judgement day are absolute master pieces.

The details of each of the painting on sistine chapel is very difficult to discuss over here, but every single inch of this ceiling claims to be part of a painting that has inspired generations. The most remarkable being the image of god giving life to Adam. The whole cieling is full of such masterstrokes.

The Last Judgement too is an enormous painting spread across the 40ft wall of the sistine chapel. The hundreds of figures, the way they were created, awaits the decision for going to hell or heaven.

Following is a look at other important paintings of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo - The Architect

Here you can see the grandeur and details that visionary conceived in making structures that has truly transcended the centuries.
Michelangelo - The Poet

Looking at around 300 poetries that Michelangelo wrote and produced in his 90 years would be near impossible task and I would close this tribute of mine to Michelangelo with his own words.

How can that be, lady, whilch all men learn
by long experience? Shapes that seem alive,
wrought in hard mountain marble, will survive,
their maker, whom the years to dust
His work has truly survived all test the time had to put on to it.

No comments:

AddMe - Search Engine Optimization