The Agony and the Ecstasy of Michelangelo Buonarroti

NOV / DEC 2015: BY MARIANNA KAPLUN

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“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” — Michelangelo

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) is a biographical novel of Michelangelo Buonarroti and his troubles while painting the Sistine Chapel at the urging of Pope Julius II, written by American author Irving Stone. Stone lived in Italy for years, visiting many of the locations in Rome and Florence, worked in marble quarries, and apprenticed himself to a marble sculptor. A primary source for the novel is Michelangelo’s correspondence, all 495 letters of which Stone had translated from Italian by Charles Speroni and published in 1962 as I, Michelangelo, Sculptor.

Part of Stone’s novel was adapted to historical drama in a film by the same name in 1965, starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. When the pope commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist initially refuses. Virtually forced to do the job by Julius, he later destroys his own work and flees to Rome. He evades the pope’s guard and flees into the mountains, where he becomes inspired. Eventually resumed, the project becomes a battle of wills fueled by artistic and temperamental differences that form the core of this movie. The Agony and the Ecstasy is ultimately an intimate film about an epic work. Heston and Harrison are excellent, and the process of creating a masterpiece is fascinating. Alex North’s score gives heart and humanity to divine inspiration. The film was nominated for an Oscar in Cinematography and named one of the year’s best films by the National Board of Review.

Michelangelo “sketched his roughhewn young contandino just in from the fields, naked except for his brache, kneeling to take off his clodhoppers; the flesh tones a sunburned amber, the figure clumsy, with graceless bumpkin muscles; but the face transfused with light as the young lad gazed up at John. Behind him he did two white-bearded assistants to John, with beauty in their faces and a rugged power in their figures. He experimented with flesh tones from his paint pots, enjoyed this culminating physical effort of bringing his figures to life, clothing them in warm-colored lemon-yellow and rose robes.”

Raphael: For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die. We are harlots always peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty.

Michelangelo: If it comes to that, I won’t be an artist.

Raphael: [scoffs] You’ll always be an artist. You have no choice.

After Ghirlandaio looks at Michelangelo’s sketches of Christ drawn with a stonemason as the model, he tells Michelangelo the story of Donatello showing his newly carved crucifix to Brunelleschi, who observes that it seems to him Donatello has, “put a plowman on the cross, rather than the body of Jesus Christ, which was most delicate in all its parts.” Donatello, upset by his friend’s criticism, challenges Brunelleschi to make Christ’s figure himself. When Brunelleschi presents his own, newly finished crucifix, “Donatello, who could not take his eyes off the beautiful Christ, answered, ‘It is your work to make Christs, and mine to make plowmen.’ ” Michelangelo, familiar with both carvings, tells Ghirlandaio that he, “preferred Donatello’s plowman to Brunelleschi’s ethereal Christ, which was so slight that it looked as though it had been created to be crucified. With Donatello’s figure the crucifixion had come as a horrifying surprise…”

On a battlefield, Michelangelo convinces the Pope to change the grand design and paint not just the panels of the ceiling, but the entire vault. The work proceeds nonstop, even with mass in session. Months turn to years. Michelangelo is accused of blasphemy and heresy by portraying Pagan symbols and myths but is allowed to continue. Buonarroti suffers from blindness as a result of paint poisoning and fatigue from overwork. While recovering, the Pope’s architect Donato Bramante pressures the Pope to use Raphael to finish the ceiling. But Michelangelo garners the strength to continue. Meanwhile, the Pope’s army is threatened by French and German forces, and cardinals recommend fleeing Rome to safer territory. The painting scaffolds are torn down, and the commission is given to Raphael. Insulted and beaten, Michelangelo packs for Florence. Raphael, impressed with the work done, pleads with Buonarroti to finish his work. Contessina de’Medici, a former lover, convinces Buonarroti to beg the Pope for the commission again. A battle-bruised Pope is convinced a sacking of Rome is in order, but gives permission to continue painting.

Late at night in Rome, a war-torn and ailing Pope criticizes the images of God and Man (in The Creation of Adam), claiming they are too serene. The Pope becomes bedridden, and denies a request to stop painting the chapel ceiling. The conclusion is a Mass where the congregation is shown the completed ceiling. After the congregation leaves, the Pope offers Michelangelo work on painting the lower walls, but seeing his own life fading, the Pope rescinds and asks him to complete the tomb.

As Michelangelo once said: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

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Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is a philologist specializing in Ancient Russian drama and theatre. She’s also a film and television critic by calling and librarian by profession. You can find her essays on her Facebook page and on Lumiere. She also blogs in English and Russian.

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