Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo

Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy, tells a lively story of the Renaissance artist’s major accomplishments. The readers of the 1960’s who made the novel a best seller were drawn especially to Stone’s compelling portrait of a creative genius who thrived in a time of political, cultural, religious, and social conflicts, much like the conflicts of the decade in which the novel—and the 1965 film of the same name—were released.

Summary of Event

Irving Stone is widely admired for his biographical novels. His first published book, Lust for Life
Lust for Life (Stone) (1934), was on the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Stone’s scholarly research, expressed in a lively literary style, made the book an immediate best seller. Following this early success, Stone continued to build his reputation with biographies of personalities that intrigued him. These included Jack London (1938), Clarence Darrow (1941), U.S. Supreme Court justice Earl Warren (1948), President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel (1951), and Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln (1954). Agony and the Ecstasy, The (Stone)
[kw]Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo (1961)
[kw]Michelangelo, Stone Documents the Life of (1961)
Agony and the Ecstasy, The (Stone)
[g]North America;1961: Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo[06790]
[g]United States;1961: Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo[06790]
[c]Literature;1961: Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo[06790]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1961: Stone Documents the Life of Michelangelo[06790]
Stone, Irving
Medici, Lorenzo de’
Julius II[Julius 02]
Clement VII[Clement 07]

Stone, who devoted six years of research to The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), his biographical novel about artist Michelangelo, lived in Italy for several years, visiting museums and libraries at Florence, Rome, and Bologna, and the marble quarries at Carrara. He had access to English translations of Michelangelo’s 495 letters. He made a thorough study of Italian history, especially the Renaissance period of about 1450 to 1550. Stone told an interviewer, “My books are based 98 percent on documentary evidence. I spend several years trying to get inside the brain and heart of my subjects, listening to the interior monologues in their letters, and when I have to bridge the chasms between the factual evidence, I try to make an intuitive leap through the eyes and motivation of the person I am writing about.”

When The Agony and the Ecstasy was published by Doubleday Doubleday publishers in 1961, it was an immediate hit with the reading public. It was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was on The New York Times best-seller list for more than eighty weeks. In 1965, it was made into a film Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Agony and the Ecstasy[Agony and the Ecstasy]
Agony and the Ecstasy, The (Reed) starring Charlton Heston Heston, Charlton as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison Harrison, Rex as Pope Julius II. Many people who were admirers of Michelangelo’s famous sculptures and paintings were attracted to this biography for its dramatic depiction of the life of the artist during a highly turbulent era of religious, political, cultural, and social conflicts. To understand the attraction readers of the 1960’s had to Stone’s work, one needs to have a basic understanding of the background to Michelangelo’s life in Renaissance Italy.

Michelangelo was born near Florence, Italy, in 1475, the height of the Renaissance. When he was six, his mother died and his father sent him to live with a family of stonemasons. He learned to work with chisel and hammer, cutting stone blocks for churches and palaces. At age fourteen he was invited to join a sculpture studio set up by Lorenzo de’ Medici, a leading citizen of Florence. Medici was the richest man in Italy at that time, the owner of ships, banks, and businesses. He was a patron of the arts with a vast collection of Greek sculptures, paintings, and books. He gave banquets for visiting scholars and political leaders, banquets to which Michelangelo was invited. One of Michelangelo’s early projects was to carve a Madonna and Child, which pleased Medici greatly. This productive period in Michelangelo’s life came to an end as a result of Medici’s death in 1492 and the subsequent rise in influence of Girolamo Savonarola Savonarola, Girolamo .

Savonarola, a fanatical, fiery orator, had been preaching in Florence against corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. He attracted large crowds, urging repentance and prophesying the downfall of the pope. He harangued people to give up their luxuries, all to be thrown into a so-called bonfire of vanities. Like the Old Testament prophets, he claimed to speak for God. When the Medici palace was looted by Savonarola’s followers, Michelangelo fled to Bologna. Eventually, Savonarola was executed for heresy.

In 1498, at the age of twenty-three, Michelangelo was summoned to Rome to carve a Pietà in marble. The Pietà was a traditional theme showing Mary with the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Michelangelo focused on Mary’s face, wanting to show her intense grief. After two years of work, his finished statue was received with great acclaim by Church leaders and the general public.

In 1500, the city of Florence announced a sculpture competition. Michelangelo submitted sketches for a statue of David. David (Michelangelo) He won the contract and was given a huge block of marble, 17 feet high. He envisioned David not as a youth, but as a strong, self-reliant figure who would symbolize the independent spirit of the city. After the statue was completed, it was installed in front of the municipal palace, where it was recognized as a masterpiece.

Although Michelangelo had unfinished contracts in Florence, the new pope, Julius II, commanded him to return to Rome. Julius wanted a tomb for himself with numerous marble carvings. He sent Michelangelo to the quarry at Carrara to select the whitest marble available. After several blocks already had been shipped to Rome, Julius changed his mind about the tomb and ordered Michelangelo to paint murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Reluctantly, Michelangelo began to design pictures based on the book of Genesis. It took him several weeks to paint just the first panel, showing Noah and several dozen others trying to escape the Flood. The Sistine Chapel ceiling became a four-year project that Julius dedicated in 1512, shortly before his death.

The next pope was Leo X, a member of the Medici family. He wanted Michelangelo to create sculptures for a chapel in Florence to honor the Medici name. Michelangelo complied with four larger-than-life figures called Day, Night, Dawn, and Dusk. The following pope, Clement VII, recalled Michelangelo to Rome to paint the Last Judgment
Last Judgment (Michelangelo) on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco painting had to cover a huge area, 50 feet high and 40 feet wide. The dramatic scene that Michelangelo drew showed Christ and the apostles with more than three hundred other figures, some condemned to Hell, some ascending to Heaven, and some awaiting judgment.

In the 1550’s, the papacy went to Paul IV, an intolerant, imperious personality who brought the Spanish Inquisition to Italy. Paul threatened to whitewash over the Last Judgment to cover up its display of nakedness, which was unacceptable to the Church. The Inquisition ended with Paul’s death in 1558, bringing an outburst of joyful celebration to the people of Rome.

Michelangelo was in his eighties and severely ill when Pope Pius IV appointed him to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was to be the mother church of all Christendom. Michelangelo’s architectural masterpiece was the famous dome, whose diameter was so large that it should have collapsed in the middle, like an arch that extends over too great a span, had it not been designed properly. His solution to the problem was to design an inner dome of moderate size that would support the large outer dome. After Michelangelo’s death, the dome was successfully built according to his specifications.


Michelangelo was an artist of the Renaissance. He rebelled against the stagnation and conformity of the Middle Ages. Instead of painting pictures of saints with halos, he and other artists of the time showed real people expressing true human emotions. The Pietà statue, created five hundred years ago, continues to speak to people’s deepest feelings because Mary’s face expresses so poignantly the grief of any mother whose son has died. The statue of David is widely admired for displaying the nobility and strength of the human figure. Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy is a monumental accomplishment that provides readers a fascinating and detailed glimpse into the chaotic Renaissance era as well as an appreciation for the agonizing struggle of artistic creation.

Stone continued to write biographical novels on other famous, creative personalities, including Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and painter Camille Pissaro. The eminent historian Allen Nevins expressed his high regard for Stone’s writing by saying that, “His books on historic figures have given a lively impression of the past to hundreds of thousands of readers who could have been reached by no method less vivid and vigorous than his.” Agony and the Ecstasy, The (Stone)

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Sidney. Michelangelo the Florentine. 1957. Reprint. Ohio State University Press, 1985. A historical novel set in Florence, Italy, providing insight into the religious upheavals during the Renaissance.
  • Chubb, Thomas C. “A Renaissance Man.” The New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1961. A favorable review of Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy.
  • Connolly, Sean. Michelangelo. Milwaukee, Wis.: World Almanac Library, 2004. A brief treatment of the life and works of Michelangelo, with illustrations.
  • Coughlan, Robert. The World of Michelangelo: 1475-1564. New York: Time, 1966. An authoritative text with high-quality photographs describing Michelangelo’s creative works.
  • Krebs, Alvin. “Irving Stone, Author of Lust for Life, Dies at 86.” The New York Times, August 28, 1989. Irving Stone’s obituary, citing his literary accomplishments and a brief life history.
  • Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo. 1961. New York: New American Library, 2004. Stone’s classic, compelling work, brought to life in this updated edition that includes a bibliography, a glossary, and a listing of where one can find Michelangelo’s extant artworks.

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