Book Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone

by New Idiom


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Michelangelo Was a Sculptor…

As we all know Michelangelo was an artist, and a revolutionary one. One might almost say that he was innovative. He could work in sketches, fresco, and marble. Michelangelo was recruited by the most powerful men of the time and lived on their dime. His work was flocked to and studied by aspiring artists across Italy. Michelangelo, was a powerful humanist working to “give the world back to man.”

As biographies go, I guess this one is not that unusual; it brings to life its subject and teaches us not only about a person, but about his or her context. From this book I (re)learned that Michelangelo was one of the foremost sculptors of the Italian Renaissance.

Michelangelo was passionate in his love of his work. Stone describes repeatedly the relationship that Michelangelo has with his marble as being something akin to a lovers’ relationship. This rocky (pun not originally intended, nevertheless not deleted) relationship is the inspiration of the title, Agony and Ecstasy. Ecstasy referring to what he felt when he was sculpting; agony, the challenge he felt when dealing with other issues that kept him from it.

Michelangelo lived to work marble, but due to the nature of patronage at the time he didn’t always have that luxury. He was compelled by the whims of many of his patrons to complete other works.

One of these forced works was a bronze portrait of a pope on the high road to unpopularity. Michelangelo had never worked in bronze before and thus had to hire a team of bronze workers to complete the casting. During the course of the project, his team abandoned him. He was forced to rehire help and eventually succeeded with the bronze piece. The bronze piece was in place a tragically short amount of time before it was pulled down and melted as a statement from the people about their dislike for that pope.

A few years later, Michelangelo was assigned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You may have heard how it took him 4 years to complete it. It did take 4 years. This is not a reflection on the size of the ceiling, or the slowness of his work, but rather of his undaunted commitment to creating a perfected piece. At the beginning of the project, he hired a team of colleagues he subconsciously knew to be sub par. After plastering and painting the first 10 square feet of the ceiling, he realized that any team that he could afford to put together would fall short of the perfection to which he aspired. He fired his team and scraped the plaster off the ceiling, only to spend the rest of the 4 years starving himself atop the scaffolding. All the while remembering that this project had to be completed for his all important client, the pope, before he could return to the far more interesting sculpting projects awaiting his attention.

Some years after the Sistine chapel had been completed, he rejoiced at the monumental commission awarded by the Medici to design and sculpt the Façade of the San Lorenzo Gallery. There was a catch, however. Michelangelo was to bypass his usual marble source, Carraras, “a one crop town.” He was to harvest his marble from the San Pietras, a peak, several thousand feet high, to which there was no road. He had to organize the laying of a road. The contractor he was assigned took Michelangelo’s directions so literally, that a road leading to the base of the peak was completed, but the marble quarry was still some distance from the end of the road. Once the road was finally connected to the quarry, men had to be hired to cut the marble. The quarry men of Carraras had taken a personal affront and refused the job. So he recruited stonecutters from his home in Tuscany. Once they succeeded in cutting the block and bringing it to the water the boatmen (related to the quarry men) would not carry the stone. And on and on.

Michelangelo was an artist, and when he could manage it, a sculptor. But as we can tell from the account given by Stone, he also held a far less glamorous, but nevertheless inescapable title: Michelangelo was a project manager. The story suggests that Michelangelo’s fame was not only do to a trained eye, undaunted perfectionism, and sheer talent, but to the well of energy and determination he drew on to bring together all the aspects necessary for simply the opportunity to chisel marble.

Michelangelo’s story got me thinking about what I spend the bulk of my time at ID doing—especially at this point in the semester. It made me wonder: am I too really just a project manager who does design in his spare time?