The Agony and the Ecstacy depicts Michelangelo’s struggle to become the embodiment of Renaissance humanism. In the course of the novel Michelangelo must overcome the interference of his family, religious dogma, political intrigue, papal patronage, military campaigns, and artistic jealousy to realize his artistic ambition.
Despite his father’s opposition, twelve-year-old Michelangelo becomes an apprentice, first to painter Ghirlandaio and then to Bertoldo, a sculptor, who directs a school financed by Lorenzo de’ Medici, patron of Florentine art. Michelangelo quickly wins Lorenzo’s esteem, meets his children (amongThem two future popes, Giulio and Giovanni, and Contessina, his first love), suffers the first of several attacks by jealous colleagues (his nose is broken by Trrigiani, whose later appearances always threaten Michelangelo), and through forbidden dissection learns the anatomy and physiology he needs.Eventually Savonarola, a reform priest, comes to power, and his crusading zeal threatens Lorenzo de’ Medici’s family and the Florentine art world.
When Savonarola gains political, as well as religious control, Michelangelo flees Florence and travels to Bologna, where he meets the sensuous Clarissa Saffi and carves the Bambino that attracts the attention of Leo Baglioni. In Rome for the first time, Michelangelo meets Jacopo Galli, a banker, who commissions a sculpture; Giuliano Sangallo, an architect; and Bramante, another architect and an adversary. In Rome, Michelangelo carves the Pieta, learns about the whims of religious patrons, and becomes interested in St. Peter’s – the building of the new St. Peter’s will embroil him in controversy and ultimately consume his last years.
Michelangelo return to Florence, where he carves “the Giant,” a sculpture of David which becomes the symbol of Florence. There he meets Leonardo da Vinci, his principal rival, and Raphael, the painter – the three become the triumvirate of Renaissance Italian art. Jealous of Leonardo Michelangelo competes with him as the two artists paint frescoes for the rulers of Florence.
Word of Michelangelo’s work reaches Pope Julius, who forces Michelangelo to work in bronze, rather than his beloved marble, and to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is Julius who resolves to build a new St. Peter’s.
Julius is followed by two Medici popes who only add to Michelangelo’s problems: Giovanni, by forcing him to work with marble from Pietrasanta, an almost inaccessible region, thereby making Michelangelo an engineer, and Giulio, against whose forces Michelangelo must use his engineering talents to fortify the city of Florence. The Medici popes are followed by Pope Paul III, who commissions Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment and who, after bitter disputes about the ongoing building of St.