One of the good things about growing up in a family that loved reading was that even as a child, I was surrounded by books—novels, of course; and treatises on everything from Wordsworth’s poetry (thanks to my mother) to gardening and homoeopathy (thanks to my father). Those books, big tomes that were all words and no pictures, were of no interest to a 6-year old who wasn’t too deeply into literature.
My favourite book from my parents’ vast collection was a large Readers’ Digest coffee table book called Family Treasury of Great Painters and Great Paintings. This one was a fascinating book. You didn’t need to be able to read much to be able to enjoy it, because it was full of the most amazing paintings. That was where I first saw The Music Lesson, La Grande Jatte, The Arnolfini Wedding, Sunflowers… and The Creation of Man. I don’t even need to open that book now to see what The Creation of Man looked like, spread across the top half of two pages. It took my breath away.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is about how Michelangelo came to paint The Creation of Man (and the rest of the Sistine Chapel ceiling). And no; it isn’t just a painting lesson. In fact, it’s not really a painting lesson at all. It is, instead, a wonderful look into early 16th century Italy, the strange relationship between an artist and his patron, a man and his passion for the work he creates.
The film begins with a 10-minute introduction to Michelangelo. The camera takes us to the modern Vatican City, to Florence, and to a sleepy little town in Tuscany: some of the important places in the life of Michelangelo Buonarotti (AD 1475-1564). Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Tuscany, and in his childhood itself developed a love for stone carving. Still a teenager, he went to Florence, where he also learnt the art of painting…
… but went on, eventually, to specialise in his first love, which was sculpture. His first major work, a bas relief called The Madonna of the Steps, was created when he was 15, and by the time he was 21, he had arrived in Rome—where he proceeded not just to carve the famous David:
And this is where our story really begins. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) is not so much a pious pope as a warrior pope; he’s as comfortable in his armour and on his horse as he is in his vestments. Now he’s back in Rome after another important victory on the battlefields.
While he’s holding court, dismissing a disgruntled French ambassador and dealing with recalcitrant cardinals, Julius also finds time to meet the sculptor he’s commissioned to create a grand tomb for the Pope. This is Michelangelo (Charlton Heston). Michelangelo has a complaint to make: Julius has not paid him some of the money due for his work so far.
Julius, however, nurses a greater grudge. During his campaign, he has come across a poem (and pretty bad poetry, too) that Michelangelo has written about him, the Pope.
Julius proceeds to read out the poem, in which Michelangelo has compared the Pope to a Medusa. He’s also—not in writing, though—called Julius a freebooter and a conqueror. Julius is (and no surprise, this) not happy.
But he has made a decision about Michelangelo and his work. The tomb can wait for now. Instead, Julius has something else for Michelangelo to do.
The Pope leads both men—along with a small entourage of the pontiff’s—into a modest chapel that is part of the papal palace. This, explains Julius, is a chapel very close to his own heart. It was built by Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, and is therefore known as the Sistine Chapel. This is where Julius likes to hold daily prayers, and where he feels most comfortable.
Unfortunately, over time, the decoration of the Sistine Chapel has deteriorated a good deal. The paint on the vaulted ceiling has peeled and is patchy, unsightly.
It is now Michelangelo’s task to redo the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Paint it. Decorate it with large portraits of the twelve apostles, with suitable patterns to fill up the spaces.
Michelangelo is aghast. He is a sculptor, for heavens’ sakes, not a painter. But he did learn painting (and was very good at it; his work has been acclaimed and commissioned by people in Florence), says the Pope. Yes, but that is not what he wants to do, protests Michelangelo. He will not do it.
Julius II refuses to listen. “I am your pontiff, Buonarotti!” he bellows. “Would you refuse me what you did not refuse the bankers and politicians of Florence?”
Or is he? This man is an artist, after all. And a temperamental one. So, that evening, he packs his trunk and some more of his belongings, piles them into a cart, and leaves town. On the way, though, he decides to make a brief stop at the plush villa of Contessina de’ Medici (Diane Cilento), where a party is in progress.
Both Contessina and her brother Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (Adolfo Celi) have been good friends of Michelangelo since his days in Florence.
Michelangelo tells them what has happened—Julius’s crazy demand—and now springs a surprise of his own. He shows them a letter, a commission from the Sultan of Turkey, for Michelangelo to build a bridge across the Bosphorus at Constantinople. The Sultan has even sent Michelangelo an advance for the project. That’s where Michelangelo is headed.
Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici tells Michelangelo that if he accepts the Sultan’s commission and leaves for Turkey, there won’t be any returning. Julius will never allow that, because Michelangelo, by rejecting his commission, will have rendered him the greatest insult ever.
The cardinal tries to reason with Michelangelo, but is called away elsewhere just then—so Contessina is left to “tell him he’s mad.”
Which Contessina does—in a more tactful way than her brother. [It is indicated during this conversation, that there has been and may still be some hint of a romance between her and Michelangelo, though Contessina is now married and a mother].
Contessina, at least, is able to goad Michelangelo into admitting the truth: that he is terrified of the Sistine Chapel job. It’s a huge task, and he thinks his forte is sculpture, not painting.
This is now a matter of Michelangelo facing up to his own fear of working on the Sistine Chapel—and he takes up the challenge. Along with five Florentine assistants, he gets to work creating the cartoons for the frescoes of the apostles.
He quarrels with Bramante and the Pope himself about the scaffolding that Bramante’s erected to let the artists reach the ceiling (Bramante’s method is to knock holes in the ceiling, so Michelangelo says he’ll build his own scaffolding).
Not that it’s fulfilling work. Michelangelo, though he and his assistants make good progress, is unsatisfied. He doesn’t say anything to anyone, though—but there’s a niggling something somewhere, that irritates him.
Eventually, one evening, on his way home from the Sistine Chapel, a weary Michelangelo stops over at a crowded tavern. Listlessly, he sits down at a table, orders wine, and quickly sketches an old man at a nearby table.
…and, at the first sip of wine, discovers it’s sour.
The tavern keeper, when Michelangelo calls to him, says he’s opened the cask just ten minutes back. How can it be sour? But the man does taste the wine, and has to admit it is sour.
He then walks back to the cask, and cracks it open, allowing the wine to gush out all over the floor.
So, instead of going back to the stuffy little house he’s rented from the Pope, Michelangelo goes back to the Sistine Chapel—where he systematically tears up the cartoons and destroys the painted frescoes. Before leaving Rome.
The next morning, when the news reaches the Pope’s ears, Julius II is furious. Michelangelo’s assistants are clueless; they have no idea where he’s gone. Soldiers scour Rome, and are sent to Florence to look for the fugitive artist, but he’s nowhere to be found. They also go looking for him in his home in Tuscany, but again with no luck.
They nearly run into him at the marble quarries of Carrara, where Michelangelo is helping cut blocks of the stone.
The other quarrymen, however, are able to create a diversion that allows Michelangelo to escape into the hills before he’s spotted by the soldiers.
Michelangelo spends the night in a cave, and wakes up to see the curving roof of the cave in the morning light… and when he steps out onto the mountainside, this is what he sees:
But it’s going to be a long, difficult task—especially as Michelangelo insists that he will work only with two men to help him. All the painting he will do himself. There lies a long and arduous journey ahead. Not just for Michelangelo, who will have to face everything from Julius’s own impatience to see the work finished, and his cardinals’ disapproval of Michelangelo’s work…
…to the fact that the artist himself is after all only a man, and physically capable of doing only so much. But somehow, somewhere, the artist and his art will triumph. And we will see how one of Europe’s most spectacular works of art (and a World Heritage Site) came to be.
Just about everything. The acting, especially of Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston, is superb, and their chemistry (I can’t find another word for it) is excellent—the confrontations between Michelangelo and the Pope, the fact that deep down they really know each other, and their unity in their love of art. Considering that Harrison and Heston didn’t get along at all, it says a lot for their skill as actors.
The humour, especially the sarcasm in Julius and Michelangelo’s interactions. Very witty. For example, this is what Michelangelo says when he Julius shows him the Sistine Chapel for the first time and asks him what he thinks about its architecture: “…no more architecture than a cow barn.”
The scope of the film. Yes, this is basically a film about art and artists and the love that binds an artist to his/her work to the point of no return—but it’s also a film about much more. It’s about power and ego, about a little bit of Italian history, and about the beauty that can outlast us, if only we have the talent and the will to create it.
The sheer beauty of the film. Of course. The Vatican, Tuscany (incidentally, the marble quarries of Carrara where Heston is shown working are the actual quarries from where Michelangelo obtained the marble for his work), Italy—and the paintings. By the way, the film crew was not allowed to film inside the Sistine Chapel, so a replica was created at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.
What I didn’t like:
The Contessina angle, which seemed rather forced. This film—unlike, say, the 1952 film Moulin Rouge (about another artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)—dwells very little on the personal life of Michelangelo, or even on his career before and after the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Contessina ends up being rather intrusive, her only function being to convince us that Michelangelo prizes his art even above this woman, who is willing to put aside everything else for him.
Still, a fantastic film. It’s absorbing, a good insight into what it takes to be creative—and an entertaining film too. A must-watch.