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The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo

The Agony and the Ecstasy - Irving Stone I read this in anticipation of a trip to Florence, and I recommend the book in that capacity. Even knowing nothing about Michaelangelo, it is easy to stand in front of his David, or Pieta, and appreciate "Wow, I couldn't do that!" But it is so much more gratifying to feel a connection with the artist, knowing a little bit about who he was, how he was raised, what was important to him, and what he struggled with. Most impressive to me was that Michaelangelo showed tremendous innate ability, but constantly pushed himself to improve. He worshipped the human body, and sculpted nudes, even in an era where modesty far exceeded today's standards. He painted a bit (the Sistine Chapel ceiling!, "The Last Judgement", and other first-rate masterworks), but his real love was sculpting, and he obsessively inspected every marble slab he ever lay his hands on. Even when he was considered one of the foremost artists of his generation, he risked his very life to improve his art by dissecting recently-deceased bodies. The all-powerful Catholic church regarded this handling of the dead as herasy, and would not allow such study for any purpose, let alone artistic study... so Michaelangelo broke into an infirmary morgue in the middle of the night to perform autopsies by candlelight. Amazing.