The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)




Director: Carol Reed

Starring:  Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento, Harry Andrews, Adolfo Celi

Michelangelo (1475-1564) fights with Pope Julius II; based on Irving Stone novel



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Michelangelo was born in 1475 in the Tuscan village of Caprese.  His father was the mayor of the village.  Michelangelo studied sculpture technique at Settignano.  And his goal was Florence.  That city was in the year 1469 dominated by Lorenzo the Magnificent.  Here Michelangelo learned to draw and paint.  But what he really liked to do was sculpt.  His first work was a bas-relief called the Madonna of the Stairs, done when he was only 15 years old.    At 17 he sculpted the Battle of the Centaurs

Later he did the Medici Tombs, including the architecture.  In 18 months he sculpted David.  When he was 23 he did the Pieta.  On February 18, 1564 Michelangelo died at the age of 89.  He is best known for his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

Soldiers approach and the peasants try to get away from them.  Apparently, they are caught in the middle of a battlefield.  The victorious army returns to its castle.  The commander is none other than the pope.  The shout goes up:  "Return to Rome!" 

Bramante is busy at work.  He stops with the return of the Pope.  Bramante tells Michelangelo that the Pope wanted everyone to stop work in honor of his return.  Michelangelo replies:  ". . . I do His Holiness honor.  This tomb will make him famous . . . forever."   He goes out to check on a newly arrived huge piece of marble.  Michelangelo tells Bramante that he can see Moses come down from Sinai in the marble. 

The Pope returns on his white horse.    The Pope sits on his throne.  He tells a messenger to tell the King of France that the Pope is at war and will remain so engage until he recovers the Papal States for the church.  (At its height the Papal States covered most of the modern Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Lazio.)  He calls in Michelangelo.  He reads from a sonnet of the artist's that is highly critical of the pope.  Michelangelo says he wrote it at a time that the Pope had not paid him and he was angry. 

The Pope tells Michelangelo that he will build a new St. Peter's church.  And for the meantime, they will forget about working on the Pope's Tomb.  He takes Michelangelo over to the Sistine Chapel and explains it was built by his uncle, Pope Sixtus.  He tells Michelangelo that his commission is to decorate the ceiling with the twelve apostles.  Michelangelo objects that he's a sculptor, not a painter, but it does no good.  The Pope has made up his mind. 

Michelangelo tells a cardinal, a Medici, that he is going to Turkey to work for the sultan.  The cardinal's sister Tessina says farewell to Michelangelo.  (Michelangelo grew up in the home of Tessina and her brother's father).  The cardinal says if Michelangelo leaves, Julius II will never let him return.  Michelangelo says that Julius wants to destroy him with this Sistine chapel commission and then cast him into hell.

Michelangelo is mad at Bramante because he built scaffolding for the Sistine Chapel that had to burrow holes into the ceiling of the chapel.  The great artist says that he can build better scaffolding that won't drill holes into the ceiling.  The Pope gives him permission to erect his own scaffolding.  He finishes painting two of the twelve apostles. 

Michelangelo goes into a tavern.  There he draws another portrait of the face for an apostle.  he goes back into the Sistine Chapel and destroys the two apostle portraits. 

Julius says to the people gathered in the square that they can not tolerate those who wish to separate the Papal States of the church and, thereby, destroy them.  He then goes to the Sistine Chapel to see what Michelangelo has been doing.  He sees the destroyed apostle portraits.  And Michelangelo has disappeared for a month now.  The Pope gives the order to find Michelangelo.  Soldiers scour the countryside. 

Michelangelo went back home to the quarry where he once worked.  Horsemen approach the quarry.  They are looking for Michelangelo.  The men at the quarry delay the soldiers so Michelangelo can slip away higher up in the mountains.  Up there, alone, he looks at the clouds in the skies and sees one shaped like God stretching out his hand to a human.  Michelangelo says:  "So God created man in His own image."   


Pope Julius II prepares to attack a fortress.  Just as he prepares for battle two soldiers bring Michelangelo to the Pope.  Michelangelo tells the Pope that he was just coming to see him.  He explains he was that the Carrara quarries.  He grabs his drawings inspired by the cloud formations and lays them out before the Pope.  The enemy opens fire on the Papal forces.  The Pope becomes so interested in Michelangelo's drawing that he forgets to give the order to fire.  Someone has to remind him, but he still is too focused on the drawings.  Michelangelo explains that it will be five times the work with his designs, but it will be worth it.  The Pope approves the designs and sends Michelangelo with an escort back to Rome.   

The great artist throws himself into his work.  He does a lot of painting laying his back down on the scaffolding floor.  The Pope comes in to take a look at it after six months times asking him "When will you make and end?"  Michelangelo responds: "When I'm finished."  Michelangelo spills some paint on some of the men in the Pope's procession within the chapel.  The Pope enquires when will it end? 

Michelangelo is late for his meeting with Tessina.  She balls him out for standing up 300 hundred guests, many of them famous artists who wanted to meet the great Michelangelo.  The great artist, however, looks so exhausted and discouraged that Tessina take pity on him.  She gives him a long kiss on his lips.  She kisses him again.  Tessina loves Michelangelo but he mentions that she is married.  She says she submitted only to a ceremony.  The artists tells her that now there is no room in him for love.  He did have sex with a courtesan in Bologna, but it only left him feeling empty. 

Michelangelo hears men condemning his work.  The especially object to the nudity. They shout:  "Obscenity!"  "Shameful."  A heated argument begins between the artists and his critics.  Michelangelo grows so angry that he yells down to the Pope:  "Why do you bring fools to judge my work?"  The Pope sides with Michelangelo.  The paintings will not be changed.  Michelangelo works through the night, but his eyes start hurting him and he has blurred vision.  He climbs down from the scaffolding.  It's not an easy thing to do, as his vision is really bad.  He almost falls to his death at one point.  His assisstants find him in the morning. 

Tessina runs to Michelangelo's bedside.  She escorts the papal physicians out.  Tessina will take care of the artist herself.  When the Pope comes back from a visit elsewhere, Bramante is right there to say that Michelangelo will not be able to finish the ceiling.  Bramante shows the Pope the work of Raphael.  The Pope sees that the work is very good, but it is greatly influenced by the paintings in the Sistine Chapel. 

Michelangelo says to Tessina:  "Even if I had the strength to go on, I don't have the will."  The Pope comes to see Michelangelo.  He says he brings good news.  He relieves Michelangelo of his commission.  He will be paid in full and then he can go to Florence.  Raphael can take over the painting.  Michelangelo objects rather strenuously.  The Pope leaves.  Tessina runs after him saying he can't do this.  The Pope scolds Tessina for catering too well to Michelangelo's weaknesses.  The man will only get well by going back to his work.  The Pope now puts Bramante to work finishing the tomb for Julius.  Bramante is not pleased, since this was Michelangelo's work. 

Michelangelo is back at work, even it he still is a bit weak.  And the Poe returns to asking the artist, when there will be an end to this?  Micheangelo discovers that workmen are taking down his scaffolding.

The Pope receives bad news.  The French have invaded Lombardy and the Germans are at the Brenner Pass.  Ferrara and Bologna have joined the alliance against the Pope.  Moreover, Milan is besieged.  Michelangelo rushes in complaining that the scaffolding is being taken down.  This interruption angers the Pope and he shouts that Michelangelo will just have to wait.  The Pope tells his military man to attack the French and the Germans. 

When the military men leave, Michelangelo rushes over to the Pope, who tells him that he is taking the scaffolding down so he can show visitors how much has been already done on the Chapel.  Michelangelo says he refuses to show his work before it is finished.  The Pope gets so angry he strikes the artist with a wooden instrument.  He now tells Michelangelo that his commission is at an end.  Michelangelo slowly walks out of the room.

The Pope rides out with his forces.  He stops for a brief moment when he sees Michelangelo, but then continues on.  Tessina talks with Michelangelo to get him back to work on the ceiling.  She makes a good case that the Pope loves the paintings on the ceiling.  She says love.  Tessina says about love:  "It's either agony or ecstasy -- sometimes both."  She adds that if Michelangelo wants to finish that ceiling: "Then finish it!"

The Pope's forces are slowly retreating.  The Pope has been wounded and he holds tight to his stomach.  Michelangelo comes out to see the pope with his defeated troops.  He asks for permission to finishe the ceiling.  The Pope says he can't grant that wish because soon the enemy will take Rome.  His enemies in Bologna melted Michelangelo's statute of  the Pope to make a cannon, which they subsequently named the "Julia".   He then relents and lets Michelangelo continue to work.  The artist says he must have some money, but the Pope says he has no money.  Michelangelo sees he will sell the huge marble blocks to get the necessary money.  After Michelangelo leaves, the Pope says the will make four cardinals now instead of just three.  The fourth cardinal will bring in enough money to pay for Michelangelo's paints. 

Michelangelo paints the ceiling again.  One day the troops returns badly beaten.  The Pope is with them.  When Michelangelo returns for the night shift, he finds the Pope at the top looking at the work by the light of a candle.  The Pope loves the painting of God's face as one of love, not anger.  The artist says that the act of creation was an act of love.    The Pope says he was a better soldier than a Pope, but he even failed at soldiering.  The Pope faints and Michelangelo catches him. 

The Pope is not well and stays in bed.  There is good news, however, on the military front.  The Spaniards are marching north from Naples to save Rome.  The Swiss are ready to move south against Milan.  If the Pope dies, however, the alliance will be over and France and Germany will move in.  Michelangelo goes in to see the Pope.  He tells him he is stopping his work and going back to Florence.  This riles up Julius II and he tells Michelangelo he will go back to work or he will go to the dungeon.  Michelangelo goes back to work.  The Pope is now so aroused that he gets out of bed and throws all the death watch people out of his room. 

The fighting continues. The Pope almost faints while performing his duties.  He manages to right himself.  The Pope then notices that Michelangelo is in the crowd before him.  He looks up at the ceiling and discovers the work has been completed.  And now everyone looks at the finished work.  Everyone leaves, except the Pope and Michelangelo. The two men start arguing once more about the art work once again.  But this time Michelangelo lets it go.  The Pope says a few more things and then leaves the Sistine Chapel.   


This is a story that seems a little long but that's because it took a long time to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  The agony is the agony of the seemingly endless months of Michelangelo painting the ceiling and the ecstasy is the final version of the chapel ceiling. Julius II the Pope (also known as the Warrior Pope) commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but Michelangelo is primarily a sculptor and does not want the assignment. But the Pope persists and Michelangelo reluctantly takes on the project.  He grows ever more reluctant and frustrated as he realizes how dissatisfied he is with the Pope's theme of the 12 apostles for the side panels. And so starts a series of rows between the Pope and the painter with the painter being unable to compromise, but finally giving the Pope some respect.  There is a lot of history to the story also as the Pope had to manage several wars, while tangling with Michelangelo.


This is kind of an anti-buddy movie.  The Pope and the artist are always at odds with each other, always arguing.  But the truth is that the two men are bound to each other tightly.  Michelangelo only realizes this at the time that death approaches the Pope.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Near the end of the 15th century   --  Italy becomes the object of a succession of aggressive wars, waged by France, Spain, and Austria, which culminated in the ascendancy of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs.

 1475  --  born Michelangelo Buonarroti in Caprese, Italy.

1488  --  at age 13, he is apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, who at the time was painting a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Learns the technique of fresco (painting on fresh plaster before it dries).  Lorenzo de' Medici saw him at work and was impressed.  He decided to sponsor Michelangelo.

1490  -- at age 15, Michelangelo began to stay in the home of Lorenzo de' Medici, where he studied sculpture under Bertoldo di Giovanni. He grows up with the children of Lorenzo.  A problem for Michelangelo was that he was a determined republican living in a virtual Medici dictatorship. This would cause him to break with the Medici family.  Michelangelo finishes the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs. He leaves Florence following the death of Lorenzo de' Medici.  He eventually goes to Rome where he carves the Bacchus and the Pietà.

Lorenzo eventually buys his son a cardinalship, while his nephew becomes a priest.  

1492  --  death of Lorenzo 'de Medici. 

1494 (October) -- Michelangelo transferred to Bologna where he completed the tomb of St. Dominic.

1494 --  King Charles VIII of France undertakes to conquer the kingdom of Naples, then under the rule of the house of Aragón. Charles conducts this campaign for the Milanese regent Ludovico Sforza and the citizens of Florence, who are restive under the Medici family. He invades Italy, occupies Naples, and concludes a treaty with Florence, by the terms of which the Medici are expelled and the pope brought to submission.   Cardinal Medici and his son the priest have to leave Florence for fear of being assassinated.

A league forms against King Charles VIII composed of Spain, the pope, the Holy Roman emperor, and the Italian cities of Venice and Milan.  Charles is forced to retire from Naples and has to fight his way out of Italy.

1496  --  Michelangelo comes to Rome. 

1498-1499  --  he sculpted the masterpiece of his early years, the Pietá for St. Peter's.

1499  --  King Louis XII of France, successor to Charles VIII, subjugates Milan.

1501 --  Ferdinand V of Castile, king of Sicily since 1468, reunites Naples and Sicily under one crown.

1501-1504  --  Michelangelo returns to Florence and completes his statue of David, which symbolically stood for the Republicans (the slayer David) of the Medicis (Goliath).   

1503-1513  --  Pope Julius II's tenure. 

1504 -- back in Florence, Michelangelo completes the statue David.

1506  --  Julius led a brilliant campaign that freed Perugia and Bologna (from despots Giampolo Baglioni and Giovanni II Bentivoglio, respectively).  Thereby, he became an important man to know for both Louis XII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. 

1506  --  Pope Julius II  laid the foundation stone of the new St. Peter's Cathedral.  He was a patron of Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo. 

In Rome, Pope Julius II summons Michelangelo to create a tomb for him with 40 life size figures.

1508  --  Pope Julius II commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo resented this assignment thinking that it was a forced change out of sculpting to painting. 

1508  --  1508 – Pope Julius II concludes the League of Cambrai with Louis XII, King of France, Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Ferdinand II, King of Aragon. The League fights against the Republic of Venice during the "War of the Holy League," also known as the "War of the League of Cambrai." Julius wants the Venetian possession of Romagna; Emperor Maximilian I wants Friuli and Veneto; Louis XII wants Cremona; and Ferdinand II want the Apulian

1509 (May 14) – at the Battle of Agnadello, the dominion of Venice in Italy was practically lost.  But then Julius II had to side with Venice against his one time allies. 

1511  --  Julius II enters into the "Holy League of 1511" and allies himself with Ferdinand II and the Venetians against France.

1512  --  Michelangelo returns to the work on Julius' tomb, completing the figure of Moses and leaving unfinished two Slaves.

1512  --  he finishes painting the Sistine Chapel.

1512  --  the French are driven across the Alps, but other powers occupy Italy. 

1513  --  Pope Julius II dies of fever; Cardinal Medici becomes Pope Leo X.  And now Michelangelo works for Pope Leo X, Lorenzo de' Medici's son.

1521  --  death of Pope Leo X.

1522-1523  --  Adrian VI is the new pope. 

1523-1534  --  Leo X's cousin, another Medici and a cousin, becomes Pope Clement VII.

1524  --  The rivalry between Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and King Francis I of France leads to another French invasion of Italy. With the Florentines, Genoese, and Venetians as allies, the French are successful at first, but then face defeat.

1527  --  Rome sacked by Protestant sympathizers during the Reformation. 

1529  -- the Peace of Cambrai; Francis I renounces all his claims to territory in Italy.

1534  --  Michelangelo leaves Florence for Rome, where he spends the remainder of his life. The Medici Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco in the Sistine Chapel honoring his family and himself.   (For revenge against the Medicis, Michelangelo painted a brutal scene of the Last Judgment.) 

1534  --- death of Pope Clement VII. 

1534-1549  --  tenure of Pope Paul III.

1541  -- the Last Judgment finished.  The paintings contained many nude figures and after the death of Micheangelo the Church had Daniele da Volterra paint drapery over the offending parts. 

1540s --  Francis I renews the conflict, but Charles's domination over Italy cannot be broken.

1542-1559  --  Paul III commissioned from Michelangelo's last major frescos for the Capella Paolina, the Conversion of St. Paul and the Martyrdom of St. Peter.

1546 --  Michelangelo appointed Chief Architect to St. Peter's, charged with the completion of the new church.

1550-1555    --  tenure of Pope Julius III.

1555  --  Pope Marcellus II.

1555-1559  --  tenure of Pope Paul IV.

1559-1565  -- tenure of Pope Pius IV.

1564  -- Michelangelo dies.


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