Michelangelo, the Architect: other works in Florence and Rome
Before being involved in the monumental works of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1540’s, Michelangelo’s architectural commissions started back in the 1510’s, precisely in his hometown Florence. In 1513 Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to reconstruct the façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. Michelangelo had a wooden model for this project constructed, but the commission had to be cancelled, and the church’s façade remains to this day unfinished showing its rough brick cover.
Later, in 1520 the Medici inquired Michelangelo with another grand commission to build a family funerary chapel in the same Basilica of San Lorenzo, in which Michelangelo worked between 1520 and 1534. We have seen in other essay that this chapel houses the large tombs of two of the younger members of the Medici family, Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo, his nephew. In 1534, Michelangelo fled to Rome, leaving assistants to complete this chapel. This chapel, known as Sagrestia Nuova (‘New Sacristy’) was built as a pendant to Brunelleschi’s Sagrestia Vecchia(‘Old Sacristy’). As pendants, both sacristies share a cubical space floor plan surmounted by a dome and built in gray pietra serena and whitewashed walls. The permanent departure of Michelangelo for Rome in 1534 prevented him from finishing it, though he oversaw the construction of this chapel from afar. Michelangelo’s intention was also to include a frescoed ceiling, but this was never done. The Medici Chapel is a space with a square floor plan, its apse is also square. The chapel appears much taller than what it really is, and Michelangelo made a powerful use of architectural forms with mostly decorative purposes. Here, as well as in other of his architectural works, Michelangelo used architecture almost as if it were sculpture: architectural elements acquire an almost expressive character as opposed to merely functional. When looking from floor to ceiling, the visitor is faced with the idea of an earthly realm passing through an intermediary level and then a top area including circles and semicircles, the perfect shapes representing the heavenly realm. In fact, the subject of the never started fresco was to include a scene with the resurrection.
Between 1523 and 1559, Michelangelo worked on the Laurentian Library under orders of a Medici Pope, Clement VII. The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) contains more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books belonging to the private library of the Medici family and was built in the cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The purpose of the library was to emphasize that the Medici were no longer merchants but members of an intelligent and ecclesiastical society. Construction of the Library began in 1525, but when Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, only the walls of the reading room were complete. Once in Rome, Michelangelo sent his designs and drawings to Florence that architects Tribolo, Vasari and Ammannati ultimately commissioned to be executed in 1558, though the library was not opened until 1571 and even the vestibule remained incomplete until 1904. For this project, Michelangelo designed both the interior of the library and its vestibule. It was left to assistants to interpret his plans and carry out construction. The small vestibule (including the staircase) that leads to the Library is a strange construction, with an architectural design that included pilasters and cornices embedded in the wall, as if excavated, which Michelangelo most probably imitated from an existing funerary building in Rome. This vestibule alone represents an apotheosis of mannerism, conceived as a sublimation of form within an artificial but highly disciplined system.
Because the Library was housed in an already existing quattrocento cloister, Michelangelo worked building new walls on the original ones, for this reason recessing the columns into the walls was a structural necessity. This led to a unique style and pattern that Michelangelo took advantage of. For the vestibule, Michelangelo included some tapering windows framed in pietra serena, surmounted by either triangular or segmental pediments*, and separated by paired columns set into the wall. At the bottom of the walls are brackets which were usually employed as an ornamental support, but that Michelangelo here used with absolutely no structural purpose, their appearance though is powerful as they’re oversized. The plasters that frame the blind windows taper downward, as opposed to upward in the Classical tradition, with fluting only present at the bottom and not all along their length as was also traditional. The columns appear almost freestanding but are placed in niches as if they were sculptures giving the sense that they are decorative when in fact they are actually structural. This vestibule (or foyer*) of the Laurentian Library was one of the earliest buildings to utilize Classical forms in a plastic and expressive manner. This dynamic quality was later epitomized in Michelangelo’s centrally planned St Peter’s, with its giant Corinthian order, its rippling cornice and its pointed dome.
The staircase leads up to the reading room and takes up half of the floor of the vestibule. With its triple ramp of curvilinear steps in the central aisle and rectangular in the sides, proposes a wealth and complexity of movements that in the future will be explored in depth by Baroque architects. The three lowest steps of the central flight are wider and higher than the others, almost like concentric oval slabs. The staircase has been variously described as if it appears to spill out of the library like a flow of lava, and into the vestibule.
After the drama of the vestibule, Michelangelo gives us a sense of relief and calm entering the space of the library. The reading room includes two blocks of seats separated by a center aisle with the backs of each serving as desks for the benches behind them, the space covered by a coffered ceiling. The desks are lit by the evenly spaced windows along the wall. The windows are framed by pilasters, forming a system of bays which articulate the layout of the ceiling and floor. The blind frames at the top of the walls above the large windows create a kind of false clerestory but at the same time creating a real sense of perspective and rhythm when the visitor enters the Library and sees its full extension from the entrance door.
When Michelangelo finally arrived in Rome in 1534, the city was going through a period of important and grand building reforms. The Popes were then pleased to associate their names with the great roads that were built during each pontificate: the Via Julia, which follows the Tiber, from the time of July II; the Via Sistina, which connects the Esquiline and the Quirinal, from the time of Sixtus IV; the Vias Pia and Alexandrina, etc. The squares were urbanized with stairways and terraces, with that sense of magnificence that Rome always suggests. The most typical example is the complex with the municipal palace of Rome, on the Capitoline Hill, restored by Michelangelo on the occasion of the visit of Emperor Charles V. The existing design of this complex of the Piazza del Campidoglio and the surrounding palazzi was created by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1546 under a commission by Pope Paul III (from the Farnese family) who wanted a symbol of the new Rome to impress Charles V Holy Roman Emperor during his visit in 1538.
The palace in the back of the square (the Palazzo Senatorio) is flanked by two parallel buildings with porticoes, which in turn frame both sides of the square. In the center was placed the great bronze ancient Roman equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which was placed before in front of the church of Saint John Lateran and remained there throughout the Middle Ages. The slope of the Capitoline hill was overcome with a ramp, with parapets on each side bearing Roman military trophies and at the top crowned with the two great ancient statues of Castor and Pollux. In this extraordinary urban complex, Michelangelo had the opportunity to demonstrate all his genius for scenographic architecture: the two side palaces (the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo) are slightly convergent to the centrally located Palazzo Senatorio so that the eye of the viewer takes in the entire complex in a single glance, and the pavement (also designed by Michelangelo in 1546) has a suggestive pattern of irregular rhombuses that give the impression that the statue of Marcus Aurelius (today replaced by a copy) is not on a flat surface, but on the convex cusp of a spherical cap.
For the overall design of the Piazza del Campidoglio, Michelangelo reversed the classical orientation of the constructions on the Capitoline Hill. This was meant as a symbolic gesture: it turned Rome’s civic center to face away from the Roman Forum and instead in the direction of Papal Rome and hence the Christian church represented by St. Peter’s Basilica, thus turning the attention to the new developing section of the city rather than to the ancient ruins of the past. By the time of Michelangelo’s death, the works on the Piazza del Camidoglio were barely started; in fact, the Cordonata Capitolina was not completed when Emperor Charles arrived in Rome. The Campidoglio was only finished until the 17th century, except for the paving design, which was to be completed in the 20th century (in 1940). The sequence of elements of the Piazza del Campidoglio (Cordonata, piazza and a central palazzo) were the point of reference to the so called “cult of the axis” that heavily influenced Italian garden and urban design, and reached its apotheosis in France.
The Piazza includes three remodeled palazzi placed in a harmonious trapezoidal space, they are approached by a ramped staircase called the Cordonata* Capitolina intended to lead visitors up toward the top of the hill and into the piazza itself. The paving design represents an interlaced 12-pointed star as a subtle reference to the constellations and was executed until 1940 under orders by Benito Mussolini following Michelangelo’s original design. This paving pattern directs the visitor’s eyes to the base of the central statue, the equestrian monument to the emperor Marcus Aurelius which is now replaced by a faithful copy. This sculpture was chosen to be placed here as it was thought then to depict Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. This statue provides a central element and a focus while the three buildings define the space. Michelangelo also restored the medieval Palazzo del Senatore giving it a central campanile (to emphasize centrality and symmetry), a renovated façade, and a grand divided external staircase. He also designed a new façade for the colonnaded Palazzo dei Conservatori and projected an identical structure as a mirror complement, the Palazzo Nuovo, opposite the Palazzo dei Conservatori at the other side of the piazza. The construction of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo was carried out after Michelangelo’s death under the supervision of Tommaso Cavalieri. The Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo are now home of the Capitoline Museums. A balustrade runs at the entrance side of the Piazza decorated with sculptures placed atop giant pilasters, the two massive ancient statues of Castor and Pollux were originally placed here to decorate the railings at the top of the Cordonata but these were moved, replaced by others, and are now located in front of the Palazzo del Quirinale.
In 1530, a member of the powerful Farnese family, and who later became Pope Paul III, ordered the construction of the Farnese Palace, the most characteristic palace of the 16th century in Rome. The general distribution of this Palazzo includes a colossal stone cube with three floors separated by classical architraves and a square courtyard inside. This palace was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who worked on it until his death in 1546, and reminds us of traditional Florentine quattrocento palaces. We will go back to it in another essay, but for now it is of importance to us because Michelangelo was involved in some areas of the building. While the ground floor and the first floor were the work of da Sangallo, the second floor (the upper one), on the other hand, was built by Michelangelo between 1546 and 1548. The Farnese palace’s cornice, which throws a deep shadow on the top of the façade and is decorated with lily flowers, the emblem of the Farnese coat of arms, was also projected by Michelangelo as well as some redesigns for the interior courtyard. Additionally, back in 1541, Michelangelo had revised the design of the central window, adding an architrave to give a central focus to the façade, above which is the then largest papal stemma*, or coat-of-arms with a papal tiara, in Rome. In this way, when Pope Paul III appeared on this balcony, the entire facade became like a theatrical setting for his person. On the garden side of the palace, facing the Tiber River, Michelangelo proposed the innovative design of a bridge which, if completed, would have linked the palace with the gardens of the Vigna Farnese on the opposite bank, that later became incorporated into the adjacent villa which the Farnese purchased in 1584 and renamed the Villa Farnesina.
Other important architectural works of Michelangelo in Rome involved the transformation (1563-1564) of the vaulted interior of the ancient Roman baths of Diocletian to accommodate the interior of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, and the Porta Pia (1561-1565), Michelangelo’s last architectural work before his death.
Broken pediment: A type of pediment open or broken at the apex, base or both, its opened gap is often filled with an urn, cartouche, or other ornament.
Coat of arms: Also known as Stemma. A heraldic visual design. The principal part of a system of hereditary symbols dating back to early medieval Europe, used primarily to establish identity in battle. Arms evolved to denote family descent, adoption, alliance, property ownership, and, eventually, profession.
Foyer: An anteroom or lobby especially of a theater, an entrance hallway, a vestibule.
Frigidarium: The large cold pool (or area) of the ancient Roman baths. Their purpose (to provide cold water) was to close the pores of the skin that were opened while taking baths in the areas of the caldarium and the tepidarium, which used hot water to open the pores. The frigidarium was usually located on the northern side of a Roman bath. The largest examples of frigidarium were located in Rome: that of the Baths of Caracalla and that of the Baths of Diocletian.
Giant order: (Also known as colossal order). An order in architecture whose columns or pilasters span two (or more) storeys. At the same time, smaller orders may feature in arcades or window and door framings within the storeys that are embraced by the giant order. The giant order as such was unknown in antiquity.
Segmental pediment: A type of pediment where the normal angular slopes of the cornice are replaced by one in the form of a segment of a circle, in the manner of a depressed arch. Both traditional and segmental pediments have “broken” and “open” forms.