by Roderick Conway Morris

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Michelangelo's Architecture

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 17 November 2006
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Michelangelo Presenting the Model for the Completion of
St. Peter's to Pope Pius IV by Domenico Cresti, 1618-19



Michelangelo Buonarroti is now most famous as a sculptor, painter and draftsman. Few visitors to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican may be aware of his enormous contribution to the final design and completion of St. Peter's. Of the hundreds of thousands who go to see his 'David' at the Accademia in Florence, only a handful will even know of the existence of his Laurentian Library in the same city - one of the most revolutionary interior designs in architectural history.

Yet, the Florentine artist spent more of his long career occupied with architecture - he devoted 18 years to St. Peter's alone - than with any other pursuit. In the long term, he may have been more influential in this field than in any other.

Michelangelo had an obsessive fear of being pigeonholed. He had initially trained as a painter, but the creator of the Sistine ceiling denied that this was - or had ever really been - his calling. Similarly, when invited to undertake the design for the Laurentian Library in 1524, he warned: 'Farï ciï che saprï, benché non sia mia professione' ('I'll do what I can, although it's not my profession').

That characteristic response provides the subtitle for a fascinating exhibition that aims to round out the picture of this most difficult of artistic geniuses by focusing on the least popularly understood facet of his career.

Curated by Caroline Elam, a former editor of The Burlington Magazine and a leading expert on Michelangelo, the exhibition, 'Michelangelo and Architectural Drawing,' is showing at the International Center for Architectural Studies at Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, in Vicenza, until Dec. 10, and at the artist's house in Florence, the Casa Buonarroti, from Dec. 15 to March 19.

At the core of the exhibition are more than a score of drawings spanning his 89-year lifetime. The artist destroyed many of his drawings and letters before his death in February 1564, partly to protect his posthumous image by concealing the huge preparatory labors behind his finished masterpieces.

Luckily, a reasonable number of architectural drawings escaped the flames. Without them we would have little idea of his highly unconventional working methods, which produced in turn highly original architectural results.

On being asked in 1515 to collaborate on the design of the facade for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, to which complex the Laurentian Library would later be added, Michelangelorecognized that he lacked experience in this type of design. Accordingly, he hastened to put himself through a crash, teach-yourself course, making particular use of the so-called Codex Coner, a manuscript compendium of architectural and decorative drawings from which he copied classical motifs and features. These were not exact reproductions, but sketches - freely done in colored chalks in the examples on display here - clearly intended 'to get his hand in', and enable him to add these elements to his existing sculptural and graphic vocabulary.

Not a team player, Michelangelo was notoriously solitary, defensive of his independent status and never, as he said himself, 'the kind of painter or sculptor to keep a studio.' Operating outside the studio system, he had strong motives, as his contemporary Giorgio Vasari, the artist and writer,noted, to become involved in designing the settings for his own sculptures.

Having no background in an architectural workshop, Michelangelo adopted an approach to design that was idiosyncratic from the outset. Convinced that an understanding of the human body was as necessary a skill in architecture as in the figurative arts,the artist tackled the design of a piece of architecture very much as he would have done a preparatory figure drawing. Rather than starting with a simple 'idea' sketch, and developing increasingly detailed and exact drawings on successive sheets of paper, Michelangelo would typically do an initial sketch and then repeatedly draw on top of it, creating a kind of multilayered palimpsest as his ideas advanced.

One remarkable upshot of this was that, having tried various superimposed alternatives, rather than choosing one or another, he would combine elements from several to create hybrid versions that might not have occurred to other architects.

Paper was expensive and the artist had austere habits, so every available sheet of paper, including his own draft letters and those he had received from others, was covered back and front with his drawings.

Having effectively molded architecture on the page, he would then make a clay or wax model of the kind that he would do for a sculpture, in which form he would continue to modify the design. While the artist studied classical buildings and their ornamental features, his approach was not archeological, for he saw them as essentially a means to the end of creating something quite new.

Rules, as far as he was concerned, even if laid down by the ancients, were there to be broken, and break them he did, often to the surprise and consternation of his contemporaries. Moreover, his organic conception of architecture, his application of sculptural methods in modeling buildings and his dynamic manipulation of space, light and shadow were instrumental in breaking down the divide between structure and decoration, introducing a heady new sense of freedom.

These lessons took time to be fully grasped, and the baroque builders Bernini and Borromini, born more than 30 years after Michelangelo's death, were his first true disciples.

It was Bernini who was to assert that in architecture the Florentine had reached the pinnacle of his many achievements, saying of him: 'He was a great sculptor and painter, but a divine architect.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023