Florence day 2 (continuation 7)

Michelangelo and the facade design for the San Lorenzo and the Cappelle Medicee (New Sacristy)

We now walk north and cross the Ponte de S. Trinita to head for the San Lorenzo. We first take a look at the facade, which is made exclusively of rough brickwork, with some rows of brick sticking out, and others skipping back. Pope Leo X (a Medici) desired a beautiful facade for his ‘family church’.153

Santa Maria Novella large size       Facade of the San Lorenzo and  an aerial photo        Youtube Google Earth San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo facade Florence


San Lorenzo large size       San Lorenzo aerial     The market of San Lorenzo      Without market       Youtube Google Earth San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo facade and side Florence

He organised a competition, with participants including Raphaël, Andrea and Jacopo Sansovino, but also Giuliano da Sangallo. Michelangelo ended up winning the assignment, but he had to work together with Jacopo Sansovino. After taking it up to the pope, Michelangelo succeeded in negotiating that Sansovino would be left out. Sansovino was now unemployed. He writes Michelangelo a letter. In it, he accuses Michelangelo, and rightly so, of defamation, dishonesty and self-centredness, but primarily of a breach of contract, as can be read here:

‘I also tell you that the pope, the cardinal and Iachopo Salviati are men of their word, when they say yes, it stays yes, they hold up their contracts and are not how you claim they are. But you judge them by your own standards, for you, there are neither contracts nor good faith, and all the time you say no or yes as it suits and profits you. And you know the pope promised me and Iachopo the stories on the reliefs; and they are men of their word. And I have been as just and profitable to you as I could be. That is why I not yet realised that you never do anyone justice and that, starting with me, you cannot tolerate someone else’s success. You also know that we have had plenty discussions, even that accursed time where you had nothing positive to say about anyone. May God be with you. I will be silent. I am very well informed, as you will be too upon your return. This is all.’

As written by Jacopo Sansovino in a letter to Michelangelo Buonarroti dated 30 June 1517. Cited from: Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo Een rusteloos leven’, Nieuw Amsterdam/Manteau, 2005 p.169

Michelangelo Buonarroti Jacopo Sansovino
Michelangelo Buonarroti portrait Tintoretto 'Jacopo Sansovino' portrait

Buonarroti later wrote that he was forced by the pope to handle the assignment on his own. Michelangelo Buonarroti designed a marble facade, but this never reached the construction phase. Naturally, he gave the facade several recesses for statues. It goes without saying that Michelangelo wanted to carve these statues by himself. Aside from a few sketch drawings, a wooden model of the facade has been preserved which can now be seen in the Casa Buonarroti. What also remains is a drawing on which Michelangelo indicates to the masons the exact measurements of the different marble blocks. Costs for the facade design were 40,000 ducats, while the church itself only cost 25,000 ducats. The problem was in the transport of the marble blocks. Transport costs were ten times the cost of the marble blocks themselves. A capital by Michelangelo for the facade has also been preserved.

Videos about the facade and transport:
1. Video lecture William Wallace The facade Michelangelo wanted to build (starts at 20.50 minutes)
2. Video lecture William Wallace Marble blocks carving and transport (24.03-32.22 minutes)

Wooden model Casa Buonarroti Casa Buonarroti  large size               Michelangelo’s second design facade
wooden model facade San Lorenzo Michelangelo Casa Buonarroti
San Lorenzo reconstruction and  Michelangelo’s first design of the facade (Casa Buonarroti)            Side
San Lorenzo facade Michelangelo's design reconstruction

Source photo: Studio Dim associati

The facade was never constructed, even though a part of the foundations are in place. Michelangelo simply had too many assignments at that time.

In his architectural designs, Michelangelo never based himself on a flat surface, never used a module, rarely gave measurements in his drawings and refrained from using a compass and ruler to calculate the ideal proportions.154 If you walk inside the church, you can see the difference between Michelangelo’s approach and of an architect like Brunelleschi.Entering the San Lorenzo, the linework that convenes towards one vanishing point is clear to see.

San Lorenzo nave large size         Nave
San Lorenzo nave Brunelleschi Florence

San Lorenzo Florence

The lines of the gilded wooden ceiling, the linework in the floor and architrave above the arcades all convene at one point behind the main altar. Buonarroti rejected this static approach, his architecture was dynamic. This does not yet apply to his early architecture like the New Sacristy and the Laurenziana library in Florence. Michelangelo bases his work on the movement of man as he or she walks through a building. His thinking is spatial, as beautifully illustrated in his drawing for a bastion near Florence’s city walls (Casa Buonarroti). In this drawing, the directions that the cannonballs can reach are indicated by short dashes. The principal point in these drawings are the cannons that must be rotatable in all directions to fend off an attack. For these designs, Michelangelo places himself in the shoes of the men operating the cannons: a whole different perspective than the perspective of one vanishing point.155

We now head to the back of the San Lorenzo, through the market, where we see the entrance to the Cappelle Medicee.

Market San Lorenzo large size
The market San Lorenzo Florence

picture: VT_Professor

Where the construction of the San Lorenzo facade was making little progress, the cousin of pope Leo X, carindal Giulio de ‘Medici, commissioned Michelangelo to construct a new family.156 This church, as we have seen before, is a church belonging to the Medici family. The pope’s uncle and father, Lorenzo and the assassinated Giuliano, would be interned here alongside other family members.

New Sacristy or the Cappelle Medicee and the Old Sacristy

Click here for a map of the San Lorenzo with the Old and the New Sacristy. Originally, construction of the New Sacristy was in accordance with how Brunelleschi handled the opposite Old Sacristy some hundred years ago. The foundations of the New Sacristy were already laid. After this, Michelangelo Buonarroti became involved. The circumference and map do not deviate from the sacristy of Brunelleschi in this church. For the sculptures of the New Sacristy or Cappelle Medicee in San Lorenzo, look at the menu or click here.

1. Video: Lecture William E. Wallace Michelangelo and his gallery in the new sacristy (starts at 8.14 until 14.04 minutes)
2. Video Khan Academy (6.37 minutes)

Cappelle Medicee exterior zoom in
Cappelle Medicee exterior San Lorenzo Michelangelo Florence

picture (mouseover): dvdbramhall

Entrance Monarch chapel New Sacristy Cappelle Medicee
Entrance Monarch chapel New Sacristy Cappella Medicee San Lorenzo Florence

pictures:  Ted Ted

New Sacristy and the San Lorenzo pictures:
Timetable, entrance and address
Museum’s plan

‘There is no doubt that the architectonic elements represent human limbs, and that those who are unfamiliar with the human body make for poor architects.’

Michelangelo in one of his many letters (undated). Cited from: James S. Ackerman, ‘The Architecture of Michelangelo’, Penguin Books, London 1971 (reprinted 1995) p. 37.

New sacristy large size        The  other side         New Sacristy
New Sacristy Chapel of the Medici San Lorenzo Michelangelo

The new style of Michelangelo

In reality, Michelangelo used a completely different approach. While Brunelleschi’s sacristy marks the beginning of the Renaissance, the sacristy by Michelangelo signals the end of this period with the start of Mannerism.

Old  sacristy Brunelleschi       New  sacristy Michelangelo
Old  sacristy Brunelleschi San Lorenzo

It is not only the calculated proportions that go lost, but also Vitruvian canon. Vasari wrote about the differences between the Old Sacristy of Brunelleschi and the New one, as follows:

‘[…] but with another manner of ornamentation, he made in it an ornamentation in a composite order, in a more varied and more original manner than any other master at any time, whether ancient or modern, had been able to achieve, for in the novelty of the beautiful cornices, capitals, bases, doors, tabernacles, and tombs, he departed not a little from the work regulated by measure, order, and rule, which other men did according to a common use and after Vitruvius and the antiquities, to which he would not conform. That licence has done much to give courage to those who have seen his methods to set themselves to imitate him, and new fantasies have since been seen which have more of the grotesque than of reason or rule in their ornamentation. Wherefore the craftsmen owe him an infinite and everlasting obligation, he having broken the bonds and chains by reason of which they had always followed a beaten path in the execution of their works.’

Gorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part II, p. 231.

So how exactly does the architecture in the New Sacristy or Cappelle Medicee deviate from Vitruvian rules?

Michelangelo gives the pilasters seven flutes instead of six like Brunelleschi The arch motif used by Brunelleschi above the pilasters is copied by Buonarroti, but in an illogical way.157 After all, the arch has to be supported by the pilasters, but in the New Sacristy the arches are floating without any support. This applies also to the frame directly under the arches that continuous throughout all the walls. The pendentives zone has remarkable windows. These floating windows taper at the top. The tapered lines of these windows continue into the linework of the cassettes in the dome, creating a strong perspective effect. These cassettes were based on the ones in the Pantheon, albeit much smaller.

New Sacristy Cappelle Medicee dome

Cappelle Medicee New Sacristy Cappelle Medicee dome Michelangelo San Lorenzo

pictures: davegroff

What stands out most are the doors with the aediculas above it. This shows a complete turnaround of Vitruvian principles. It is almost a provocation. A ‘light’ door carrying a heavy recess. Furthermore, the recess above the door is rather peculiar. The segment-shaped pediment has broken through at the bottom and it almost appears as if a second recess has slid into it. The doors, with the above-lying aediculas, are crammed between the two fluted pilasters. The capitals and the pediment seem to be laying siege to each other inside an almost claustrophobic room. In addition, the white beams above the arches are new, they bear no real function other than breaking the monotonous wall.

Recess above the door
new sacristy recess above the door San Lorenzo Michelangelo Florence

Michelangelo does not just deviate from the across sacristy by Donatello in terms of Vitruvian principles. While the Old Sacristy is static, the New Sacristy is exceptionally dynamic. You will notice this quickly as you stand in the space. Very soon, you will feel an urge to look up. This upward movement is caused by the nifty design of several elements, like the long recesses above the doors and the windows above it, or the tapering windows in the lunettes that continue into the linework of the cassettes.

The large and small dome of the New Sacristy large size
New sacristy smalle and large dome San Lorenzo Michelangelo

photo:  fabio gambina

New Sacristy large size        From above
New sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo

picture: Massimo Listri

New Sacristy and strange capitals
New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo


New sacristy large size         The other side        New Sacristy
Nieuwe Sacristie Michelangelo San Lorenzo

Aside from using many elements of the Old Sacristy, including pietra serena for the load-bearing structures, white plaster and the arches, Michelangelo also uses his own system. This is clearly shown at the material used by Buonarroti for the tomb walls: white veined marble. This is an obvious choice for an artist who signed his letters with ‘Michelangiolo scultore’. The ground floor uses marble to create a unity between the architecture and the statues (for the statues of the New Sacristy, click here, or look at the sections sculpting or artist). Still, in part because of the architecture in this chapel, the unity does not seem fully coherent. This is mainly because two systems are being used at once: Brunelleschi’s system and that of Buonarroti. Furthermore, the tombs are rather isolated from the recesses. Ackerman, who has written a classic about Michelangelo’s architecture, goes so far as to call it a failure.158

The walls with the recesses are not an integral part of the architecture. It is no more than a ‘screen’ for the burial tomb. Buonarroti was clearly inspired by the burial tomb tradition. For instance, the aedica was traditionally used as a recess for statues of the gods, emperors or the dead, as shown in places like the Pantheon. In Michelangelo’s first sketches, we see that figures, likely allegorical ones, are drawn into the two side-most recesses. Originally, the design included two burial tombs per wall, but in the end only one coffin remains. While the walls with the burial tombs are nothing more than a kind of decorative wall, Buonarroti does attempt to link them to the architecture. He attempts this by having the proportions between the three bays of the entire wall return in the tomb wall. This rhythm translates into ABA, in which the wide centre-most bay is B, flanked by the two smaller bays (doors with recesses).159 This proportion re-appears in the tomb wall, albeit in smaller dimensions like aba. This equally applies to the segment-shaped pediments above both doors, which re-appear in the two side-most recesses of the tomb wall. The doors, too, are reflected in the rectangular recesses beneath and next to the sarcophagus. The wall of the burial tomb has been constructed in full accordance with classic Vitruvian rules. So this is not the fantasy-architecture that we see in the sacristy itself.

 The wall with Giuliano large size
New Sacristy The wall with  Giuliano Michelangelo San Lorenzo

Photo:  fabio gambina

The wall with  Cosmas, Mary and Damian large size
New Sacristy The wall with  Cosmas, Mary and Damian Michelangelo San Lorenzo

Photo:  fabio gambina

In September 1534, Michelangelo left Florence, never to return again. The architecture had not yet been fully completed. The statues carved by Michelangelo for this sacristy and burial chapel, were jumbled together.160 (for the story of the statues of this sacristy, please visit the sections: sculpting, artist or click here). The Madonna was only found in Michelangelo’s house years later. Followers of Michelangelo later placed the tomb and statues together. The public was not allowed to enter until 1545.

The crowning  of the lantern of the New Sacristy
The crowning  of the lantern of the New Sacristy San Lorenzo

The freedom of which Vasari spoke in the aforesaid quote, took Buonarroti to unprecedented heights in designing the library for the San Lorenzo cloister.

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