The Laurenziana library at the cloister of the San Lorenzo by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Medici owned a vast collection, six hundred manuscripts in all, an unprecedented amount at that time. This collection by the Medici was later moved to Rome, but Clemens (Giulio de’Medici) decided that a new library was to be constructed at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi and their church, the San Lorenzo, and it would store the family collection.

courtyard San Lorenzo with view on Laurenziana library
San Lorenzo complex in urban context
 courtyard San Lorenzo with view on Laurenziana library

The library of Michelozzo as a prototype for the Laurenziana

Michelozzo had already built a library for Cosimo de Medici on the first floor of the San Marco. This library, inside the San Marco monastery, was one, elongated small hall. Two arcades with Ionic columns divide the space up into three naves. The slightly wider and higher centre-most nave has a barrel vault. The aisles have groin vaults. On both sides, each bay has a window to achieve a high level of natural lighting, which certainly comes in handy when reading manuscripts and miniature books. This library would be the standard for many other libraries. When Michelangelo is commissioned by pope Clemens VII to design a new library, he uses the design of his predecessor Michelozzo.161

San Marco Library
San Marco Library San Marco Michelozzo Florence

The Laurenziana inside an already existing cloister of Michelozzo

Michelangelo too was allowed to build his library at the Piazza San Lorenzo. He would thus have complete freedom over his design, but he decided not to opt for the lot opposite to the facade of the San Lorenzo, the very lot for which Brunelleschi once designed a palace for Cosimo. Buonarroti was still hoping for a chance to build the facade of the San Lorenzo. He likely feared that a library opposite to it would have a detrimental effect on the facade.162 Finally, he decided on the cloister’s courtyard, but in doing so, Buonarroti made it rather difficult for himself. After all, now he has to work inside an already existing building that was constructed by Michelozzo.


  1. Video Khan History Laurenziana library (7.57 minutes)
  2.  Video lecture William Wallace Michelangelo a brilliant organiser (33.36-37.57 minutes)

Laurenziana: beauty versus functionality

Modern architecture often reproaches Renaissance architects for being too focused on a beauty standard (proportio, symmetria and so forth) and paying too little attention to the functional aspects of a building. The twentieth-century American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, formulated in this sense the adage of modern architecture: ‘form follows function’ This principles implies that the classical ‘grammatical rules’, which are not based on functional principles, must be rejected. What is functional, has beauty. The many sources and letter exchanges between pope Clemens VII and Michelangelo reveal how much attention was paid to the practical side (function). Michelangelo had to account for many tricky requirements and conditions. For instance, there was and were to be:

1. sufficient lighting. A first floor with highly-situated windows that provide a lot of light therefore makes  for an interesting solution.
2. no damp air because of the books.
3. heavy stone vaults that support the library, creating sufficient fire protection.
4. a building constructed inside an already constructed cloister by Michelozzo. This brings with it a wide range of issues.
5. sufficient space for books and reading areas.
6. two departments: for Latin and Greek.
7. a nice link of the ricetto or vestibule to the higher library hall.


cross section and map
axiomatic view
Laurenziana library cross section and map axiomatic view Michelangelo San Lorenzo

Many sources and drawings of this library have remained intact, so we have a good understanding of the design and construction history. Clemens VII wanted to optimally protect the library against fire and therefore it was supported by stone vaults.163

Clemens VII Michelangelo design drawing
design drawing library
Clemens VII Michelangelo design drawing laurenziana library

The reading room was to be placed above the vaults on the first floor, like with Michelozzo’s library. In doing so, Michelangelo had no choice but to fortify the old walls, but without making them too thick. The exterior of the library, at the side of the courtyard, clearly shows the flat ‘buttresses’ between the long series of windows. At the outer-most wall on the west side, Michelangelo used a Roman method to fortify the walls: a series of rounded blind arches.164

reading room and the ricetto interior and exterior
Laurenziana library reading room and the ricetto Michelangelo San Lorenzo

The reading room

The load-bearing construction is also easily seen in the library room itself. Buttresses have been placed between the windows, with pietra serene pilasters at the front to make the load-bearing construction even more solid. These are pilasters that this time actually have a load-bearing function. The buttresses have determined the rhythm of the space. In this regard, the reading room is reminiscent of Gothicism where the (stained) glass windows were also placed between the supporting bundled pillars and buttresses. Naturally, Michelangelo made use of contemporary windows that are put relatively close together and continue up until the benches. The walls with the windows between the buttresses are no more than 30 centimetres thick. The load-bearing elements not only determine the division of the bays, but also the ceiling.

reading room
Laurenziana library reading room Michelangelo San Lorenzo

In early Renaissance, there was no connection between a ceiling and the wall plane. Clemens VII was the one who demanded that the ceiling should look different from the ceilings in the Vatican.165 The drawings of Buonarroti were not entirely to Clemens VII’s liking as they showed no logical link between the wall segments and the coffered ceiling. In the actual, final ceiling, the cross beams end up exactly at the buttresses. The two long beams that run through nearly the entire length of the reading room also end up exactly at the pietra serena pilasters next to the doors. The ceiling itself barely needs support. The roof trusses for the saddle roof above the wooden ceiling, however, do need support. The floor receives the same pattern as the coffered ceiling, establishing a clear link between the walls, the ceiling and the floor. The benches, which Buonarroti first placed separate from the walls, are also included in the load-bearing system, albeit optically.

benches and design drawing by Michelangelo
 Laurenziana library benches Michelangelo San Lorenzo

For his first design drawings of the reading room, it is clear that Michelangelo started out by using heavy sculptural walls. In his later designs, the wall plane is increasingly being reduced into a flat wall in which recesses and windows have been installed. The walls between the pilasters skip back a little compared to the load-bearing parts. In this respect, Michelangelo is following a typical Florentine custom: a tradition of a delicate wall segment that emphasises the flat wall plane. The latter is again amplified by white plastered walls. This is strongly reminiscent of the architecture by Brunelleschi in his Old Sacristy or the Pazzi chapel, but can also be seen in a Gothic church like the Duomo. The frames around the windows seem to be just lines instead of heavy, sculptural shapes. The balustrades in the recesses above the windows do not protrude from their surrounding frames despite their strong, sculptural shape.


The ricetto of the Laurenziana

The hallway leading to the library, the ricetto, has a design that is the reverse of the library hall.166 The shapes grow heavier and and more resemblant of actual sculpture.

Laurenziana library front hall Michelangelo Florence

In the front hall, too, the walls needed to be fortified. Early on, Michelangelo intended to connect the ricetto to the reading room. For instance, the windows and other parts were first put at an equal height to the reading room. However, this gave the hall a bizarre design, with disproportionally high placed windows and bases. Michelangelo quickly abandoned this idea in his design process. Finally, Buonarroti rejected the plan to create a larger unity between the library and the ricetto altogether. Wittkower was the one who discovered during the last great restoration that the masonry of the walls in the ricetto reveals a remarkable turn-around. Initially, the cornice of the reading room would link up to the cornice of the hall..167 This means that the height of the hall would be equal to that of the library. There were plans to install three windows at the centre of each bay and a flat vault. This plan, too, was abandoned. It was instead decided to raise the hall by some three metres, allowing the windows to be placed higher up as well. The issue of the relatively weak load-bearing parts was still at play. A heavy vault in the ricetto was a no-go. Buonarroti proposes to pope Clemens to create a timber roof truss with roof windows. The proposal was rejected. This solution would be entirely unique, but was likely rejected because it was too modern.

Right when Michelangelo gives up trying to incorporate a clear connection between the reading room and the front hall, the character of the ricetto changes, too. The prior horizontal effect in the designs that emphasise a link to the adjacent reading room, disappears. When the hall is raised by three metres and thus clearly stands out above the library, the design drawings show more and more elements that emphasise the vertical effect of the hall. For instance, the entablature is reduced to a small, thin line that weakens the horizontal effect, while the windows, placed much higher up, amplify the vertical effect. The space of the hall, which much resembles an alienating high tube, has inspired Michelangelo to use unique architectonic elements. Elements that are so fragrantly violating how architects in his time ought to build. What is immediately noticeable upon standing in the hall are the paired columns that are placed in the wall. Let alone the strange volutes that are placed underneath these columns. These volutes are lacking any kind of ‘Vitruvian logic’. Rather than providing support, these volutes are only hanging facing down. Volutes like these are nothing less than sculptural and purely decorative shapes.


The columns in the walls of the ricetto: an architectonic trompe l’oeil

Confusion is created for the spectator when looking at the paired columns in the wall. A joke, or is it Michelangelo provoking his contemporaries? As described earlier, the column is the starting point for the classic Greek architect (click here or see at: ‘architecture in brief’) and always had a load-bearing function.

top part of the opposite wall
front hall Laurenziana
Laurenziana library ricetto

Like his volutes, Michelangelo only seems to be using these columns decoratively. And while it definitely seems this way, these columns do actually perform an important function.168 The foundations of the hall are as thick as the walls in the hall. This makes it impossible to place the columns outside of the wall surface. This is what presumably gave Buonarroti the idea to place the columns in the wall.  The columns themselves are monoliths (carved from one stone), this makes them stronger than the masonry wall in which they were placed. In this way, the columns fortify the walls. In fact, they constitute an essential support point for the walls. Like in the reading room, the support beams of the ceiling are in line with the load-bearing parts, in this case the paired columns. This architectonic ‘deception’ was not noticed as such. And that is hardly surprising, given how many other architectonic elements in this hall are also lacking a load-bearing function, like the volutes, but were only incorporated as decoration. Furthermore, the use of columns in a wall surface to fortify its load-bearing capacity was hardly known. Still, there is one example from Antiquity in which columns were placed in the wall, namely in the tomb of Annia Regilla at the Via Appia Antica just outside of Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi actually made an etching of this. From a sketch book by Giuliano da Sangallo, we know of a burial tomb with columns in the wall. Michelangelo must have known about this sketch book.169

Laurenziana library Paired columns in the wall
Piranese Tomb Annia Regilla columns in wall surface
full drawing
Laurenziana bibliotheek ricetto paired columns in the wall Michelangelo

Source drawing Piranese University library Heidelberg digital version of Giovanni Battista Piranese, Della Magnificenza Ed Architettvra De’ Romani / De Romanorvm Magnificentia Et Architectvra.

The pilasters around the recesses are small at the bottom, but wide at the top, and the capitals, too, are smaller than the pilasters themselves. A true reversal of what seemed logical and custom. Below the frame of these recesses, we see elements like a regula with guttae. These elements were used in the Doric order beneath the pediment or below a frieze. Buonarroti used this parts of the Doric order entirely outside of prevalent principles and he placed them, as it were, like consoles beneath the bases of the pilasters. The triangular pediment above the door towards the reading room also did not live up to tradition. The pediment is broken through on the bottom and is pushed together at both of the ascending slanted sides. The four walls exhibit more of an organic unity than the four planes that are just put together at the corners, like we see at the Baptistery in Florence. The walls seem to slip into each other seamlessly. Still, the volute-shaped consoles in the corners clearly do not seem like ‘close friends’. The two consoles are colliding, and are intertwined in such a way that overall it looks rather messyen.170

colliding columns Laurenziana Michelangelo ricetto

Staircase in the ricetto: a rather oversized piece of furniture

The staircase in the hall is a true ‘piece of furniture’ and takes up most of the space. Originally, Buonarroti intended to make a wooden stairs; one made of a fine walnut. This materials fits nicely with the wood used for the benches and lecterns in the library. Walnut provides a nice contrast with the white plastered walls and the grey-blue pietra serena. In one of his first design drawings from 1524, Michelangelo shows he intended to use an entirely different staircase.

Michelangelo design drawing staircase
ricetto Laurenziana
Michelangelo design drawing staircase ricetto Laurenziana

Two stairs leading up along the side walls, convening in front of the entrance. A perfectly logical and functional approach. This design was based on the stairs that Giuliano da Sangallo designed for the villa of the Medici in Poggio a Caiano.

staircase as furniture    map with dimensions
Laurenziana library staircases Michelangelo

When Michelangelo leaves Florence for good in 1535, he does not produce the final design for the staircase until he is in Rome. In 1555, he writes a letter to Vasari, saying:

‘Messer Giorgio [Teg: Vasari], dear friend: As regards the staircase for the Library, of which I have heard so much, believe me, if I were able to remember what I proposed to do with it no entreaties would have been necessary. I recall a certain staircase, as it were in a dream, but I do not think it is exactly what I thought of then, because it is a clumsy affair, as I recall it. However, I will here describe it.

Thus, if you take a number of oval boxes, each a palmo in depth, but not of the same length and breadth; first place the largest upon the paved floor as far distant from the door in the wall as you require, according to whether the staircase is to be shallow or steep; upon this place another, which should be as much smaller in each direction  [..]  the size  to which the last step is reduced should equal the width of the door opening. The aforesaid section of the oval  staircase should have, as it were, two wings, one on each side and one on the other, the steps of which should correspond to the others, but should be straight, not oval; these being for the servants and the middle for the master .. I’ writing nonsense, but I know very well that you and Messer Bartolommeo [Ammanati] will make something of it.

Michelangelo wrote. Cited from: Howard Hibbard, ‘Michelangelo’, Penguin Books, London, 1978 (reprinted 1992) p. 217-218.

Four years later, from Rome, Michelangelo submitted another model with the instructions to build the entrance. Ammanati constructed the staircase between 1558 and 1559 after the model by Buonarroti. However, he refrained from using walnut, but instead used marble. The strong vaults below the ricetto allowed for virtually any design in contrary to the walls of the hall itself. The staircase is very reminiscent of a large sculpture. For instance, the ‘two wings’ on each side are redundant. The centre-most entrance is wide enough for multiple people. Furthermore, the two outer-most steps come together exactly where the centre-most step leads, in front of the entrance door to the reading room. The space of the hall gives off a peculiar, nearly claustrophobic vibe: it is like a compacted space that is bounding upwards like a narrow tube. The stairs, on the other hand, are like a lava stream that is coming straight for you. This effect is again amplified by the round steps that culminate in round, protruding shapes at its ends. You gain the impression that you are going against the current by walking up the centre-most entrance. The staircase seems to be simultaneously flowing into the space and exerting pressure, in contrast to the walls.

Ricetto wall of entrance to reading room
ricetto wall of entrance to reading room Laurenziana library


staircase Laurenziana library .

Vasari, who first wrote about the liberties that Michelangelo enjoyed for his New Sacristy, is even more excited about what Buonarroti is demonstrating in his library. He writes:

‘And even more did he demonstrate and seek to make known such a method afterwards in the library of S. Lorenzo, at the same place; in the beautiful distribution of the windows, in the pattern of the ceiling, and in the marvellous entrance of the vestibule.  Nor was there ever seen a more resolute grace, both in the whole and in the parts, as in the consoles, tabernacles, and cornices, nor any staircase more commodious; in which last he made such bizarre breaks in the outlines of the steps, and departed so much from the common use of others, that everyone was amazed.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part II p. 231 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

Jacob Burckhardt poke of an ‘unfathomable prank by the master architect’ by which he meant the quiet library room and the hallwayl.171 These ‘pranks’, or what Vasari describes as a strong deviation from ‘what was custom’, were the prelude to a new movement in art: Mannerism. Michelangelo Buonarroti not only announced this new style in architecture, but also in sculpting and painting,

To the next page (Day 2)