Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Noli me tangere:
Building Michelangelo's Façade for San Lorenzo, Florence

I am deeply torn by this news: the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, has proposed that the city erect Michelangelo's design for the main façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, completing it in 2015, 500 years exactly after Pope Leo X's initial, stillborn commission.

On the one hand I say, "Go for it!" San Lorenzo's missing façade is the ugliest and longest-enduring urban blot of all time. For over five centuries, the bare brick wall has disfigured a uniquely important church that holds Michelangelo's Laurentian Library and Medici Chapel—among the greatest interiors ever created. (Below, the tomb of Lorenzo di Medici in the Medici Chapel, 1531.)

It is better not to put into words the feelings Florence engenders, viewing its masterpieces and experiencing its unique atmosphere for the first time. It is quite heady stuff and left an indelible mark, and I must admit that I was so bowled over after visiting San Lorenzo that I went to lay a rose on Michelangelo's tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce (a church which unfortunately he had no hand in designing).

Upon first encountering San Lorenzo, I was shocked by this hoary wound and infuriated, centuries later, by the pope's monumental pettiness in rejecting Michelangelo's scheme due to cost. I admit, I wanted it built, quite adamantly. But today I hesitate to endorse this plan and actually lean against the project.

Why? First and foremost, because Michelangelo is quite obviously not here to oversee the work. The plans he left are developmental and incomplete. The famous wooden model appears impressive and extremely detailed to the layman but, having studied the surviving elements with an eye to rendering the elevation, I must say I find it daunting to well neigh impossible to faithfully interpret the design. True, the grand lines are there; the design is coherent and legible. But it is schematic and we know for a certainty (from period practice in general and from Michelangelo's working methods in particular) that had it been executed it would have changed markedly, but in ways we can only hazard to guess at.

Fools rush in and I will hazard a guess myself. The fundamental flaw of Michelangelo's design (yes, this can happen, even with Michelangelo) is how he laid out the façade horizontally, layering an upper story of Corinthian pilasters upon a base ordered by engaged Composite columns, and using a vertically stretched infill band between them to absorb the leftover space thus generated (the area is indicated by red brackets on the photo of the wooden model above). This band shares the height and position of the first setback of the nave from the aisles (seen in the photo below), but in fact Michelangelo's rectangular façade would have entirely obscured this area from view and so there is no reason why it should have played such a crucial role in ordering its architecture. And truth be told, the entire façade, as depicted by the model, is stretched vertically—uncomfortably, even awkwardly so.

The basic (and intractable) problem confronting Michelangelo was that he was attempting to fit a two-story, classically ordered façade onto a structure whose proportions demanded an extra half-story or more, and for which the level of the ground-floor cornice was pre-ordained by the existing built fabric. That meant that all the vertical fudging and stretching had to occur in the upper zone, though the simplest move would have been to enlarge the scale of the ground-floor order and so raise its cornice—a move denied him.

A glance at this early sketch for the façade reveals that initially things were even worse and that the zone in question was a sort of three-tiered transitional ziggurat that had no independent aesthetic value or positive purpose. It was a necessary evil, serving simply to absorb leftover space. Moreover, it sat smack in the middle of the façade and was nearly as tall as the main stories themselves and so had taken on a life of its own as a design element, essentially dividing the façade into three bands, though this was clearly not Michelangelo's intention.

In fact, you are forced to conclude that for once in his life the great master had drawn a blank. The model shows that Michelangelo stretched the upper story to its aesthetic limits to reduce this intermediate band (and developed the lower story to harmonize with the upper), but still the result is top-heavy and the fundamental obviousness of the distortion and the awkward moments it caused have not been resolved, and in no way can the result be excused as one of the master's inspired Mannerist flourishes. Indeed, his one Mannerist gesture, those enormous bull's-eyes, were a clever way to accentuate the importance of the upper story—and draw the eye away from the unfortunate no-man's-land below.

Some 60 years later, Palladio, himself no architectural slouch, faced much the same problem with the façade of Il Redentore in Venice. His celebrated solution was a series of justly proportioned but overlapping flat "façades" all applied to the same plane: a tour-de-force of composition, compression and suggestion. Michelangelo, in contrast, was clearly struggling and had not yet achieved a comparable breakthrough; he was still trapped by the prison of the church's existing, infelicitous proportions.

So the scheme recorded in the presentation model is an intractable proportional muddle, clearly unresolved, that I highly doubt Michelangelo himself was satisfied with, and that certainly would have further evolved—perhaps drastically so—if the Pope had gone forward with the project. I suspect that, rather than trying to make it go away to awkward results, Michelangelo instead would have eventually acknowledged the reality of this intermediate half-story and would have developed it in a positive fashion—essentially making lemonade from lemons.

And just as importantly, even if you believe the above analysis is wrong: What of the details, those that define the quality (in all senses of that word) of the structure? Leaving aside entirely the question of the figural sculpture that was integral to the scheme, what about the profiles of the moldings, the detailing of the orders, the inevitable—and uniquely personal and deeply idiosyncratic—Mannerist flourishes that are the hallmarks of Michelangelo's architecture? We have none of that, and no one, today or even half a millennium ago, is or was capable of divining Michelangelo's unique genius but the master himself.

Consider these remarkable details from the Laurentian Library in the photo above (click on the image to enlarge it in a new browser window): at the lower left, the sides of the blind windows are detailed as Doric pilasters whose capitals are overlain by Doric consoles supporting the cornice above (A). Consider also the wildly unorthodox treatment of the pilaster/frames seen in the upper half of the photo (B): bare at the top, then finely fluted in the middle, then even more finely reverse-grooved at bottom, and supported beneath by triglyph-consoles that turn the design screw yet again with triglyphs that become a series of finely grooved, positive, projecting ribs applied to a bare, cubic mass (C). It is a dizzyingly bravura performance of entirely unexpected and idiosyncratic inventiveness. One architectural element transforms into another, figure becomes ground, and ornament is abstracted and juxtaposed, deconstructed and reconceived with effortless elegance. Simply spectacular.

And we haven't even begun to consider the outlandish spatial games being played with the inset-and-engaged Doric columns and the shared corner pilaster between them (D), turning a corner with an unparalleled brilliance that surely Mies van der Rohe must have envied—he who spent his entire career pondering the question of turning the corner. Note the lower cornice band as well, and how the two projecting cornices crowning the framed niches nearly meet at the corner, creating a cubic void of great visual power (E). And finally, consider also the voluptuous sinuosity of the great volute consoles that support the Doric columns: the virtuosity of their sculpted bandwork and the off-handed way they touch (F).

No one can recreate such genius, certainly not today with the classical tradition itself dead for a century, and we had better not even try.

We have examples of remarkable modern restorations—the exemplary reconstruction of Pavlovsk and the czarist palaces after WWII come first to mind, as well as the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the promise of the Berliner Stadtschloss. But all these buildings existed into modern times and a wealth of documentary and photographic details were used to guide their reconstruction.

In this case we should heed a cautionary example from Versailles in the mid 1980s. In the late 18th century, Louis XV's fist architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, had designed a monumental stair hall to give access to the enfilade of parade rooms on the first floor, replacing the Ambassadors' Staircase which the king had ordered destroyed. The scheme went unrealized some two centuries and the château seemed none the worse for it, until Versailles' architectes-fonctionnaires attempted to channel the spirit of Gabriel with CAD-drawn stereotomy, and built the design from computer-guided, precision-cut limestone blocks. Traditionally, the architect worked in concert with a team of master masons and sculptors to design and execute the program of ornamental detailing that would enliven the bare stonework, but in this case both architect and stonecarvers were deemed obsolete. The result is an aesthetic catastrophe—a schematic, clumsily detailed, awkwardly ornamented and entirely unconvincing volume—and now, a generation later, Versailles' custodians, gênés, are at a loss what to do with it. (Don't be wowed or cowed by all those columns and all that cut limestone; click to enlarge and examine carefully the deep ceiling cove, then trace the tragic, leaden descent of the farther balustrade and its ignominious, lumpen end as it collides into the inner stairwell.)

Imagine then, the banality of the disaster (or the disaster of the banality—sadly, Hanna Arendt is no longer with us to offer guidance) that awaits Florence; at least the stair hall at Versailles is an interior space and so can simply be locked off. I wish it would be otherwise, but wishes are not ponies and the world is not what we wished it would be in our youth, and so I can confidently predict that building an unfinished design by Michelangelo in the 21st century will end badly, at least judged in aesthetic terms, though in commercial and propagandistic terms it may well be an enormous success.

All this brings to mind another saying, this one from Ancient Rome: Quod licit Jovis non licit bovis. The feats of Jove should not be attempted by bovines.


  1. Many thanks for this amazing post. I'd seen the Laurentian Library in person and wondered if the San Lorenzo facade was of a similar design. Thank you for providing the details and images.

    Kind Regards

  2. You've given us much to ponder in this brilliant
    essay. Hoping it isn't too late to thank you for all
    the questions posed.

  3. I do not see adding the facade of Michelangelo's design as a sacrilege. There is certainly enough to go on to do a more than acceptable job, even if it will lack the master's supervision. Will it be better than what is there now? Surely it will.

  4. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments--they are much appreciated. We're glad the post has stirred such interest, and as we noted at the outset, we are torn by the questions such a project poses and plan to revisit the theme in another post.

  5. "Fools Rush In"... Hardly applies 500 years after the fact.

    Erecting a façade based on the model for all the right reasons—to please us and attract the tourist trade—is doing it for more or less the same reasons these works were executed in the first place. This is a work that can be executed in our time... And the same should be done with the Palladio design for Bologna's San Petronio.

    The most agile analysis would use the Laurentian details as a guide for working out the detail in the façade that the model is just too small to show or even suggest. It is not against the grain of history to suppose that the Laurentiana was a 'dress rehearsal' for a more ambitious work outside. The tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano can also serve as guides. And there is the inside façade of San Lorenzo to study as well.

    It is common practice in architecture to let capable designers work out the technical details after the scheme has been wrought.

    We should not stand in too great an awe of these giants, and we should get our hands dirty with stone dust just like the master did.

    We have the example in Roma of the Porta Pia (and the Bonzagna medal) to guide us; as well as the execution of the Campidoglio after the artist had died.

    Classical architecture in our time is understood as exactly the opposite of what it was intended to be. It is not a dead language we cannot touch; it is a pathway that is meant to connect with our deepest emotions guided by principles known through the ages that make works resonate with human sense experience—visual and spacial in this case.

    Standing in front of San Lorenzo should feel like being at a family reunion every time. Surround by the worst of the past and the best of the future. Tolerating the nasty relatives as we celebrate the joy of the bambini.

    Life moves on. Let's build some of this stuff!!