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  • Andy

Cathedrals of Knowledge - Laurentian Library

Sometimes great works of art come from men in great circumstances. The architect of this library is Michelangelo, one of the greatest geniuses of all time: a sculptor, painter and architect. The library is named after the Basilica di San Lorenzo which is located in Florence.

The patron Pope Clement VII was an heir to the fortune of the Medici, the great Italian banking family. Clement was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de Medici, brother of Lorenzo. Interestingly, he spent the first seven years of his life raised by his godfather who was the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. Clement’s papacy took place during a particularly difficult time: the Emperor Charles V of Spain was battling with the Francis I of France and redesigning the map of Europe for centuries to come, the Turks were invading Europe, Luther and Calvin were creating the Reformation, and Henry V of England was splitting with Rome to satisfy his complicated love life.

Pope Clement VII

One can imagine that the conception of the Laurentian library was a soothing escape in Clement’s political turmoils. I imagine him closing the door after the departure of messengers of bad news, and turning to his genius architect Michelangelo to collaborate, shoulder-to-shoulder, on what would be their common masterpiece.

The dynamically articulated double height walls of the vestibule are counterpointed by the fantastical horizontal staircase. The staircase is an explosion of originality that fits perfectly with the fanciful character of the architectural whole. It gives the impression of a grand fountain frozen in time, and consists of three flights of steps: the outer ones are quadrangular shapes, the central ones are convex - and the bottom three steps are completely elliptical.

One climbs the sensuous stair in the double height vestibule and enters the central axis of the single height, perfectly symmetrical, and long rectangular hall of the brightly lit library reading room, which originally had continuous rows of 15 window bays on both sides, defined by pilasters sitting on a chair rail (this design was unfortunately modified in 19th century by an addition adjacent to the reading room), which are articulated as exterior facades.


All of the details of the reading room are unified, down to the inlaid wooden desks designed by Michelangelo, which still retain the small plaques inscribed with the number of manuscripts originally kept on each desk. The library may have been built during the time of printing, but it was designed to show off manuscripts with their rare bindings in an age that still regarded printed books as inferior, cheap alternatives to proper books, copied by hand onto parchment: the incunables. Having been made accessible, the Medici collection was considered complete and was not meant to be watered down by inferior editions or further collecting. As such it was important that the manuscripts were displayed to their best effect. Pope Clement was personally involved with Michelangelo over the design of the lecterns on which his family’s collection of books would be displayed. The beautiful carved wood paneled ceiling mimics the design of the multicolored tiled floor, fabricated using the techniques developed by Della Robbia.

Michelangelo was self taught as an architect. After making his sketches, he would produce a wax or clay model to develop his architectural schemes. Although he never considered himself an architect, he inspired a multitude of followers and his works were precursors of the Mannerist movement.

The Laurentian Library, Florence


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