Monday, November 6:

THE ARCHITECTURE OF MICHELANGELO


Reading: Architecture, chapter eight, pp. 310--316.

The sixteenth century certainly produced an exceptional number of masterpieces in architecture. While the first decades of the century were marked by the same optimism that had characterized the fifteenth century, the later decades were not. The years after 1520 were marked by intense conflict on a religious, political, and social basis. The mercantile powers, predominantly Protestant, in the North ranked themselves in opposition to the Catholic, aristocratic, agricultural states of Southern Europe. The Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517, led to religious and political wars in Germany and Netherlands and the English defeat of Spain in the aborted Armada expedition of 1588. The temporal power of the Papacy were eclipsed in wars against Francis I of France and Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire. The traumatic event in Italy was the Sack of Rome by imperial troops in 1527. Henceforth the century was marked by reactionary causes and the rise of rigid political and religious absolutism. The mid-century Catholic Counter-Reformation was dominated by Spain and implemented by the Inquisition. The Medici family (for whom Michelangelo worked) reestablished itself in Florence under the autocratic Grand Dukes of Tuscany. The state and individual magnates of Venice (for whom Palladio worked) quite successfully kept aloof from these conflicts, though change was threatening the ancient republic as well. (Only recently we have learned that several of Palladio's clients were, or were accused of being, secret Protestants.)

Mannerism in the arts appears to have been an expression of the social tensions enumerated above. Both Michelangelo and Palladio were certainly touched, at least, by this current. It was a variant of Late Renaissance style that used a classical vocabulary to create an anti- classical ambiance of conflict and doubt. Tensions are created by means of spatial ambiquities, contrasts of open and shut or rough and smooth, conflict between architectural, or disintegrating forms. Axes show new interest in movement in space towards a goal. Use of colossal order. Sometimes tensions are ignored in favor of a deliberate, cold, classicistic perfection. This disturbing style reflects the unresolved political, philosophical, social and religious conflicts of the sixteenth century.

At St. Peter's, Michelangelo completed the work of his three predecessors with a mastery of scale and organizing powers-- characteristic of all High Renaissance artists--and in addition returned to architecture some of the expressionistic qualities that had been downplayed in the Early Renaissance.

The extent to which Michelangelo was able to impose his personal style upon St. Peter's without essentially altering the interior is astonishing. We can see in comparing his plan to Sangallo's that a few strokes of the pen were sufficient to change a complex and confused form into a simple and cohesively organized unit. Sangallo, in taking from Bramante the scheme of a major cross echoed in four lesser crosses at the corners, had expanded the later to constitute isolated pockets of space. . . . Michelangelo, by merely walling off the entrances to each of Sangallo's disconnected spaces, made one church out of many; he surpassed the clarity that he admired in Bramante's plan in substituting for the concept of major and minor crosses a more unified one of an integrated cross-and-square, so that all circulation within the Basilica should bring the visitor back to its core. The solution was strikingly simple, and far more economical than any proposed before: it even seems obvious, once it is familiar; but in a generation distinguished for great architects, it took one trained as a sculptor to discover a form that would express the organic unity of the structure. Unity was Michelangelo's contribution to St. Peter's; he transformed the interior into a continuun of space, the exterior into a cohesive body. James Ackerman, The Architecture of Michelangelo,1961

In chronological terms, Michelangelo is also highly important as a bridge to Baroque architecture. Seventeenth-century Rome would be unthinkable without his precedents a century earlier. From Michelangelo, Gianlorenzo Bernini took the scale and grandeur of his piazza and colonnade at St. Peter's. Francesco Borromini was inspired by Michelangelo's sculpted surfaces and molded interior volumes as he designed S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a design so "alive" that it suggests (in the words of critic Siegfried Gideon) an architecture that has mastered not only space but time.

Key works:

1. Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564): substitute plan for St. Peter's, 1546, built through 1590 [ 085 plan, compare 083 Antonio Sangallo proposed substitute plan; 111 exterior view, 099 and 100 interior views, as modified after Michelangelo]; figs. 502, 503.
2. Michelangelo: Laurentian Library at S. Lorenzo, Florence, 1524ff [ 086 exterior view, left; 104 plan and 102, 103, 105 interior views of reception room; 107 library plan and section; 106 interior of reading room]; figs. 498, 499.
3. Michelangelo: New Sacristy at S. Lorenzo, Florence, 1524ff [ 108 detail of door surrounds]
4. Michelangelo: piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, designed 1538; [ 090 original state before Michelangelo; 112 Michelangelo's plan; 114 view today; 088 aerial view as rebuilt; 113 painted view as built]; fig. 501

Works in context:

  • Mannerist garden at Bomarzo, Italy: Cave-house in shape of a human face, 16th c. [ 322]
  • (Frank Toker at the monster statue at Bomarzo [ 174])