No true Renaissance man or hero of the humanities could excel at just one or two fields, rather they had to master many disciplines. And such, Michelangelo’s architecture stands out equally as impressive as his paintings or sculptures.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Since its construction, St. Peter’s Basilica has been the largest and one of the most important churches of Christendom. Beyond the size, the location of the church speaks to its importance. Built on the burial site of St. Peter, the first pope, the basilica has a connection as close to the beginning of Christianity as any can get.
Construction began on the church in 1506 based on the design of the architect Donato Bramante. Pope Julius II, being the ambitious and grandiose man he was, wanted a magnificent and enormous church to show the height of engineering and architecture in Rome. Early on in the construction saw a change in leadership. Bramante died in 1512 and then a year later Julius too died. The following thirty years saw many successive architects working on the project including Guiliano de Sangallo, Fra Giocondo, and Raphael – each making their own changes to the design and expanding the ambition.
When Michelangelo took over in 1547, he was seventy-two years old and still taking on important projects. However, initially he refused the request to work on the basilica saying, “architecture is not my true profession.” The plans for the basilica had grown from the geometric greek cross of Bramante to a longer church with a nave and chapels along the sides. Michelangelo took the best aspects of the earlier architects plans and refined them eliminating a lot of excessive ornamentation. Even though hesitant to take on the project he was confident that he could complete it faster, cheaper, and with “more majesty, grandeur…superior design, and greater beauty” than what was previously planned. Using principles familiar to painting and sculpting, Michelangelo reduced the scale creating more pleasing proportions and letting in more light.
Returning to the greek cross form of Bramante and creating an octagon the, literal and figurative, height of the basilica is its massive dome. The largest in the world, the Dome sits almost 450 feet above the church floor. Living so much in Florence, Michelangelo was familiar of the great dome of the cathedral there. The dome of St. Basilica’s would be built on similar principles. It is not a hemispherical dome; rather it is taller than it is wide, making it ovoid. In doing this, it produces less outward stress instead diverting the weight down to the stone below.
Like the architects working on the basilica before, Michelangelo died before he could see it completed. Following him, the architects would work closely to his design only expanding the nave and making the façade.
Laurentian Library & the Medici Chapel
The Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze in Florence comprises a complex of chapels, a library, and many other important structures. Built by the Medici family to show a new design in architecture, it is one of the largest churches in Florence.
Having a close relationship with the Medici family, and being a favorite artist, he was responsible for making both the churches library and the New Sacristy part of the Medici Chapels.
The Laurentian Library was meant to show that the Medici family was among the most learned in the world and to celebrate knowledge. Extending from the basilica, the library can be seen from the outside as a row of windows providing light to the reading room. Part of the genius of Michelangelo’s work on the library can be found in his constraints. Working over an existing structure, and within restrictions from other buildings, he was limited in scale and weight. Working within those restrictions he was able to create proportions and form that relate to nature – the true goal of renaissance art. During construction, Michelangelo had to leave Florence for Rome, but the library was continued under his instruction.
Part of the Basilica di San Lorenzo complex opposite of the Library is the Medici Chapels. Michelangelo designed the New Sacristy to house Medici family members’ tombs, including that of Lorenzo de' Medici, commonly known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, in 1520. Its architectural details building upon classical styles make it an early example of Mannerist Architecture. Its complex design of ornate columns, arches, and a dome make it a room fit for its important occupants.