(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Project for the façade of San Lorenzo, Florence

c. 1517
Black and red chalk, 140 x 180 mm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence

When Michelangelo began to build, he thought less in terms of space and volume than of architectural structure and wall decoration. The road he had begun to follow was a long one, and it led him by stages from the architectural sculpture of the tomb of Julius II; to the sculptural architecture of the Biblioteca Laurenziana. If the designs for the Papal mausoleum provided almost exclusively for figural and ornamental sculpture held together by a few cornice mouldings, in the drawings and models for the façade of San Lorenzo, architecture had come to preponderate; even where it was to be enhanced by human figures. The sculptor retired into the symbolic world of portals, windows, stairs, pediments and columns (all of which have a metaphysical as well as a practical significance) and although using geometrical symbols, he gave them vitality and emotional content.

All that has come down to us of the proposed façade of San Lorenzo are a few faded drawings in black and red chalk, and a late model in wood kept at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. This façade reminds us of an antique scena wall whose triple doors admitted and swallowed up gods and heroes, and of the iconostasis covered with carved saints and legendary scenes which the Eastern Church took over from the traditional 'scenarium', and which divided the profane from the Holy of Holies, like a curtain betokening the realm of the spirit. Michelangelo's suggested façade wards off the faithful rather than invites them. It comprises three horizontal zones divided by a cornice: first, the lower world; above it, the noumenal world with delicate pilasters, pure circles and rectangles, niches and a remote window. On the summit rests the gentle tympanum of the Trinity, infusing the whole composition with spirituality. The architectural forms are all of very ancient origin. Michelangelo, more than any of his contemporaries absorbed and made them his own, treating them in a way which was copied by many who came after him, as can still be seen on any fairly conventional bulding. He amassed the parts and unified them in a style far removed from the architectural conceptions of the Renaissance which had treated windows, doors, traverses, sculptured details, storeys, and so on as independent but coordinated units, whereas Michelangelo and his followers subordinated them to the whole. The prelude to this architecture is the severely beautiful front adorned with rich detail of the small chapel of Cosmas and Damian at the Castel Sant'Angelo, finished before his departure for Florence.