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Laurentian Library

Michelangelo, Laurentian Library (vestibule and reading room), begun 1524, opened 1571, San Lorenzo, Florence. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're in the vast complex that is San Lorenzo in Florence in Michelangelo's Laurentian Library vestibule. That is the staircase moving up into the library itself. SPEAKER 2: Well, it's a whole room including a staircase that moves up into the library. The staircase is broad and spills out into this room, which is itself quite small. It leaves almost no space in front of the staircase. SPEAKER 1: The staircase has such a sense of momentum because it seems to literally-- at least in its central aisle-- to pour forward almost as if it's pools of liquid. We don't feel like the wall that's opposite it gives it enough room for it to continue, and it might actually in a sense, swamp us. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. I was not at all prepared for how overwhelming the staircase would be in this space. It just fills it up. SPEAKER 1: The staircase has two rectilinear aisles on either side, and they make the organic quality of the central piece feel even more round, even more liquid. The staircase is thought to be perhaps the very first freestanding staircase in architectural history. It's made out of the same cool, gray stone that Brunelleschi had so often used in the previous century. SPEAKER 2: Although the plan was to make it out of wood. SPEAKER 1: Yeah. The original specs by Michelangelo were that they were to be made out of walnut, which would have matched very nicely the desks and the wood in the library above seeing as if the library itself was somehow pouring out and down. SPEAKER 2: Right. And it would have warmed up the space a little bit more, I think. SPEAKER 1: And of course, the space is intensified, not only because of the scale of the staircase in relationship to the cubic dimensions of the room, but also because of the wild structures that Michelangelo creates that surround the staircase. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. The walls are-- SPEAKER 1: Well, are there walls? SPEAKER 2: It's hard to find the walls because Michelangelo has covered them with various elements borrowed from classical antiquity, but really transformed described as a mannerist architecture. And I think it makes sense to use that term because when we think about manners and we think about flaunting of the rules, if anything, classical architecture has lots of rules about how things are used, which element goes where, what the proportions are, and Michelangelo is disregarding all of that and recombining. There's a kind of freedom here from that wait of classical antiquity. SPEAKER 1: So previous to this, when architects looked back to the classical tradition, they looked back to the books of Vitruvius They looked back to rules, and you're absolutely right. Michelangelo is, in a sense, taking the letter forms of antiquity but creating new words out of them. These are clearly columns, pediments, plasters, but they're used and combined in ways that never existed in the history of architecture previous. So let's just point out a few elements. One of the most obvious as we stand down at the bottom are the brackets, which are usually used as an ornamental expression of support for something heavy above, SPEAKER 2: And which Michelangelo used in the new sacristy in that way. SPEAKER 1: But here he's lifted them out of that context, and instead they hang as opposed to support something over them. So they have absolutely no purpose, but they're even more powerful and even more muscular. SPEAKER 2: Well, they're oversized. SPEAKER 1: Especially considering how low down on the floor. And so they are a clear signal to anybody walking into this room, here is a vocabulary that is being reinvented, reused. SPEAKER 2: And they're reset. They're sort of set back into the wall. Then we also notice other things like the plasters that frame these blind windows on either side of the doorway, were tapered downward and which have fluting only at the bottom. SPEAKER 1: So the tapering downward is sort of the oddest kind of reversal. The ancient Greeks often tapered upward in order to create the illusion of height, but here, we have that reversal, and it is this very curious, willful reconfiguration the columns are virtually freestanding but are existing in niches as if they are sculpture. And I think that's a metaphor that's important for Michelangelo. He is first and foremost a sculptor, but he comes to architecture and here frames architecture as if it were a figure, as if this were sculpture. But there are some very strange passages that result. Not only do we have a sense that they aren't decorative when in fact, studies have shown that those encased columns are actually structural, which is an unexpected flip. But as those columns and those base for the columns meet the corners, you have the columns actually separated by a kind of internal double-edged plaster. And so how does that even work? It's absurd for me to even call them plasters, and yet that's what they must be. SPEAKER 2: It really feels as though those corners will receded where those capitals come together in the plasterim between and these embedded columns almost like there's a world behind the wall. There's something mysterious in the corners and around and behind them. SPEAKER 1: There's drama, there's mystery, and there's a kind invitation to understand that these are elements that can be moved and changed that pushes beyond the constricture with which classicism had been understood for so long. SPEAKER 2: It all implies a kind of virtuosity and his knowledge of the classical forms and to subvert them. SPEAKER 1: This is a space that speaks to Michelangelo's supreme self confidence. Shall we walk upstairs and go into the library? SPEAKER 2: Yeah. SPEAKER 1: We've walked up the staircase, passed the eddies, the pool at the sides of each of the stairs, and we've entered into the library, which is a much warmer space because of coiffured ceiling and all of the stalls for reading. SPEAKER 2: All of this design by Michelangelo. After the drama of the vestibule, there's definitely a sense of relief and calm entering this library space. SPEAKER 1: It's a serious space, and you feel that through the vocabulary of classicism being used in a more orderly manner. SPEAKER 2: Michelangelo is still crowding the walls with these plasters that seem very severe, the molding, the blind frames at the top level above the windows. SPEAKER 1: The windows are quite large, meant to let in as much natural light to assist the readers as possible. SPEAKER 2: So we also have a very strong horizontal element formed by cornices above the windows. SPEAKER 1: And a kind of falls clear story. SPEAKER 2: Creating a real sense of perspective. SPEAKER 1: And rhythm and a kind of unity, so that as a reader, perhaps, you feel as if you're one among many engaged in a serious act. This was a library that contained the manuscripts of the Medici family. It's sort of useful to remember that books were among the most precious objects that one could own. They weren't paperbacks. These were handmade objects. This is a room that really is a physical expression of the importance of learning in 15th and 16th century Florence. I can't imagine a better exemplar and the importance of the classical as only a point of origin, only a point of departure. Walking out of the library and back down into Michelangelo's vestibule, you're really struck by just how he separates the library and a sense of the rarefied from the world. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. The vestibule really does provide a kind of point of transition. When you come out of the library and you see that staircase with a rather steep angle pouring down into this very narrow space, you really feel like you're leaving one world and entering another. And then, of course, when you step out of the vestibule and into the cloister we're yet in another world again. SPEAKER 1: So even in this spiritual space of contemplation of the cloister itself, the ancient tradition that is so different, such a radical departure from the intensified, invented environment that Michelangelo has created.