Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Graffiti, Then and Now

Graffiti is known worldwide, but word itself has nothing to do with scrawls on walls. In Italy, the words sgraffito and sgraffiti come from the Italian word sgraffiare (“to scratch”), ultimately from the Greek γράφειν (gráphein), meaning “to write”.

Graffiti, the bane of all modern cities in the form of spray paint, in its original sense refers to marks scratched onto a surface with a tapered point. The graffito technique has been used since prehistoric times. Decades ago, my father showed me graffito animals, birds and people carved on the tufa cave walls in northern New Mexico. But in Florence, starting in the 1400s, it was a technique of wall design, where the top layer of pigment or colored plaster is scratched through to reveal an underlying layer.

Elaborate 16th century graffiti on Bianca Cappello's house
Elaborate 16th century graffiti on Bianca Cappello's house

“The historian and artist Giorgio Vasari recorded the graffito technique step by step. First, one paints the wall of a palazzo with a layer of lime plaster, coloured with burnt herbs or other dark pigments. Once the first layer is dry, another is painted on, this time of white plaster, distributed uniformly. On top of this second layer are laid punched-out designs, or stencils, which are reproduced on the wall with powdered charcoal (referred to as tecnica dello spolvero in Italian). A tapered awl is then used to trace the resulting pattern on the wall, cutting through the layer of white plaster to reveal the darker, underlying layer. Thus, by using the same colours as a palazzo’s frescos, the graffito designs could be used to add shadow and depth to the overall decoration.” (FirenzeTurismo.it)

Allegorical graffiti on the façade of Palazzo Ramirez de Montalvo
Allegorical graffiti on the façade of Palazzo Ramirez de Montalvo

My favorite examples of historic graffiti in Florence were created during the second half of the 16th century, when the graffito technique was used to design Mannerist allegories incorporating grotesque (meaning in the style of the “grotto”) designs and figures. These are still partially visible on the façade of the Palazzo Ramirez de Montalvo in Borgo degli Albizi and fully realized on the House of Bianca Cappello (grotesque sgraffito decoration by Bernardino Poccetti, 1566) on Via Maggio.

When using the term graffiti to mean defacing buildings, Michelangelo has the dubious pleasure of allegedly being one of the first famous graffiti artists – not with paint, but in the caveman version of scratching a design with a sharp point. On the corner of the Palazzo Vecchio, the one nearest to the Uffizi Gallery, any visitor to Florence can find a carving of a man’s face.

Did Micheangelo deface the front of the Palazzo Vecchio?
Did Micheangelo deface the front of the Palazzo Vecchio?

There is more than one version of the story, but the artistry is attributed only to Michelangelo. One version states that ever willing to take a dare, and supremely confident, Michelangelo turned his back, carving free-hand without looking, into the pietra serena of the city hall’s wall, he etched his own profile into the stone. Another variation has it that he carved blindly the likeness of a personal foe, so that Florentines would never forget the man’s face.

Sanctioned graffiti for OPEN YOUR EYES TO Comics DAY
Sanctioned graffiti for OPEN YOUR EYES TO Comics DAY

Last week, a one-day comics festival, OPEN YOUR EYES TO Comics DAY, came to Florence. Via del Corso was decorated with four modern graffiti wall decorations – sanctioned by the mayor. These were not scratched into walls, but painted on to wallboard. They won’t last 400 years, but they are better than the scourge that defiles most of Florence’s walls.

To be continued …

Dove Vai? – The Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, Library # 6

The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) in the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo is not a library where the visitor to Florence can hang out in comfy chairs, but it is one of the most important libraries in Florence –  well worth a visit. The Laurentian was designed by Michelangelo and houses one of the largest neo-classical collections in the world. It is used today by scholars.

Stairway in the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library
Stairway in the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library

Designed by Michelangelo

The Laurentian Library was commissioned in 1523 by Giulio d’Medici, who became Pope Clement VII. Michelangelo came under intense pressure to work quickly; the correspondence between him and Pope Clement is said to be one of the most fascinating records of a creative dialogue between a 16th century patron and an architect.Construction began in 1525, but when Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, only the walls of the reading room were complete. Architects Tribolo and Ammannati continued the project, based on plans and verbal instructions from Michelangelo. The library opened in 1571 and is one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements.

Reading Room
Reading Room

The vestibule, a large box-shaped entry (19.50 meters long, 20.30 meters wide, and 14.6 meters high), was built above existing monastic quarters with its entrance on the upper level of the cloisters. Originally, Michelangelo had planned for a skylight to allow more light into the Library’s entrance hall, but the Pope believed that it would cause the roof to leak, so a high band of windows was incorporated into the west wall. Solely for decorative purposes, blank tapering windows, framed in gray pietra serena, circumscribe the white interior of the vestibule, separated by paired columns set into the wall.

There may have been a carved wooden ceiling (matching that in the Reading Room) planned for the entry hall, but today the area is covered in a canvass painted to look like intricately carved wood.

Stairway designed by Michelangelo
Stairway designed by Michelangelo

The Stairway

The lower half of the vestibule is virtually filled with an out-sized staircase that announces the importance of the Library. This is the singular most popular part of the Library for most visitors – one of the most famous stairways in the world.

The planned design of the stairs changed dramatically over time. Originally in the first design (1524), two flights of stairs were placed against the side walls and formed a bridge in front of the reading room door. A year later the stairway was moved to the middle of the vestibule. Tribolo attempted to carry out this plan in 1550, but nothing was built. Ammannati then took on the challenge of interpreting Michelangelo’s ideas to the best of his ability using a small clay model, scanty material, and Michelangelo’s instructions. Reportedly, Michelangelo envisioned the stairs to be made of a dark wood, but the final construction incorporated fine-grained sandstone, pietra serena, quarried in Fiesole, near where Michelangelo lived as a small child.

Detail on Michelangelo's Stairway
Detail on Michelangelo's Stairway

The staircase leads up to the Reading Room and takes up half of the floor of the vestibule. The treads of the center flights are convex and vary in width, while the outer flights are straight. The three lowest steps of the central flight are wider and higher than the others, almost like concentric oval slabs. As the stairway descends, it divides into three flights. “The dynamic sculpture of the staircase appears to pour forth from the upper level like lava and compress the floor space of the vestibule.” (Fazio, et al. in Buildings Across Time)

Design for the Entry Door

Michelangelo created this sketch for the door between the vestibule and the Reading Room. One side of the original sketch shows the side of the door visible from inside the library, while the vestibule side is shown on the back of the page.

Sketch of Doorway into Library
Sketch of Doorway into Library

The door needed a blank panel above the opening for a dedicatory inscription on the vestibule side and this is shown in all the sketches. In the finished design, more space had to be found as Clement wanted a Latin inscription of between 100 and 140 letters (Twitter – inspired by Michelangelo and the Pope?).

The Reading Room

The long narrow Reading Room runs the full length of one side of San Lorenzo’s square cloister. There are two blocks of bench seats separated by a center aisle with the backs of each serving as desks for the benches behind them. At one time, large illuminated manuscripts were chained to the desks to discourage theft. The Reading Room is well lit by the stained-glass windows that run along the both walls. The newly restored windows display the crest of the Medici. The wide central aisle between the desks is made of large creamy white and burnished red terra cotta tiles in geometric designs.

Desk and Bench Combination
Desk and Bench Combination

Mid-way down the Reading Room, the desks on the right side are separated by a short walkway that ends at the entrance of a square, vaulted domed room, now used for conferences and meetings.

The Collection

The Laurentian Library houses one of the most important and prestigious collection of antique books in Italy. The humanistic interests of Cosimo de’ Medici (Cosimo the Elder) in the early 15th century led him to collect manuscripts from all over Europe, as well from Greece and the Middle East. His friendship with Niccolò Niccoli, with whom he shared a passion for collecting ancient manuscripts of the works of classical authors, resulted, in 1437, in the inheritance of most of Niccoli’s library.

Cosimo’s son Piero added more volumes and his grandson Lorenzo (the Magnificent) completed the collection with the acquisition of hundreds of Greek texts.

The library, although kept largely intact, weathered the trials and tribulations of the Medici family. In 1494, following the sentence of exile imposed on Lorenzo’s son Piero (the Unfortunate), and thus, the banishment from Florence of the whole of the Medici family; the library was confiscated by the city government and absorbed into the library of the San Marco monastery. In 1508, the collection was recovered by Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who later became Pope Leo X) who transferred it to Rome. His successor Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano) brought the collection back to Florence in 1523 and immediately commissioned Michelangelo to design a library to house it.

Exhibit of health/diet books
Exhibit of health/diet books

Exhibits

Usually, there is a curated exhibit of historic books from the Laurentian Library on display in space adjacent to the Reading Room. The current show is Díaita. Le regole della salute nei manoscritti della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (historical books about diet and the rules of health). Past exhibits have included monsters and fantastical creatures found in illuminated manuscripts and the historical “shapes” of  books, including papyrus and scrolls.

Laurentian Library

Address: Piazza S. Lorenzo, 9

Telephone: +39 055210760

Hours:  Monday through Saturday: 9.30am – 1.30pm

Closed: Sunday

Entrance: 3 euro

Current Exhibit:  February 13 to June 26, 2010

Web Site: www.bml.firenze.sbn.it