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.
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.
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 graypietra 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.