Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius

Michelangelo is one of the world's most famous artists and sculptors of all time. What is little less known is the fact that he was also a master of architecture.
Christopher McFadden

Michelangelo, or Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, was one of the world's most talented and prolific artists and sculptors of all time. He was a true visionary whose talents ranged from creating breathtaking frescos to magnificent architectural designs.

He had no formal architectural training in this field but, instead, studied and incorporated styles that he found around Florence and Rome. As a result, Michelangelo created a compendium of decorative and architectural drawings that he would later use a reference guide for future works.

Just before his death, Michelangelo destroyed a large number of his reference sketches and letters. This was to preserve, posthumously, his image as a respected architect and cover up the vast amount of work he needed to prepare each design. Thankfully, enough of this compendium survives for us to see today.

Michelangelo the Architect: What we know

As he was self-taught, his architectural style was rather unusual for the time. His work, unsurprisingly, also featured many of the techniques employed for artistic composition.

His extensive training as an artist and sculpture were put to good use when designing his buildings. His sculpting expertise would give him excellent transferable skills.

The typical gifted artist, he would not follow the standard design practices of his age, especially when it came to architectural design. This allowed him to be freer with his designs than his more classically trained peers.

After making his sketches, Michelangelo would typically produce a wax or clay model. This would allow him to further develop and refine his plans until it meets his very high standards.

He would never consider himself an architect but simply a sculptor for his entire life. Despite this, he managed to achieve a mastery of the art that few of his contemporaries could muster.

His works would inspire many architects after his death. Ultimately it would lead to the works of the Mannerists, followed by Baroque styles a generation afterward.

In this article, we will take a whistle-stop tour of some of his greatest architectural designs and works. 

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Jean-Christophe BENOIST/Wikimedia Commons

1. St Peter's Basilica, Rome - Michelangelo's Reluctant Masterpiece

Of his most notable architectural works were his contributions to the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Although not the original architect, he took over after the death of his predecessors.

St. Peter's Basilica construction began in 1506 using the designs of architect Donato Bramante. Donato would later die, only six years into construction, followed by its commissioner, Pope Julius II, in 1513

Over the next 30 years, successive architects would pick up the batton, each one injecting their own character into the final design. Finally, at the age of 72, Michelangelo was approached to take on the project in 1547

He initially refused the position citing that "architecture is not my true profession". He would later relent and combined the works of his predecessors. He also stripped back more excessive ornamentations from previous designs so the building could be completed faster and cheaper whilst returning to Donato's earlier floor plans.

Michelangelo would never see his vision for the Basilica take shape as, like his forerunners, he died before it was completed.

This building has since become one of the most important churches in Christendom. Its importance is not just because of its size but the fact that it houses the burial site of St. Peter, who was the first pope. 

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Monchelsea/Wikimedia Commons

 2. Porta Pia, Michelangelo’s Gateway to History

Porta Pia is one of the city gateways to the historical center of Rome. It is an impressive arched entry built into the Aurelian walls of the eternal city and is located at the start of Via Nomentana.

The building was commissioned by Pope Pius IV and is named after him. But more importantly, it was designed by Michelangelo. It was commissioned to replace the ancient Nomentana gate that stands nearby.

Porta Pia would be one of his final works.

Michelangelo designed two very different facades for the building. One more classical and monumental to compliment the old Roman Forum. The other, opposing one, being more decorated and stately. 

Construction began in mid 16th Century 1551 and was completed after Michelangelo's death. He was replaced by Giacomo Del Duca after his death and he would make some subtle changes to the initial design.

The gate would undergo several phases of alterations over its lifetime with significant restoration works occurring in the mid 19th Century.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Joris/Wikimedia Commons

3. The Laurentian Library Houses One of The World's Most Important Collections of Books

In 1523, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to design the Laurentian Library for his family collection of books in Florence. This would turn out to be a very important project for him.

It was built into the cloister of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze. The library was built to symbolize the Medici family's transition from merchants to members of the intelligentsia of Italy. 

Michelangelo would make preparatory drawings or the building and concern himself personally with the construction for at least a decade before moving to Rome in 1534. At this point, only the walls of the reading room had been completed.

Despite his absence, Michelangelo would monitor the building's construction as it was continued by his followers Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati. These men worked closely with Michelangelo's original plans and verbal instructions. 

Construction was completed in 1571.

The internal decoration of the building is as impressive as its exterior and is widely regarded as one of the most unified works of the High Renaissance that can be found in Florence. Technically speaking, the building is considered to be a magnificent example of Mannerism.

Today, the library houses the most important collection of prestigious and antique books in Italy. It contains over 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Richardfabi~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons

4. The Sagrestia Nuova of the Medici Chapel Was Left Incomplete by Michelangelo

The Sagrestia Nuova, or 'New Sacristy', was commissioned to act as a mortuary and mausoleum for members of the Medici Family in Florence. Like the Laurentian Library, it forms an extension to Brunelleschi's Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence

Michelangelo was the natural choice for its design and he was careful to keep the design within the character of the Basilica at large and the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) nearby.

Work began on the structure in 1520 and continued for another 4 years before stalling and starting again 1530. This hiatus was, in part, due to the Medici family's expulsion from Florence.

Their expulsion was caused by the sacking of Rome and removal of Pope Clement VII from power. They would regain prominence once again in 1530.

Michelangelo was tasked with designing the chapel as well as the tombs for Medici family members. Only the tombs of the Duke of Nemours and the Duke of Urbino were ever finished.

Each one had two pairs of reclining male and female statues crafted by Michelangelo and his pupils. 

Work would finally stop in 1534 when Michelangelo moved to Rome from Florence where he permanently settled. The Sacristy would remain unfinished until 1554 when work recommenced and was finally finished by Giorgio Vasari and Bartolomeo Ammannati in 1555.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Giacomo Brogi/Wikimedia Commmons

5. Michelangelo’s Palazzo Farnese is Now the French Embassy to Italy

Palazzo Farnese, otherwise known as the Farnese Palace, is a magnificent High Renaissance palace in Rome. It was leased to the French Government in 1936 for a period of 99 years and is used as their Italian Embassy building. They pay a symbolic 1 Euro fee per month for the privilege.

It was initially designed in 1517 for the Farnese family but it was expanded in scope over the years. Throughout the buildings lifetime, some of Italy's most prominent architects have been involved.

The likes of Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo Della Porta and, of course, Michelangelo have all made their mark upon it. Michelangelo was first commissioned in 1534 when Alessandro Farnese become Pope Paul III.

He increased the design of the building considerably from earlier designs. The buildings third floor was especially reimagined, with its deep cornice and impressive courtyard.

All other developments in the building after 1534 reflected Alessandro's stellar rise in status. They also employed architectural forms to represent the power of the Farnese Family at this time.

It was later finally modified in 1546 by Antonia da Sangallo the Younger. After Sangallo died it was completed, once again, under Michelangelo watch in 1589.

To this day, the building dominates the Piazza Farnese in Rome. It also houses a great scholarly library that was collected by the Ecole Francaise de Rome.

Apart from being a prominent tourist attraction for the city, it has also appeared in films like the 2013 re-creation of Romeo and Juliet.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons

6. The Staircase of the Palazzo Senatorio was one of Michelangelo’s Great Remodels

Palazzo Senatorio, or Senatorial Palace, located is located in the Piazza del Campidoglio in central Rome. It was originally built between the 12th and 13th Centuries but was heavily remodeled by Michelangelo (and Giacomo Della Porta) in the early to mid 16th Century.

The entire structure stands on the top of the ancient Capitoline Hill.

It stands on the top of the Tabularium which once housed the city's records during ancient times. It was built in its present location to offer solitude and contemplation as it fairly remote and elevated above the city of Rome.

The Palazzo underwent a significant redesign in the 14th Century and Michelangelo was later asked to redesign the buildings monumental steps. He was also responsible for the redesign of the Cordonata (staircase) of the Piazza del Campidoglio.

Michelangelo, like many other of his architectural works, styled his redesign in the Renaissance style. His design was to build the current double staircase that replaced the previous flight of steps and two-storied loggia that once stood on the right-hand side of the building.

He also redesigned the upper part of the main buildings facade by adding a set of colossal Corinthian pilasters to it.

The Palazzo Senatorio became the City Hall of Rome in 1870.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius

Source: Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons

7. Michelangelo’s Grand Design: the Palace of the Holy Office

Palace of the Holy Office is an extraterritorial property of the Vatican within the city of Rome. Today it houses the Curial Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is situated just south of St. Peter's Basilica near to the Petriano Entrance to Vatican City. As it lies outside of the Vatican City, it forms one of the buildings of the Holy See in Italy that is regulated by the 1929 Lateran Treaty.

The palace was originally built in 1514 for one Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci. Between 1524 and 1525 the facade was redesigned and rebuilt by Guiliano Leni, Pietro Roselli, and the great Michelangelo.

By the time of Pucci's death in 1531, the building was still not fully complete. Today, it is widely recognized as one of Michelangelo's greatest works, despite its more renovation works in the early 20th Century.

The arched and recessed doorways and windows show the unique style that only Michelangelo was capable of achieving. Today, it is an important building for the research and preservation of the Roman Catholic Churches Doctrine.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Jim McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons

8. Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri was Michelangelo's Final Great Work

Santa Maria Degli Angeli e Dei Martiri, or The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs is a large church built in the ruined frigidarium of the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian. 

Construction of the building began in the 16th Century, circa 1562 following the plans were drawn up by Michelangelo. Many more architects and artists would add their stamp to the building over the centuries to come to produce the Baroque building seen today.

The buildings origin is said to originate as a vision by a Friar of the Baths being occupied the angels of the seven martyrs. This vision, obviously, convinced the priest that the site needed a new church upon it.

Michelangelo was chosen to design the church, which he did in 1563. Sadly, he would pass way in 1564 only three weeks before his 89th birthday.

His design for the church was based on the Greek cross with a dominant transept and cubical chapels at either end. The building itself has no true facade with a simple entrance set within one of the apses of the original Roman thermae.

This would make the church his final great piece of work.

His designs were faithfully followed by his student Jacopo Lo Duca. Interestingly, he happened to be the nephew of the Friar who originally conceived of the idea of building a church on the site.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Dearbarbie/Wikimedia Commons

9. Michelangelo Redesigned the Original Medieval Facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori 

Palazzo dei Conservatori, or the 'Palace of the Conservators', was built in the Middle Ages for a local magistrate on the site of a 6th Century Temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.

Michelangelo would later reimagine the facade of the building to conjure up images of glory and glamour to encompass the Imperial past of the city of Rome. One of his first redesigned features was to add a series of Corinthian pilaster strips.

He also flanked these pilasters with pillars in the portico of the ground floor. The building was also crowned with a balustrade and statues.

Other alterations included the Michelangelo's replacement of the original Guelf-cross windows on the first floor to the Renaissance forms seen today.

The central first-floor window was later added by Giacomo Della Porta. It is much larger than the others, making an exception to Michelangelo's original plan.

The building's porticoes would be used to shelter offices by various guilds. Here disputes arising from the transaction of business were adjudicated.

This was unless they were of sufficient importance to go before a communal tribunal, such as that of the Conservatori. 

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius

Source: Radomil/Wikimedia Commons

10. Michelangelo Designed The 'New' Marble Base for Marcus Aurelius's Statue

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is the only existing ancient bronze Roman statue known to exist intact. A replica of it is currently located in the center of the oval courtyard of the Piazza del Campidoglio. This replica replaced the original statue in 1981.

The statue stands at around 4 and a 1/4 meters tall and depicts the Emperor mounted. The original statue is now housed in the Capitoline Museums in Rome and is undergoing restoration.

The statue was originally erected in around 175AD. Its original location is very much debated but would likely have been either the Roman Forum or Piazza Colonna (where Marcus Aurelius's column stands).

It is clear from ancient records that these kinds of statues would have been fairly common in ancient Rome. These rarely survived the rages of time and the fall of the Roman Empire as they were commonly melted down for reuse as coins and other statues.

To date, this is only surviving one with a possibility of the Regisole (destroyed during the French Revolution) perhaps might have been another.

For a time it was left on display throughout the medieval period but was relocated, in 1538, to the Piazza del Campidoglio as part of Michelangelo's redesign of the Capitoline Hill.

Michelangelo disagreed with the intended positioning of it centrally in the Piazza but designed a special pedestal for it nonetheless.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Emilia~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons

11. Michelangelo Also Designed Forts

Michelangelo's works were not just peaceful in nature. He conducted a study of the fortification of Porta al Prato of Ognissanti (link translated from Italian) in around 1529.

Around this time, Pope Clement VII was planning to retake control by force after being deposed a few years earlier. This news prompted the people of Florence to prepare to defend themselves. Michelangelo, then still a Florence resident, was asked to help out.

He took it upon himself to design an elaborate series of defenses for the fort's walls and doors which were either never built or have not survived to the present day.

Although his designs have not survived to this day his original schematics have. These show that he was indeed a man of great talents including being a military engineer, of sorts.

His original study was conducted in pen and ink, watercolor and red pencil and can be seen on display at Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Interestingly enough, the Casa Buonarroti was once owned but never occupied, by Michelangelo during his life.

It was gifted to his nephew Lionardo Buonarroti in his will. It was later converted to a museum dedicated to Michelangelo by his great-nephew some years later.

Michelangelo the Architect: The Hidden Talents of the Renaissance Genius
Source: Casa Buonarroti/Wikimedia Commons

From the beauty of the Laurentian Library to his contributions to the magnificence of St. Peter's Basilica Michelangelo's mastery of architecture is evidently clear.

He would never consider himself an architect, nor for that matter, an artist, but rather strived for excellence and recognition as a sculptor. But as we know today he was, in fact, master of all of these.

"I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all" Michelangelo is quoted as once saying. Perhaps this is the reason he was able to apply his sculpting skills to architecture so seamlessly.

Have we missed any other great architectural works of the great Michelangelo? If so please feel free to comment below

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