One of Michelangelo‘s masterpieces, the Laurentian Library in Florence must have truly shocked the artist’s contemporaries as it paved the way for a new trend in architectural design. A cultural treasure trove, the original collection of books and ancient manuscripts was owned by the Medici family.
Laurentian Medici Library, Florence
Michelangelo took on a few important architectural projects while he was working in Florence, but only a couple came to fruition: the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapel and the Laurentian Library. Both are part of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Complex, and showed the city the exceptional ingenuity of the artist.
In 1519 Giulio de’ Medici, future Pope Clemente VII, commissioned the artist to design a library to guard his family’s precious collection of manuscripts.
Michelangelo designed the whole thing, but didn’t complete the construction. Finished by Vasari and Ammannati, the library finally opened to the public in 1571, bringing prestige to Florence and adding to its claim as an important cultural hub in Europe.
A remarkable design
As you enter the small, cube-shaped vestibule, you are struck by the size and shape of the massive staircase in grey pietra serena stone. It looks like lava, a living material spilling out from the room above. Michelangelo had originally intended the staircase to be made of wood, but when they got down to built it, Cosimo I de Medici – who was financing the project – opted for the stone. The pietra serena had often been used by Brunelleschi before and in fact feels very Florentine.
The vestibule is a dark room, with plenty of blind windows and tall grey columns that fill up the small space. Here Michelangelo is clearly using elements of classical architecture, but deprives them of their normal function. The perfect example of his revolutionary design are the hefty brackets, that don’t support anything but are merely decorative. The columns look like huge sculptures inserted in the white walls.
The reading room
The reading room feels bright and serious. Here the space is designed in a more rational, orderly manner. The large windows let the light in to illuminate the two rows of wooden benches where readers would have sat. The codices were kept on the shelves under the desks, called ‘plutei‘. They were free to be consulted but fastened to the desks with heavy chains, in case any readers got it into their heads to remove them. Manuscripts were extremely costly, after all. Next to each desk you can still see the lists of subjects and texts.
As the lightless vestibule represents the darkness of ignorance, the bright reading room gives the idea of the power of knowledge, that illuminates the mind and the spirit.
All around the room – on the windows, the wooden ceiling (built by G. Battista del Tasso in 1550 to a design by Michelangelo) and the terracotta floor – there are many symbols that recall the Medici family. They were after all spending a lot of money on the building of this prestigious library.
One interesting curiosity here is the head of the Capricorn, which symbolises Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Gran Duke of Florence. Even though he was born in June, he ‘chose’ the astrological sign of the Capricorn, the one of the Roman Emperor Cesare Augusto. The laurel represents Lorenzo the Magnificent.
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The Laurentian Library is still very much a living library, with an online catalogue available for consultation. The original nucleus of codices reflects the humanistic interests of Cosimo the Eldest, the Medici who started the collection, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent. They acquired plenty of manuscripts by Greek and Latin scholars, classical authors that thrived at the Medici court thanks to the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy.
Throughout the centuries, the collection grew and grew, and in the 18th century the first printed catalogue was created.
In 1818 the Florentine bibliophile Angelo Maria d’Elci donated his precious collection of first editions of Latin and Greek classics; at the end of the 19th century, the purchase of the library of Lord Bertram Ashburnham further enriched the library heritage of precious codices, including the “Rime” by Medieval poet Francesco Petrarca.
The library contains around 11000 manuscripts and more than 60000 books, including 14th and 15th century editions.
=> All the books and manuscripts are now guarded in other part of the building and are not on display in the library.
How to get to the Laurentian Library
You access the Laurentian Library from the cloister of San Lorenzo Church – through a door on the left side of the facade – in Piazza San Lorenzo, a few step from the Cathedral Square.
It’s not always open. But you can visit it by joining special guided tours or when there’s an exhibition on => See the official site.