Architectural Studies

Facing up to History

The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, one of the most architecturally significant structures in Italy, is often regarded as the first Renaissance church. There are several canonical sites of early and late Renaissance design inside the church—such as the Old Sacristy, designed by Brunelleschi and decorated by Donatello, and the New Sacristy and Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo. However, despite its wealth of architectural and sculptural attractions, San Lorenzo lacks one key feature: a finished façade. For over five centuries the exterior surface of the building’s main elevation has remained nothing but rough, unfinished brickwork, awaiting a final exterior treatment.

The unfinished facade of San Lorenzo.

The site of San Lorenzo has a long history as a sacred space. What is thought to have been the first Christian church in Florence was built here in the late fourth century under the patronage of Saint Juliana of Florence, an influential widow and significant figure in the history of early Christianity in Tuscany. In 393 Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, consecrated this church and transferred holy relics there of the martyrs Saints Vitalis and Agricola. The site also served as Florence’s Cathedral for several centuries.

During the fifteenth century, San Lorenzo was completely rebuilt with lavish funding from the Medici dynasty, which established their family mortuary chapel in the new church complex. This series of construction projects chiefly followed designs by Brunelleschi and, later, Michelangelo.

With medieval and Renaissance churches, the principle—typically western—façade usually constituted the very last phase of the building process. Construction generally began at the east end, the location of the main altar, so that religious services could be held as soon as possible. This was important since building campaigns for large churches often lasted decades or even centuries. Since projects frequently ran over budget (then as now), and patrons sometimes ran out of cash, fell from political power, or become sidetracked with alternative projects, unfinished main façades were not at all uncommon—and this was especially true in Florence.

For example, the medieval church of Santa Maria Novella, a Romanesque and Gothic structure built between about 1250 and 1360, only received its famous exterior cladding a century later, when a wealthy merchant hired Leon Battista Alberti to design and oversee a new Renaissance façade. The church of Santa Croce was built primarily between 1294 and 1442, but its Gothic Revival façade was only added between 1857 and 1863. The incomplete western façade of the Duomo was removed in 1587 and then only replaced after a Gothic Revival design, partially inspired by, but departing from, Giotto’s original medieval plan, was chosen in an 1873 competition. Although Brunelleschi designed a façade for Santa Spirito, it had none until the eighteenth century, when it received only a flat coat of plaster. And the Romanesque church of Santa Maria del Carmine, begun in 1268, though it was the site of major building campaigns in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, still has only unfinished brickwork for its main façade.

In 1515 Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, held a design competition for the façade of San Lorenzo. Apparently dissatisfied with all the submissions, he commissioned Michelangelo to design it. Several of Michelangelo’s drawings for the project survive. Even more impressively, a large wooden model of his final design, completed to his specifications around 1517, remains on display at the Casa Buonarroti, where Michelangelo once lived. But for reasons that remain unclear, Michelangelo’s façade project stalled and the Pope formally rescinded the commission in 1520. Perhaps Leo X shelved the project upon learning that Michelangelo intended to use expensive Carrera marble for the entire façade or perhaps he prioritized Michelangelo’s designs for the New Sacristy. Whatever the reason may have been, work never commenced on the façade though some work began on preparing the forecourt of the church.

The wooden model of Michelangelo’s design.

Over the years there have been several additional attempts to spark interest in finishing the façade. In the eighteenth century, the last great Medici art patron, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who is buried at San Lorenzo, offered funds for a façade, but these wound up being spent largely on a bell tower instead. In 1837 the architect Pasquale Poccianti completed architectural designs for the façade, though no funding ever materialized to implement his project. In 1900 a wealthy private citizen, Francesco Mattei, bequeathed funds to build a façade for the church. An architectural competition resulted in which 74 designs were submitted. In 1905 a jury chose a design by Cesare Bazzani as the competition winner, but public reaction was so divisive that the municipal government, exerting control over the funds, abandoned the plan and instead spent the money on various smaller construction projects in churches around the city.

The façade by Bazzani that was selected by the design jury in the early twentieth-century.

In recent years there has yet again been a push to complete the façade. In 2011 the Mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who later served as Prime Minster of Italy from 2014 to 2016) suggested to the Municipal Council that a public referendum might be held to determine if the city should complete the façade according to Michelangelo’s plans. He hoped to finish the project, estimated to cost around € 2½ million, in 2015 on the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s initial commission from Leo X. But such a formal referendum never took place, perhaps for fear of the great expense involved. Given the current condition of Italy’s finances—it is one of the national economies whose debt to GDP ratio is a constant source of worry for the EU—it is very unlikely that a government-funded initiative for the façade would gain traction. And the municipal budget too would be hard-pressed to cover such a huge undertaking. However, there have been multiple rumors that both private donors and corporate sponsors might be interested in bankrolling such a project.

A projection of Michelangelo’s design on the unfinished facade, in 2007.

Please write an opinion piece of about 1,500 words that argues, sincerely, for a specific approach to handling the San Lorenzo façade. For examples, see four possible positions outlined briefly below, but feel free to argue other, perhaps more nuanced, positions. If you are interested in the Michelangelo designs, you might visit the Casa Buonarroti, where the wooden model (and sometimes one of the drawings) is on display. Indeed since 2015, when the Casa Buonarroti mounted an exhibition dedicated to the history of the façade projects called “The Power of Myth: The Plans for the Façade of the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, from Michelangelo to the 1900 Competition,” Michelangelo’s former home has become the center of academic discussion of San Lorenzo façade.

A poster advertising the Casa Buonarroti exhibition in 2015.

Four possible arguments outlines:

1) Leave it alone. After half a millennium has passed, perhaps a façade—even an unrefined and unintended one—should become permanent by default. The bare, unprepossessing brickwork may not have been what any designers ever had in mind for San Lorenzo, but the fact remains that this is the façade that has been viewed by many generations of churchgoers, has been reproduced in countless architecture books, and that is authentic to the period of construction in a way no modern façade could ever be. For that matter, the fact that it remained unfinished is an important part of its history. Why disguise this fact? Creating a contemporary intervention to this structure is both unnecessary and inappropriate—and costly. For that matter, having spectacular treasures hidden behind an unfinished façade affords many pleasant metaphorical readings: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Nothing is ever perfect. The journey matters more than the destination.

2) It’s all about Michelangelo. A towering artistic genius known the world over, Michelangelo Buonarroti is Firenze’s ultimate hometown hero. Though required to take Roman citizenship in 1537 in order to pursue his Capitoline Hill commission, and though born 60 miles east of Florence while his parents briefly resided in the village of Caprese, Michelangelo came from a Florentine family and was raised and schooled in Florence. San Lorenzo is famous above all for his multiple architectural and sculptural contributions to the site: the New Sacristy, the Medici tombs, the Laurentian Library. There is no more fitting designer for the façade of San Lorenzo; indeed it would be a travesty if any scheme but his were ever realized. His design is not just some half-baked sketch, it is a perfectly complete final design preserved through his drawings and even a precise scale model. Even if the Carrera marble he desired is not available, there is no reason not to complete the project using cheaper marble, as Pope Leo X presumably preferred and might well have ordered. And if funds are not available for marble, there would be nothing wrong with keeping a fiberglass model in place, even in perpetuity, until funding materializes to complete the project in stone. Nor would it matter if modern techniques were used to achieve the result, so long as the end result matches the basic appearance mapped out by Michelangelo. If the Mayor had carried through on his stated goal of holding a public referendum, all indications suggest that a majority of voters would have supported Michelangelo’s design, so the plan also seems to have the backing of the citizens of Florence.

3) Implement the jury’s decision. The only fair and appropriate design competition held for San Lorenzo façade was the open, juried process conducted in the early twentieth century. Even Michelangelo’s design resulted solely from the instruction of one patron, who later changed his mind and cancelled the project. After a multi-year, deliberative process, the 1905 jury carefully selected the beautiful design of Cesare Bazzani. Aside from offering the only legitimate position as a design reached through a fair and open process, Bazzani’s design also provides an elegant compromise between those who seek a wildly inappropriate contemporary design and those who foolishly seek to revisit the antiquated and costly Renaissance design of Michelangelo. Bazzani’s design provides a historicist treatment fully in sympathy with the aesthetic of the historic church yet one that comes from an era familiar with modern building practices. This design offers the only logical and viable solution.

4) Hold a major, international, contemporary design competition. All true architecture is contemporary architecture. All other architecture is dead architecture, fake architecture. Any attempt to revive a 500 year old—or 100 year old, for that matter—design scheme would be inherently anachronistic. When Brunelleschi and Michelangelo designed their celebrated buildings, they were not Renaissance “old masters” but rather contemporary architects thriving in their own time and place. The only sensible way forward would be to hold a contemporary design competition for a 21st century design solution that speaks to 21st century needs and a 21st century audience. Even if scale drawings or models exist, everyone knows that modifications take place whenever a design is realized in material form. Creating Michelangelo’s or Bazzani’s—or anyone else’s—antiquated design through a sterile reproduction of lines on paper or carved wood would be a sham. For those who fear that a contemporary façade might spoil the aesthetic of San Lorenzo, remember that the façade is not visible from anywhere within the building; the only portion of the structure changed aesthetically would be the unfinished brick that was never intended for public scrutiny in the first place. Just as everyone knows that the central area of Florence is in danger of becoming a lifeless time-capsule catering exclusively to tourists, a contemporary façade for San Lorenzo could spur a reawakening of Florence as a city that matters now, not just an oversized dollhouse or museum piece catering exclusively to tourists.

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Architectural Studies

Theme by Anders Norén