There is no doubt that the ancient Roman Empire had a profound impact on all aspects of Western society, including architecture. However, to argue that the “Italians of the fifteenth century took up architecture at the point where the ancients laid it down in the fourth” , ignores much of the experimentation of Renaissance architects in integrating classically inspired architecture with Gothic or even Romanesque styles. However, the recognisability and the malleability of ancient Roman detailing and features was certainly useful in the creation of public buildings, such as libraries, which needed to make a statement.
The formal analysis of the Laurentian Library in Florence and the Library of St Mark in Venice, in relation to their respective Ancient Roman precedents: the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Annia Regilla, the Colosseum and Roman triumphal arches, reveals that although there are similarities, the architecture of the Renaissance was remarkably varied in its approach to ancient Roman precedents and ideas.
Commissioned by the Medici family in 1523 and completed in 1571, the Laurentian Library is considered, by Rudolf Wittkower, to “be the most important, and influential secular building of the whole sixteenth century” . Though many notable architects worked on its construction, the design is attributed to Michelangelo, and it is an early example of Mannerism. The building was meant to be composed of three spaces: the vestibule/ricetto (Figure 1), the reading room (Figure 2), and the rare books room, but due to budgetary and structural constraints the rare books room was never completed. In the two built spaces, which strongly juxtapose one another, Michelangelo intended to utilise classical architectural features and detailing as sculptural elements both to create a sense of movement and to enhance the experiential qualities of the building. However, due to the constraints on the site, directly “following Vitruvius and the works of Antiquity” was not possible, so a more experimental approach was taken whilst still referencing great ancient Roman buildings. argue that the result of this approach is “an architectural statement of extreme, perhaps unique, intensity” .
The paired columns for the vestibule space exemplify this approach. “In essence (they) are a combination of the Doric and the Corinthian” : in the simplicity of the form and the proportions of their capitals, they resemble Doric columns, whereas the shaft’s proportions and the ornate bases and capitals emulate Corinthian columns. Placing the columns onto corbels in line with the wall, challenges the structural stability that would otherwise be radiated by the large, paired columns. Interestingly, the visitor is forced to question whether the columns or the walls are acting structurally. This question can be applied to the tabernacles that seemingly break the monotony of the paired columns: many seem only to serve an aesthetic function. The use of pietra serena for the recessed columns and the tabernacles contrasts against the stucco walls, evoking a sculptural quality. Indeed, many scholars argue that the “architectural elements effectively became the (sculpted) figures” and busts that seem to be missing from the vestibule space.
The architectural language of the reading room, while still experimental, possesses a more typical articulation of the internal wall surfaces: 15 windows framed by “projecting tabernacles” and regularly spaced pilasters emphasise the significant length of this room. Consequently, the staircase required careful attention to ensure that it unites these two volumetrically and aesthetically contrasting spaces. As shown by Figure 3, the staircase relates to the strong axis that runs through the plan of the building. Moreover, this very sculptural staircase creates a visual connection between the oval steps, which evoke fluid lava , and the ornate walnut ceiling of the reading room (Figure 4).
Michelangelo’s use of precedent for the articulation of the internal walls of the vestibule space remains controversial.
James Cooper argues that an analysis of Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings suggests he was inspired by the “interior elevation of the Pantheon (constructed in Rome in 128AD) which consists of eight solid piers which are fronted by tabernacle-framed niches and are flanked by exedrae” . In the vestibule to the Laurentian Library, recessed paired columns, which rise from the socle to the architrave, resemble these exedrae and the tabernacles sit as described by Cooper in the middle . The resemblance between the two can be seen in Figure 5. Additionally, Michelangelo’s architectural experiments with lighting strategies seem to further relate to the Pantheon: an oculus was considered to dramatically light the vestibule space from above, though structural concerns dissuaded him . The Pantheon’s use of concrete structurally freed the interior of structure and so a greater emphasis could be placed on the spatial quality and ornamentation of the interior . This emphasis was certainly adopted by Michelangelo for the Laurentian Library which has a comparatively simple façade.
On the other hand, David Hemsoll argues that while the Pantheon might have been relevant, the Mausoleum of Annia Regilla, which was completed in 160AD near Rome, seems to provide “a model (…) for the motif of the columns recessed into the wall (…) (and) for the whole of the three-bay composition with its terminal pilasters” . It may also have influenced the unusually tall height of the vestibule space (Figure 6). There are similarities with Peruzzi’s Villa Farnesina (1510), leading to Hemsoll’s overall view that “Michelangelo’s thinking about his ancient prototype was mediated through the work of his contemporaries” .
Despite being commissioned only 13 years later in 1536 by the Venetian Doge Andrea Gritti, Jacopo Sansovino’s Library of St Mark differs greatly both in aesthetics and its design process from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. William Anderson argues that “nothing in the earlier phases of the Renaissance movement approached so nearly to antique Roman ideas as Sansovino’s Library” . And yet it is considered to be Sansovino’s masterpiece of the Venetian Renaissance . Indeed, Andrea Palladio described it as ‘perhaps the richest and most ornate building that there has been since ancient times up until now’ . In plan, the building appears as a narrow strip with an arcade along three of its sides which expertly opens the building up to St Mark’s square and the wider public beyond (Figure 7). This simple plan form enabled Sansovini to introduce a highly ornate façade system, created almost exclusively from the layering of ancient Roman details and architectural elements.
Sansovino’s approach to façade design (Figure 8) as a “sequence of three-dimensional members – piers, columns, entablatures, and so forth – and not a two-dimensional plane” , aligned well with the “ancient discipline of Vitruvius” . On the ground level engaged Doric columns carry a highly detailed entablature that follows the rigorous Vitruvian principles for the corner of a Doric frieze, which is a celebrated detail of the building due to its originality as a solution . All these details have been successfully integrated whilst still keeping “the lower and open arcade (…) almost perfect in its proportion and treatment” . Although the use of the engaged Ionic column (Figure 9) above also keeps with the ancient Roman hierarchy of orders, the upper levels are seemingly less successful due to the “disproportionate dimensions” of the entablature. According to Anderson, this resulted in the apparent “effect of (the whole) being carved, like the tombs of Petra, out of living rock” . There is also a richness of classical ornamental elements, such as statues, spandrels, obelisks, and keystone heads.
Due to Sansovino’s more classical approach there are undeniably ancient Roman precedents for his library. Despite its noticeable lack of ornamentation, he was certainly influenced by the Colosseum’s hierarchy of orders, engaged columns, and extensive use of arched arcades . Interestingly the heavier attic storey, which is expressed with Corinthian pilasters, in the Colosseum (built in 80AD in Rome) might well have served as the inspiration for Sansovino’s heavier upper entablature (Figure 10). The Theatre of Marcellus (completed in 12BC in Rome) also possessed a similar hierarchical system of the engaged Roman orders. The use of this motif in two major ancient Roman public buildings strongly suggests that perhaps this visual language in the period of antiquity, and in Sansovino’s time, has direct connotations with public functions, and secular power. Arguably, this clarity of message could not be provided by the Gothic or Romanesque architectural styles as they had perhaps become too associated with religious power.
The lack of ornamentation on the Colosseum and the Theatre of Marcellus suggests that there was another building typology, used as a precedent by Sansovino. Sansovino’s treatment of the tripartite windows (or serlianas), while reminiscent of Bramante’s windows in the Sala Regia of the Vatican, was informed by a closer analysis of ancient Roman triumphal arches . An analysis of the way the sculptural elements have been integrated into the architecture of the Arch of Constantine, which was constructed in 315AD in Rome, reinforces this concept (Figure 11). In both examples the statues sit above the columns in the attic storey, thus expressing the divisions and accentuating the verticality .
Although Michelangelo and Sansovino have taken entirely different approaches to the ancient Roman architecture that surrounded them, there is no doubt that the distinct and enduring nature of ancient Roman detailing, whether that be experimented with or implemented according to Vitruvius’s rules, conferred the status and symbolism that a public library in the Renaissance era required. However, they were not fascinated by the precise replication of ancient Roman architecture, but rather by the intrinsic sculptural qualities of these classical architectural elements and how the layering of them could lead to exciting new architectural compositions.
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