Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

In celebration of the opening of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library later this spring, Nancy Spiegel, the Library’s bibliographer for art and cinema, is writing a series of posts about the history of libraries and library architecture, pointing readers to works in the Library’s collections. This is the fourth post in the series.

Laurentian Library Reading Room

Laurentian Library Reading Room

Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo in 1525 to design and construct a library building in the upper cloisters of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, but it was not opened until 1571, seven years after Michelangelo’s death. The library, intended to rival the Vatican’s in prestige, is recognized generally by architectural historians as the finest of all Renaissance library buildings.

Because of danger from floods, the building was situated above the existing priests’ quarters on the third floor.  The reading room, lit by windows on both sides, featured long rows of carved walnut lecterns flanking a central aisle.  Books were shelved permanently at the reading desks and secured with chain. This view of the reading room in 1907, which accompanied a Putnam’s Magazine article by Chicago historian Mabel McIlvaine, shows the chaining system still on display, with wooden panels describing the contents of each row.  Manuscript and printed books were distributed into seven subject areas: Patristics, Astronomy, Rhetoric, Philosophy, History, Grammar, Poetry and Geography.

Laurentian Library vestibule

Laurentian Library vestibule

An entrance hall with a staircase was necessary to provide access to the reading room. Michelangelo created a vestibule with a vertical, strongly emotional emphasis to contrast with the horizontality and calm of the reading room.

In 1841, architect Pasquale Poccianti designed a neoclassical addition to the Library which housed some of its printed book collections until the 1970s. A modern tour of the building is available on the Library’s website.

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