When Alessandro Farnese becomes Pope in 1534 (Paul III), he intends to expand the family palace that was already under construction for 19 years. The original layout was by Antonio da Sangallo (the layout of Farnese), but by 1534 this palace was to become even bigger than the Vatican palace. When Sangallo dies in 1546, the pope turns to Michelangelo to complete the assignment.
Michelangelo and Sangallo could not possibly contrast more in terms of architectural styles. When Michelangelo is commissioned to complete the new St. Peter, he first deconstructs the part built by Sangallo. But for this palace, Michelangelo has to think of something else. Construction had advanced too far. Vasari, who left Rome just before Antonio’s death, was afraid the palace would never be completed. Moreover, he feared that the product of two architects with differing opinions could never turn into one harmonious whole. The writer and artist would be proven wrong on both accounts.
Michelangelo, who was not really known for his collaboration skills, only made a few alterations with the cornice and windows. Still, Michelangelo’s additions have had a crucially large impact on the design of his predecessor. Sangallo’s approach of the facade is based on a neutral, flat plane with the doors and windows being placed against it like a relief. You could almost just peel the aediculas off from the facade without damaging it. This approach traces back to Bramante and Raphaël. In addition, the window was used as a module. It is very simple to expand the building horizontally or vertically by simply sticking another window (module) to it. Sangallo also only drew the slightly deviating entrance system and one set of windows For masons and sculptors, this was sufficient. The bay for the windows could just be multiplied. A completely different manner of approach than Michelangelo, like you would have seen and heard at his facades for the Palazzi at the Campidoglio.
“Pope Paul III had caused San Gallo, while he was alive, to carry forward the Palace of the Farnese family, but the great upper cornice, to finish the roof on the outer side, had still to be constructed, and his Holiness desired that Michelagnolo should execute it from his own designs and directions. Michelagnolo, not being able to refuse the Pope, who so esteemed and favoured him, caused a model of wood to be made, six braccia in length, and of the size that it was to be; and this he placed on one of the corners of the Palace, so that it might show what effect the finished work would have. It pleased his Holiness and all Rome, and that part of it has since been carried to completion which is now to be seen, proving to be the most varied and the most beautiful of all that have ever been known, whether ancient or modern. On this account, after San Gallo was dead, the Pope desired that Michelagnolo should have charge of the whole fabric as well; and there he made the great marble window with the beautiful columns of variegated marble, which is over the principal door of the Palace, with a large escutcheon of great beauty and variety, in marble, of Pope Paul III, the founder of that Palace. Within the Palace he continued, above the first range of the court, the two other ranges, with the most varied, graceful, and beautiful windows, ornaments and upper cornice that have ever been seen, so that, through the labours and the genius of that man that court has now become the most handsome in Europe. He widened and enlarged the Great Hall, and set in order the front vestibule, and caused the vaulting of that vestibule to be constructed in a new variety of curve, in the form of a half oval.” Source: Vasari ‘Lives of painters, Sculptors and Architects’ (translation Anderson)
When Michelangelo takes over after Antonio’s death, the third floor up to the cornice is finished. Michelangelo decides to first complete the facade, followed by the side walls and finally the courtyard. Michelangelo made three changes to the facade:
1. A different cornice
2. The top floor was raised
3. A different window above the entrances
Michelangelo also raised the last floor. This was to make better use of the space between the pediments of the windows and the heavy cornice. Such a move went against a long-standing tradition. It was custom to keep each subsequent floor slightly lower. Proponents of Sangallo complained about what they considered to be a very ugly cornice and the raised last floor. Vitruvius would turn in his grave at beholding such an appalling cornice. It was too heavy. Too large. Besides, it was a hotchpotch of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian elements. In short, an insult to classic canon. Still, it is this very violation of Vitruvian rules that makes this cornice so powerful. The massive cornice stands testimony to the building’s weight. What’s more, Michelangelo alleviates the cornice’s heaviness, or at least visually. He incorporates all kinds of decorations that capture sunlight. They work as focal points for the light, while surrounded by strong shadows.
The window above the entrance by Sangallo was also subject to radical change by Buonarroti. Michelangelo removed the pediment and turned the entablement into an architrave, with above it a high sculpture with the coat of arms of the Farnese family.
The covered hallway leading to the courtyard is a colonnade based on a basilisk. The courtyard is often seen as one of the most impressive courtyards of the Renaissance.
It is a perfect cube, where the horizontal and vertical elements are in complete harmony as opposed to the exterior. Strangely enough, this balanced whole is the result of a chaotic history. The bottom two floors are by Sangallo. Michelangelo and Vignola did give the piano nobile (the beautiful first floor) different windows. Furthermore, Michelangelo added as a finishing touch a fantasy-rich frieze for this floor. The final floor at the courtyard is by Michelangelo’s hands. Sangallo’s design for the courtyard gave Michelangelo much more to work with than the facade. Michelangelo was now able to find a balance between the horizontal and vertical elements as opposed to in the facade. Sangallo’s design was much more based on the load-bearing structure of he building. The pillars with Tuscan columns took the brunt of the pressure. But his facade was no more than a simple screen or wall. The orders used by Sangallo are based on the theatre Marcellus. The bottom floor uses the Tuscan order at the courtyard, followed by the Ionic and then the Corinthian.
The small, but essential changes applied by Vignola and Michelangelo to the piano nobile, appear as just minor corrections to the original design, but they are much more profound than you would suspect. It uses different windows, of a more playful nature. The frieze is decorated with garlands that alternate with masks. The balustrade is also changed. These alterations turn this floor in a kind of intermediary. It allowed Michelangelo to design the final floor to his own vision and still have it in line with the other floors. The two upper floors of the Palazzo Farnese courtyard. Buonarroti clearly makes ‘his floor’ higher than Sangallo’s. Between the second and third floor lies hidden another low intermediate floor: a mezzanino. The arches of the arcade on the ground floor and around the windows at the piano nobile are not seen again in Michelangelo’s floor. The limited space for the pilasters that must still connect to the columns beneath is solved as Michelangelo places two semi ‘shadow pilasters’ on both sides. We have seen this before with the facade of the Il Gesù. If you look closely at the facade, similar to the two palazzi at the Campidoglio, Michelangelo again achieves equilibrium between the vertical and horizontal facade elements. Very different from the facade at the front of the palace. The details used by Michelangelo for the cornice around the courtyard are strange variations to classic decorations. If you stand on the ground floor, all you will see is interplay between shadow and light at the cornice. What is most striking are the aediculas around the windows. Architects in those days saw them as an insult. One could suspect that Michelangelo intentionally tried to provoke or shock architects like Bramante or Sangallo.
If you look at the side frames, they almost look like strips of fabric that hang downwards from beneath two lion heads and continue past the windowsills. This goes against all (vitruvian) logic. These frames should at least suggest that they support the entablement. The entablature is also out of place. It looks as if Michelangelo was mocking the classics and his contemporaries. The pediment is discoupled from the architrave without any support, making it float. It is this unique approach of architecture that appealed to Borromini so much. Ironically, these motifs would appear regularly in the Baroque era.
Michelangelo did more than just steer away from vitruvian rules, his architecture is also dynamic. He expressly involves the space around the building. Furthermore, he bases his designs on the person walking through the building. It is not designed, as would be custom in those days, from the perspective on paper. Michelangelo often used clay for his designs. Perspective only works if you look at the design from one angle, like you have seen in the S. Ignazio or the Il Gesù with the ceiling pieces. Such an approach is by definition static. After all, one must stand on the porphyry disc in the S. Ignazio to be able to see the ceiling piece properly. Michelangelo had a grand plan that never reached fruition. It was too costly, and probably impossible to carry out.
“Now in that year there was found at the Baths of Antoninus a mass of marble seven braccia [4 metres] in every direction, in which there had been carved by the ancients a Hercules standing upon a mound, who was holding the Bull by the horns, with another figure assisting him, and around that mound various figures of Shepherds, Nymphs, and different animals—a work of truly extraordinary beauty, showing figures so perfect in one single block without any added pieces, which was judged to have been intended for a fountain. Michelagnolo advised that it should be conveyed into the second court, and there restored so as to make it spout water in the original manner; all which advice was approved, and the work is still being restored at the present day with great diligence, [Pg 68] by order of the Farnese family, for that purpose. At that time, also, Michelagnolo made a design for the building of a bridge across the River Tiber in a straight line with the Farnese Palace, to the end that it might be possible to go from that palace to another palace and gardens that they possessed in the Trastevere, and also to see at one glance in a straight line from the principal door which faces the Campo di Fiore, the court, the fountain, the Strada Giulia, the bridge, and the beauties of the other garden, even to the other door which opened on the Strada di Trastevere—a rare work, worthy of that Pontiff and of the judgment, design, and art of Michelagnolo.” Source: Vasari ‘Lives of painters, Sculptors and Architects’ (Anderson)
Giacomo Quarenghi ‘Hercules’
“The two statues of Hercules featured in this engraving [THE MET] may have been copies of classical statuary (the caption calls them “exact images”). The one on the right is recognizable as the so-called Farnese Hercules, a 3rd century Roman sculpture copied from a 4th century BCE original by the ancient Greek sculptor Lysippos or one of his circle. It was recovered from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome by Alessandro Farnese and moved to the Farnese Palace in 1546, where it stood in its own room for generations. In 1787, the statue was moved to Naples and now is in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The statue on the left [engraving] strongly resembles a Hellenistic or Roman bronze reduction of Hercules found at Foligno, Italy, and now in the collection of the Louvre.” Source: George Glazer Gallery
This is the reason why Michelangelo designed a spacious vista at the back of the courtyard. For the ground floor and the piano nobile, he designed an open loggia of three bays to offer an exquisite view over the garden, the fountain, the bridge and the family’s other palace. The artist for the engraving was likely a Northern painter. He depicted a landscape with ruins as was popular in those days. In addition, Michelangelo also made a design for the paving in front of the Palazzo Farnese facade. His design illustrates clear lines in the paving that lead to the entrance, and a spectacular vista up to the other side of the Tiber. Naturally, this massive undertaking was halted. Not even the Farnese family’s money pouch was big enough. Vignola and Della Porta have modified the loggia on the piano nobile in some of the chambers and closed two of the three openings on the ground floor.
‘The Loves of the Gods is a monumental fresco cycle, completed by the Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci and his studio, in the Farnese Gallery [Gallery Carracci] which is located in the west wing of the Palazzo Farnese, now the French Embassy, in Rome. The frescoes were greatly admired at the time, and were later considered to reflect a significant change in painting style away from sixteenth century Mannerism in anticipation of the development of Baroque and Classicism in Rome during the seventeenth century.’
We walk back to the Via Giulia and cross the Tiber at the Ponte Mazzini to head into the Via della Lungara.