Jacopo Zucchi ‘Portrait of Giorgio Vasari’ c. 1573
“Nor did any long time pass before he took in hand, by order of the Council of Ten, the very rich and beautiful fabric of the Library of S. Marco, opposite to the Palazzo della Signoria, with such a wealth of carvings, cornices, columns, capitals, and half-length figures over the whole work, that it is a marvel; and it is all done without any sparing of expense, so that up to the present day it has cost one hundred and fifty thousand ducats. And it is held in great estimation in that city, because it is full of the richest pavements, stucco-work, and stories, distributed among the halls of the building, with public stairs adorned by various pictures, as has been related in the Life of Battista Franco; besides many other beautiful appurtenances, and the rich ornaments that it has at the principal door of entrance, which give it majesty and grandeur, making manifest the ability of Sansovino.” Vasari ‘Description of the works of Jacopo Sansovino Sculptor of Florence’ pdf pp. 198-199
Palladio wrote: the richest and most beautiful decorated building since Antiquity. The all’antica character made a deep impression. The poet Aretino wrote to Jacopo: ‘You are the man who knows what a Vitruvius should be’.
After the pictures and the writings of Serlio, Venice finally had its ‘real’ classical building for the people to admire. In a note from the Senate it is clearly stated that the library was a deliberate attempt to outdo the antiques (emulatio, the commandment of an artist in the renaissance)
Vitruvius (download), but also Alberti, have spoken about their admiration of classical libraries. Though, neither of them has described what a good and beautiful library should look like. There are some hints in classical literature, for example in Pausanius. He describes a library near the Hadrianus temple in Athens as follows: ‘The hundreds of columns of Phrygian marble, with walls built just like the columns, and pavilions with gilded ceilings and alabaster, decorated with statues and paintings.’
The design and building of Sansovino looks a lot like this description. Arcades and columns of temples, separate vestibule and library, rich ceilings and statues. Even the place of the library resembles the classical demand that light should come from the east, this matches with the library that is on the left side of the piazetta perfectly. The books won’t be damaged by the sun in the morning, when it’s not at full strength, yet there is enough light to read.
Vasari writes that this building was built with a Vitruvian mind-set, but this is wrong. The intersection of the column wasn’t used as a module for the entire construction. Sansovino used the grammar much more loosely, as is found in Roman architecture. It all had to look all’antica, not just because of the library, but mostly for the grandeur of the city.
Some all’antica elements unknown to the Venetian public made a big impression. For someone who wasn’t from Venice, the building looked, despite its classical elements, very Venetian. Sansovino designed a synthesis between Venetian and classical tradition. That said, the library does fit in with already existing buildings, because they have a few characteristics in common:
1. Two floors: the ground floor has arcades.
2. Eastern tilts that are modified into a different decoration: a balustrade with statues.
The statues look like the figures in the San Marco, in classical style however
3. The building material: Istrian stone.
The façade of the library has no structural or tectonic function. It’s nothing more than just a pretty front. Behind the marble is ordinary brick.
Why has the façade of the library become so famous outside La Serenissima?
The main feature: a large piano nobile with great windows above a loggia was typical Venetian, absolutely not new. This does also apply to the richly cut Istrian marble and the classic setting of the façade. Codussi had applied this to all his churches and palazzi. It is most likely that the Venetians were looking for the façade. A classic Roman style on Venetian soil, following the Venetian tradition.
There are many classic elements like spandrel figures, a rich ornate frieze, putti with garlands, obelisks and keystones with lion heads. The right use of Dorian (1st floor) and Ionian (piano nobile) orders, gave the façade a classic look, much more than the Venetians were used to. This will be very clear when we compare the two opposite facades. The combination column and arch is from the theatre Marcellus and was later applied to the Colosseum.
A big staircase leads to the second floor. The square vestibule was used as a class room. The reading room is lit beautifully and plentifully by a long line of windows on the east side. It is no coincidence that Vitruvius recommended the east side, the same goes for bedrooms.
The ceiling contains paintings by Paolo Veronese, Titian lost the game. See paintings by Web Gallery of Art. Originally there were rows of benches, which are still visible in the library of Michelangelo in Florence. The other rooms were used as offices for the Procuration. The first floor was used for shops and these brought in quite a lot of money. Looking at the exterior it isn’t very clear where the library is. Concerning this, Sansovino was much more liberal than with his Zecca. Sansovino took the whole square (the piazetta and the piazza) in account in the original design. He made sure that the already existing campanile became detached. By detaching the campanile he created a trapezium shaped plaza. This makes the San Marco the centre of attention when standing on this part of the plaza. The comparison between the current situation and the painting of Gentile Bellini in the Academia makes this even more clear. Sansovinos solution for the Ducale is visible too.