Laurenziana Library in the cloister of San Lorenzo II

The ricetto of the Laurentian

The hallway leading to the library, the ricetto, has a design that is the reverse of the library hall. The shapes grow heavier [drawing: Florence,Casa Buonarroti, 48A] and and more resemblant of actual sculpture.

ricetto stairs Laurentian library
photos: Sailko

Daniele da Volterra ‘Michelangelo’

In the front hall, too, the walls needed to be fortified. Early on, Michelangelo intended to connect the ricetto to the reading room. For instance, the windows and other parts were first put at an equal height to the reading room. However, this gave the hall a bizarre design [Haarlem, Tyler Museum, A33va], with disproportionally high placed windows and bases. Michelangelo quickly abandoned this idea in his design process. Finally, Buonarroti rejected the plan to create a larger unity between the library and the ricetto altogether. Wittkower was the one who discovered during the last great restoration that the masonry of the walls in the ricetto reveals a remarkable turn-around. Initially, the cornice of the reading room would link up to the cornice of the hall. This means that the height of the hall would be equal to that of the library. There were plans to install three windows at the centre of each bay and a flat vault. This plan, too, was abandoned. It was instead decided to raise the hall by some three metres, allowing the windows to be placed higher up as well. The issue of the relatively weak load-bearing parts was still at play. A heavy vault in the ricetto was a no-go. Buonarroti proposes to pope Clemens to create a timber roof truss with roof windows. The proposal was rejected. This solution would be entirely unique, but was likely rejected because it was too modern.


Right when Michelangelo gives up trying to incorporate a clear connection between the reading room and the front hall, the character of the ricetto changes, too. The prior horizontal effect in the designs that emphasise a link to the adjacent reading room, disappears. When the hall is raised by three metres and thus clearly stands out above the library, the design drawings show more and more elements that emphasise the vertical effect of the hall. For instance, the entablature is reduced to a small, thin line that weakens the horizontal effect, while the windows, placed much higher up, amplify the vertical effect. The space of the hall, which much resembles an alienating high tube, has inspired Michelangelo to use unique architectonic elements. Elements that are so fragrantly violating how architects in his time ought to build. What is immediately noticeable upon standing in the hall are the paired columns that are placed in the wall. Let alone the strange volutes that are placed underneath these columns. These volutes are lacking any kind of ‘Vitruvian logic’. Rather than providing support, these volutes are only hanging facing down. Volutes like these are nothing less than sculptural and purely decorative shapes.

Laurenziana library: Volutes
photo: Sailko

The columns in the walls of the ricetto: an architectonic trompe l’oeil

Laurenziana library:  columns in walls  ricetto

Confusion is created for the spectator when looking at the paired columns in the wall. A joke, or is it Michelangelo provoking his contemporaries? As described earlier, the column is the starting point for the classic Greek architect (click here or see at: ‘architecture in brief’) and always had a load-bearing function.

Like his volutes, Michelangelo only seems to be using these columns decoratively. And while it definitely seems this way, these columns do actually perform an important function.168 The foundations of the hall are as thick as the walls in the hall. This makes it impossible to place the columns outside of the wall surface. This is what presumably gave Buonarroti the idea to place the columns in the wall.  The columns themselves are monoliths (carved from one stone), this makes them stronger than the masonry wall in which they were placed. In this way, the columns fortify the walls. In fact, they constitute an essential support point for the walls. Like in the reading room, the support beams of the ceiling are in line with the load-bearing parts, in this case the paired columns. This architectonic ‘deception‘ was not noticed as such. And that is hardly surprising, given how many other architectonic elements in this hall are also lacking a load-bearing function, like the volutes, but were only incorporated as decoration. Furthermore, the use of columns in a wall surface to fortify its load-bearing capacity was hardly known.

Piranese 'Tomb Annia Regilla'

 Piranese ‘Tomb Annia Regilla’

Still, there is one example from Antiquity in which columns were placed in the wall, namely in the tomb of Annia Regilla at the Via Appia Antica just outside of Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi actually made an etching of this. From a sketch book by Giuliano da Sangallo, we know of a burial tomb with columns in the wall. Michelangelo must have known about this sketch book.

University library Heidelberg digital version of Giovanni Battista Piranese, Della Magnificenza Ed Architettvra De’ Romani / De Romanorvm Magnificentia Et Architectvra.

Laurenziana library: ricetto wall

The corner       Two volutes

The pilasters around the recesses are small at the bottom, but wide at the top, and the capitals, too, are smaller than the pilasters themselves. A true reversal of what seemed logical and custom. Below the frame of these recesses, we see elements like a regula with guttae. These elements were used in the Doric order beneath the pediment or below a frieze. Buonarroti used this parts of the Doric order entirely outside of prevalent principles and he placed them, as it were, like consoles beneath the bases of the pilasters. The triangular pediment above the door towards the reading room also did not live up to tradition. The pediment is broken through on the bottom and is pushed together at both of the ascending slanted sides. The four walls exhibit more of an organic unity than the four planes that are just put together at the corners, like we see at the Baptistery in Florence. The walls seem to slip into each other seamlessly. Still, the volute-shaped consoles in the corners clearly do not seem like ‘close friends’. The two consoles are colliding, and are intertwined in such a way that overall it looks rather messyen.

Laurenziana library: corner two walls
photos: Steven Zucker

Staircase in the ricetto: a rather oversized piece of furniture

The staircase       Side

Laurenziana library: Staircase in ricetto
photos: Sailko and side: Steven Zucker
Laurenziana library: Michelangelo 'Drawing staircase' 1525

Michelangelo ‘Drawing staircase’ 1525
Florence Casa Buonarroti, 92Ar

The staircase in the hall (see map: ricetto and stairs) is a true ‘piece of furniture’ and takes up most of the space. Originally, Buonarroti intended to make a wooden stairs; one made of a fine walnut. This materials fits nicely with the wood used for the benches and lecterns in the library. Walnut provides a nice contrast with the white plastered walls and the grey-blue pietra serena. In one of his first design drawings from 1524, Michelangelo shows he intended to use an entirely different staircase.

Two stairs leading up along the side walls, convening in front of the entrance. A perfectly logical and functional approach. This design was based on the stairs that Giuliano da Sangallo designed for the Villa of the Medici in Poggio a Caiano.

The Stairs

Dear friend, Messer Giorgio Vasari,

Regarding the Library staircase, which I’ve heard much about, I assure you that had I remembered my initial intentions, no entreaties would be required. I vaguely recollect a staircase, almost as if it were a dream, but I doubt it aligns with my original vision, as it now appears rather inelegant. Nevertheless, allow me to describe it here.

So, if you have several oval boxes, each with a depth of one palmo but varying in length and width, begin by situating the largest one on the floor, at a distance from the wall’s door as needed, depending on whether you want a shallow or steep staircase. Then, position another box on top of it, which should be correspondingly smaller in both length and width. Continue this process until the final step matches the width of the door opening. The aforementioned portion of the oval staircase should feature two wings, one on each side, and a central one, with straight steps that match the rest. The outer wings are for the servants, while the middle is reserved for the master. I may be expressing thoughts in a jumbled manner, but I trust in your abilities, as well as those of Messer Bartolommeo Ammanati, to transform these ideas into something meaningful. (Paraphrased; For the exact words of Michelangelo see: Howard Hibbard, ‘Michelangelo’, Penguin Books, London, 1978 (reprinted 1992) pp. 217-218.

Laurenziana library: Staircase in ricetto
photos: Sailko

Four years later, from Rome, Michelangelo submitted another model with the instructions to build the entrance. Ammanati constructed the staircase between 1558 and 1559 after the model by Buonarroti. However, he refrained from using walnut, but instead used marble. The strong vaults below the ricetto allowed for virtually any design in contrary to the walls of the hall itself. The staircase is very reminiscent of a large sculpture. For instance, the ‘two wings’ on each side are redundant. The centre-most entrance is wide enough for multiple people. Furthermore, the two outer-most steps come together exactly where the centre-most step leads, in front of the entrance door to the reading room. The space of the hall gives off a peculiar, nearly claustrophobic vibe: it is like a compacted space that is bounding upwards like a narrow tube. The stairs, on the other hand, are like a lava stream that is coming straight for you. This effect is again amplified by the round steps that culminate in round, protruding shapes at its ends. You gain the impression that you are going against the current by walking up the centre-most entrance. The staircase seems to be simultaneously flowing into the space and exerting pressure, in contrast to the walls.

Vasari, who first wrote about the liberties that Michelangelo enjoyed for his New Sacristy, is even more excited about what Buonarroti is demonstrating in his library. He writes:

“And even more did he demonstrate and seek to make known such a method afterwards in the library of S. Lorenzo, at the same place; in the beautiful distribution of the windows, in the pattern of the ceiling, and in the marvellous entrance of the vestibule. Nor was there ever seen a more resolute grace, both in the whole and in the parts, as in the consoles, tabernacles, and cornices, nor any staircase more commodious; in which last he made such bizarre breaks in the outlines of the steps, and departed so much from the common use of others, that everyone was amazed.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part II p. 231 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

Jacob Burckhardt poke of an ‘unfathomable prank by the master architect’ by which he meant the quiet library room and the hallwayl. These ‘pranks’, or what Vasari describes as a strong deviation from ‘what was custom’, were the prelude to a new movement in art: Mannerism. Michelangelo Buonarroti not only announced this new style in architecture, but also in sculpting and painting.

Continuation Florence day 2: Santa Felicita: Brunelleschi’s Capponi chapel