In the European summer of 2018, I was in Florence attending Lisa Clifford‘s ‘Art of Writing’ workshop. It was held in the beautiful San Niccolo district, which runs along the left bank of the Arno River. The location was perfect with the magnificent Boboli Gardens nearby and a steep, but rewarding, walk up the hill to Basilica San Miniato al Monte and the Piazza Michelangelo.
One sun-drenched Florentine morning, I managed to find time to set off in search of a unique and historic library I’d been dreaming about for years – Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
The library is adjacent to the Basilica di San Lorenzo and is accessed through an unremarkable door on the first floor of the Brunelleschi cloister. The cloister courtyard was glistening with morning rays and nuns were appearing and disappearing through small doors, until finally the window to the ticket office was pushed up and I stepped a little closer to Michelangelo.
I’m a little obsessed with Michelangelo. Standing at the foot of David in the Academia Gallery makes me weep. Weighing more than 560 kilograms and standing almost 14 feet tall, David is carved from a single block of white marble. Michelangelo’s deep knowledge of human anatomy was acquired from participating in public dissections. As a young teenager he joined the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici and became acquainted with the physician–philosopher members there, and by the age of 18 he was performing his own dissections. The pulsing veins on the back of David’s hands, his flexed muscles juxtaposed against beautifully contoured limbs and his face lit exquisitely with large watchful eyes are all the more extraordinary because of Michelangelo’s physician-like understanding of human anatomy.
Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he began to carve David in 1501. Over the next three years he worked in secret. His biographer, Ascanio Condivi, wrote that Michelangelo barely ate during this time, and would snatch brief naps while fully clothed between bouts of work. On 14 May 1504, when David was finally ready to be moved to his first home, the Piazza della Signoria, it took 40 men to push the statue there on a large wooden cart.
A lauded architect, as well as a painter and sculptor, Michelangelo began sketching the design and dimensions of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in 1523. Construction began in 1524 and continued until he left Florence for Rome in 1534. After Michelangelo’s departure, his followers – Medici court artist Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati – continued the construction based on plans and verbal instructions from Michelangelo. The library was finally opened in 1571 – 37 years after Michelangelo left Florence and seven years after his death.
The vestibule, or entrance hall, of the Laurenziana is almost entirely overtaken by a colossal staircase made up of three adjoining flights that ascend to the library. It was built by Ammannati in 1559, using a clay model created by Michelangelo. The design is said to have come to Michelangelo in a dream. The three flights of stairs are composed of grey sandstone and plaster, and the centre flight is convex with three complete elliptical steps at the base. On exiting the library it appears as if an explosion of lava steps is waiting to float you down to the level below. It’s a remarkable effect, and characteristic of Mannerist (also known as Late Renaissance) architecture, for which Michelangelo was well-known.
Michelangelo designed the library for Medici Pope Clemente VII to store 11,000 manuscripts and 4500 early printed books collected by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent. It is considered to be one of the most valuable collections of ancient manuscripts in the world.
Manuscripts and books were organised by subject, and a wooden panel attached to each lectern post displayed a table of contents that could be read from the centre aisle. The texts lay on shelves built into the lectern in front, while a sloping platform allowed the reader to position their reading material for comfortable reading.
The Laurenziana was a chained library, which was a common feature of public libraries in the Middle Ages when books were scarce and valuable.
The long rectangular reading room exudes a sense of quiet magnificence. Orderly rows of readings desks, or lecterns, are set off by red and white terracotta floor tiles and splendid stained glass windows that run the length of the reading room on both sides.
The linden wood ceiling, which was carved from 1548–1550 using early drawings by Michelangelo, wraps the reading room in hues of rich warm timber. These superb architectural elements blend so harmoniously with the practical seating and reading arrangements that you feel as if you’re in a church. Looking up you almost expect to see an altar of books bathed in celestial light.
Among the ancient and rare manuscripts in the Laurenziana collection are Tacitus, Pliny, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Quintilian. The codex of Vergil is also there, along with the oldest extant copy of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis. One of the most fascinating acquisitions is an early complete collection of Plato’s dialogues – one of only three in existence.
The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana is now owned by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and is open only on selected weekdays. The library specialises in the “conservation and study of its manuscript and rare book collection”.