Michelangelo Buildings


"I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all. " This quote by Michelangelo describes his attitude toward art extremely well. Unlike one of his contemporaries, Leonardo Da Vinci, he did not draw on nature, but did his best to do away with it. This is perhaps more evident in his architecture than anywhere else.

In his drive to be known as a great sculptor, Michelangelo often declared that he was neither a painter nor an architect. In fact, he was both.

The artist's early sculptures emerged triumphant on the European stage before he reached the age of twenty-five. In his late thirties, and under pressure, he completed the most masterful and visionary example of fresco painting ever known: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo's forays into architecture, namely the tomb of Julius II, the façade for San Lorenzo, and the Medici Chapel, had each entailed disappointment for Michelangelo. Project after project fell victim to interruption and change, and none was finished according to his original plans. Despite this failure to bring his grand architectural visions to completion, he never lost his passion for invention and design. At the age of sixty-five, he had yet to embark on two of the most important architectural commissions of his brilliant career.

In this article, some of Michelangelo's most important architectural works are explored. Follow the links below to learn the histories behind these works and the opposition between artist's anguish and his sense of divine designation.

  • Basilica di San Lorenzo: The work of building a façade for the Basilica di San Lorenzo was commissioned by Pope Leo X, however; four years after its commencement, the contract was canceled. Find out why Michelangelo's first architectural project was never completed.
  • Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Windows: Michelangelo's window design for this palace is one of the most influential of all times. Learn why it is known as a "kneeling window."
  • Medici Chapel: Cardinal Guilio de' Medici commissioned Michelangelo to build a simple chapel to house tombs of this powerful Florentine family. Go to this page to read more about Michelangelo's difficult relationship with the Medicis.
  • Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici: Go to this page to see one of the two tombs that are housed within the Medici Chapel, and explore the grandeur that Michelangelo bestowed upon these minor dukes' memories.
  • Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici: The other tomb in the Medici Chapel belongs to Lorenzo the Magnificent, who had been Michelangelo's early patron until his death in 1492. Learn more about this grand work.
  • Laurentian Library: Michelangelo started work on the Laurentian Library although he was no longer on good terms with the Medici family. Learn more about this great architectural project.
  • Study of Fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti: Michelangelo helped design fortifications for Rome during its war with the Florentine Medicis, however, none of his fortifications have survived except in drawing. Learn more about his fortifications.
  • Piazza del Campidoglio: Michelangelo was commissioned with restoring the splendor of the past to this piazza on the Capitoline Hill. Read about the layout, the buildings, and the sculptures.
  • Marcus Aurelius Statue Base: The actual statue of the Roman emperor is the only known bronze statue from antiquity to have survived. Read about Michelangelo's design for the base for this invaluable artifact.
  • Farnese Palace Courtyard: Originally a work by Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo was brought in to finish this building, when da Sangallo died. See how he managed to tie together his own design with that of the original architect.
  • Santa Maria degli Angeli: Michelangelo never finished this church, which was built on the ruins of the Roman Baths of Diocletian. Find out more about this unusual project.

Go to the next page to begin exploring Michelangelo's buildings with a close-up look at the Basilica di San Lorenzo.

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Basilica di San Lorenzo by Michelangelo

The Basilica di San Lorenzo is in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo worked on a new, splendid for the church from 1516 to 1520.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo is in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo worked on a new, splendid for the church from 1516 to 1520.

Michelangelo was commissioned in 1516 by Pope Leo X to build a splendid façade for the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The Medici church had become increasingly important with the rise to power of the Medici family and the Medici pope, Leo X. In 1516, Michelangelo returned to Florence to carry out this politically important commission for this Medici pope.

The artist labored on the project, declaring with uncharacteristic pride that the façade would be a "mirror of architecture and sculpture of all Italy." Then, after Michelangelo had invested three years and countless trips to Carrara and Seravezza in search of the perfect blocks of marble, the commission was canceled and the project abandoned without the pope giving an explanation to the furious and humiliated artist.

One possible reason for the abandonment of the commission was the death in 1519 of Lorenzo de' Medici, the church's namesake and the driv­ing force behind the project. To this was added the Medici desire to fund another Medici family monument, a tomb chapel for two Medici dukes, the above-mentioned Lorenzo and Giuliano (died 1516).

While working on the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Michelangelo also found time to do additional work for the Medicis. Read about his windows for the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi next.

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Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Windows by Michelangelo

The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi windows, which Michelangelo designed in 1517, stands in Florence, Italy.
The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi windows, which Michelangelo designed in 1517, stands in Florence, Italy.

For Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Michelangelo created one of the most influential window designs of all time. It is known as a kneeling window because of the shape of the consoles supporting the window­sill, which reach almost to the ground like a pair of legs.

Michelangelo was for a while under the patronage of the Medicis. One of his major works for them was the Medici Chapel, which he started work on just a few years after the windows of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Go to the next page to learn more.

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Medici Chapel by Michelangelo

The Medici Chapel dome (1519-34) by                              Michelangelo can be seen in San Lorenzo, Florence.
The Medici Chapel dome (1519-34) by Michelangelo can be seen in San Lorenzo, Florence.

The Medici Chapel by Michelangelo, a simple structure intended to house the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici, was commissioned in 1519 by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici to mirror another Florentine structure, Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy for San Lorenzo from the 1420s.

The coffered Medici Chapel Dome echoes that of the Roman Pantheon, although Michelangelo's dome is much more airy and well lit. Michelangelo paid close attention to the positioning of the chapel's windows to achieve the illumination so crucial to the mood and purpose of the structure. The four floating circles placed at the base of the dome add to its buoyant, soaring effect.

An interior view of the Medici Chapel with                              Michelangelo's tomb for his former patron,                                            Lorenzo de' Medici (1520-34). An interior view of the Medici Chapel with                              Michelangelo's tomb for his former patron,                                            Lorenzo de' Medici (1520-34).
An interior view of the Medici Chapel with Michelangelo's tomb for his former patron, Lorenzo de' Medici (1520-34).

The figures Michelangelo planned for the Chapel steadily increased in size throughout the first stages of construction. The above figures, sumptuously sculpted and polished, are set against a stark but elegant two-tone backdrop of dark gray Tuscan limestone supports and white plaster walls.

The Medici Chapel is adorned with sculptures,                              Corinthian capitals, and fluted pilasters. The Medici Chapel is adorned with sculptures,                              Corinthian capitals, and fluted pilasters.
The Medici Chapel is adorned with sculptures, Corinthian capitals, and fluted pilasters.

Though never finished, the Medici Chapel is the only one of Michelangelo's great architectural-sculptural projects to be realized in anything approaching entirety. After Michelangelo left for Rome in 1534, never to return to Florence, the sculptures in the chapel were installed by his pupils. This view highlights the artist's elegant use of dark stone (pietra serena) and light-colored marble to define the chapel's architectural elements.

Go to the next page for more interior views of the Chapel and to learn about the architecture of the Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo.

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Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici Architecture by Michelangelo

The tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo                              (20 feet 8 inches x 13 feet 9 inches) is                                            made from marble and is located inside the                                            Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence.
The tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo (20 feet 8 inches x 13 feet 9 inches) is made from marble and is located inside the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence.

The tomb of Giuliano de' Medici was created from 1520 to 1534. Michelangelo transformed the two minor Medici dukes memorialized in this chapel into powerful allegorical figures, largely ignoring their actual appearance and giving them heroic qualities (Giuliano's statue is centered above the figures of Night and Day).

In the Michelangelo's own words, recorded by a contemporary, he did not portray the dukes "just as nature had drawn and composed them, but he gave them a greatness, a proportion, a dignity...which seemed to him would have brought them more praise."

Console detail of the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo. Console detail of the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo.
Console detail of the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici by Michelangelo.

Ever mindful of the smallest detail, the consoles supporting the reclining Times of Day show Michelangelo's skillful use of fish-scale patterns and decorative moldings drawn from antiquity.

Go to the next page to read more about the tombs of the two Medici dukes, and to see pictures of the Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici.

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Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici Architecture by Michelangelo

The tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici (20 feet 8 inches x 13 feet 9 inches) is a grand memory built in marble. It is housed within the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence.
The tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici (20 feet 8 inches x 13 feet 9 inches) is a grand memory built in marble. It is housed within the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence.

In the figures of the two dukes, Michelangelo took great care to confer to each man a distinctive character. In the tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici (1520-1534), Lorenzo is portrayed as dark and introspective, his posture closed and his face in shadow (Lorenzo statue is centered above the figures of Dusk and Dawn). He is dressed in dramatic Roman armor that at once adorns and enhances his muscular physiques. The two figures, together with the Times of Day, are a meditation on the passage of time and the vanity of worldly power.

While working on the Medici Chapel, Michelangelo also began another commission for the Medici family, the Laurentian Library. Go to the next page to learn more about this beautiful building.

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Laurentian Library by Michelangelo

Laurentian Library vestibule and stairs by Michelangelo (c. 1524-34). The library is located on top of an existing monastery building in San Lorenzo, Florence.
Laurentian Library vestibule and stairs by Michelangelo (c. 1524-34). The library is located on top of an existing monastery building in San Lorenzo, Florence.

Michelangelo worked on the Laurentian Library at the same time he was working on the Medici Chapel. Constructed as a third story atop existing monastery buildings, the library was built in stages until Michelangelo's departure for Rome in 1534. Years later, Michelangelo sent a drawing for the magnificent staircase, but he never saw the structure in its current state of completion.

Giulio de' Medici, who had by this time become Pope Clement VII, commissioned the creation of a great library to house the vast Medici collection of books. The design, particularly that of the library's vestibule, is one of Michelangelo's greatest architectural achievements. Its main feature is the spectacular staircase, the idea for which came to Michelangelo in a dream, whose three flights of steps seem almost alive as they cascade downward to fill the vestibule space.

The reading room of the Laurentian Library. The reading room of the Laurentian Library.
The reading room of the Laurentian Library.

Preceded by the dynamic energy of the vestibule, the orderly space of the reading room conveys a sense of quiet concentration. The pilasters, ceiling beams, and floor pattern converge to effectively "trap" the rhythmic replication of bays that run the length of the room.

Laurentian Library wooden reading desks. Laurentian Library wooden reading desks.
Laurentian Library wooden reading desks.

Michelangelo even designed the furniture of the library's reading room so that it would form a seamless part of the room's overall design.

During the construction of the Laurentian Library, the Medicis came into conflict with Rome. Michelangelo had helped fortify Rome and thus found himself no longer in favor with the Medici family. Go to the next page to see a drawing Michelangelo did for a fortification.

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Study of Fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti by Michelangelo

This study of fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti (16 x 22-1/8 inches) by Michelangelo, done in pen and ink, watercolor, and red pencil, can be seen at Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
This study of fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti (16 x 22-1/8 inches) by Michelangelo, done in pen and ink, watercolor, and red pencil, can be seen at Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

This Michelangelo study is of a fortification for the Porta al Prato of Ognissanti (c. 1529-30). None of the fortifications built by Michelangelo have survived, but the remaining drawings remind us of Michelangelo's expertise as an engineer. This skill would serve him well when he designed the piers and dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The next building by Michelangelo is of a more peaceful kind: the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, built on the Capitoline Hill and meant to invoke the greatness of Rome's antiquity.

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Piazza del Campidoglio by Michelangelo

Michelangelo was commissioned to revive the Capitoline Hill in Rome. He created the Piazza del Campidoglio with a complete redesign of the plaza and the buildings surrounding it.
Michelangelo was commissioned to revive the Capitoline Hill in Rome. He created the Piazza del Campidoglio with a complete redesign of the plaza and the buildings surrounding it.

Piazza del Campidoglio (begun 1538) was the result of Michelangelo's plan for the revival of the Capitoline Hill, a site of great importance since antiquity.

It began with the creation of a focal point flanked by three new or restored buildings. At the center of the oval courtyard stands a statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the only bronze statue from antiquity known to have survived intact. The base of the statue was designed by Michelangelo.

Piazza del Campidoglio pavement design (begun 1538). Piazza del Campidoglio pavement design (begun 1538).
Piazza del Campidoglio pavement design (begun 1538).

In dismal condition since its medieval use as a headquarters for the Roman guilds, the site needed inventive thinking to complete its transformation from ruin to the heart of Roman socio-political events. Michelangelo accepted the challenge with a vigor that resulted in what would become groundbreaking contributions to urban planning. The dazzling starburst pattern Michelangelo imposed on the square enhanced the dynamic interplay between the surrounding buildings and the square's center.

A closer look at Palazzo dei Senatori (begun 1538). A closer look at Palazzo dei Senatori (begun 1538).
A closer look at Palazzo dei Senatori (begun 1538).

Michelangelo dramatically reconfigured this building, which was largely still standing when the project began. Moving its tower to a central position that more forcefully corresponded with the sweep of the two flights of stairs leading to the building's entrance, the artist created a striking counterpoint to the two other palazzos. Today, the building serves as the city hall of Rome.

Palazzo dei Conservatori features Corinthian pilasters. Palazzo dei Conservatori features Corinthian pilasters.
Palazzo dei Conservatori features Corinthian pilasters.

Michelangelo created a new façade for the Palazzo dei Conservatori (begun 1538), which was largely in ruins when the artist began reshaping the square. The building shows Michelangelo's use of a "giant Corinthian order," consisting of huge pilasters on tall bases that unite the two stories. The flat roof and level entablature are signature features of Michelangelo's architectural designs.

A detailed look at the stairs of the Palazzo dei Senatori. A detailed look at the stairs of the Palazzo dei Senatori.
A detailed look at the stairs of the Palazzo dei Senatori.

At the point of the Palazzo dei Senatori stairs (begun 1538) where the two flights of stairs meet is a niche containing the statue of the goddess Roma. Seated triumphantly, a globe in her outstretched hand, she symbolizes the far-reaching power of Rome.

At the center of Piazza del Campidoglio stands a bronze statue from Roman antiquity. Find out how Michelangelo helped enhance its appearance on the next page.

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Marcus Aurelius Statue Base by Michelangelo

The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. The marble base was made by Michelangelo.
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. The marble base was made by Michelangelo.

At the center of the beautifully patterned Piazza del Campidoglio stands an equestrian statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the only bronze statue from antiquity known to have survived virtually intact. Michel­angelo designed the base of the statue. The original statue has been moved to the Capitoline Museum; the one in the piazza is an exact copy.

As with the Marcus Aurelius statue, the next page concerns a project that showcases Michelangelo's skill at working seamlessly with an already existing structure, the Farnese Palace Courtyard.

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Farnese Palace Courtyard by Michelangelo

Michelangelo was commissioned to finish the                              Farnese Palace courtyard in Rome, Italy.
Michelangelo was commissioned to finish the Farnese Palace courtyard in Rome, Italy.

Michelangelo began work on the courtyard of the Farnese Palace in 1546. The building was left unfinished by Antonio da Sangallo at his death in 1546, so Pope Paul III brought in Michelangelo to serve as architect for the latter phase of the project. The artist's skillful completion of the building showcased his ability to work with a project already underway. For the courtyard and side of the third story, Michelangelo created windows that not only echo those of Sangallo but also complement and surpass the lesser artist's design. In keeping with Florentine palazzi of the day, the building is a square, freestanding stone structure with a central courtyard.

The last building in this article is the Santa Maria degli Angeli, which also was an existing structure that Michelangelo built onto. Go to the next page to learn more.

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Santa Maria degli Angeli by Michelangelo

Michelangelo started working on Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome just one year before he died.
Michelangelo started working on Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome just one year before he died.

The work on Santa Maria degli Angeli (1563-64) was commissioned by Pope Pius IV, and it was one of Michelangelo's most unusual commissions. It involved the transformation of the remains of the Roman Baths of Diocletian, a center of social and physical indulgence, built in 305 A.D., into a Christian church. The massive complex's interior was originally adorned with marble of various colors, painted stucco, and pagan statues. Michelangelo used the huge space of the central hall as the light-filled and expansive transept of the church. The project was completed in 1564 by Jacopo LoDuca.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren Mitchell Ruehring is a freelance writer who has contributed promotional commentary for the works of many artists, including Erté and Thomas McKnight. She has also contributed to publications such as Kerry Hallam: Artistic Visions and Liudmila Kondakova: World of Enchantment. In addition, she has received recognition from the National Society of Arts and Letters.