The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) is a historic library in Florence, built to the right of San Lorenzo Square, into a cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
If you and Robert have not visited there, you should.
(Dan Brown, Inferno)
The library contains more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books, works collected by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was built under the patronage of Pope Clement VII, who in turn commissioned Michelangelo in 1524 to design the architecture.
The library is renowned for its architecture and is an example of Mannerism, a style in European art that emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, around 1520, and lasted until about end of the 16th century in Italy, when the Baroque style began to replace it.
The Laurentian Library was commissioned in 1523, and construction began in 1525; however, when Michelangelo left Florence for Rome in 1534, only the walls of the Reading- Room were complete. It was then continued by Tribolo, Vasari, and Ammannati, based on plans and verbal instructions from Michelangelo.
The library opened by 1571.
The Laurentian Library is one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements. Even Michelangelo’s contemporaries realized that the innovations and use of space in the Laurentian Library were revolutionary.
In the corner, at the far end of the side of the cloister belonging to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, known as the Chiostro dei Canonici, are stairs to the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
The two-story Quattrocento cloister remained unchanged by the addition of the Library. Because of this, certain features of Michelangelo’s plan, such as length and width, were already determined. Therefore, new walls were built on pre-existing walls and cloisters.
The vestibule or entrance-hall of the Biblioteca is called the “ricetto.”
It is a square space, occupied almost entirely by the staircase, with a height that exceeds conventional planning, and precedes the vast Reading Room.
It was planned in elevation by Michelangelo and built in that characteristic Florentine two-one combination of grey sand-stone elements on white plaster.
The Vestibule’s main feature is its verticality: the walls are divided into three sections decorated by double columns, scroll-shaped corbels, and gabled niches framed by pilasters that taper downward in an usual fashion.
This dynamism, concentrated on the walls of the vestibule, downflows in the fantastical staircase (built by Ammannati in 1559, following a clay model prepared by Michelangelo).
It consists of three flights of steps: the outer ones are quadrangular shaped, the central ones convex, and the bottom three steps are completely elliptical. The staircase is, then, an explosion of originality that fits perfectly with the fanciful character of the Mannerist style of architecture.
Michelangelo intended the Vestibule to be a dark prelude to the brightness of the Reading Room. The vertical tensions of the vestibule seem to quiet down in the long hall of the big Reading Room. Here the guiding principle of the design is the maximum use made of the lateral sources of light.
The staircase remained incomplete until the beginning of the 20th century, when finally the facade was accomplished with its series of blind windows.
On the same occasion, the ceiling was covered by a cloth painted by the Bolognese artist Giacomo Lolli (1857-1931), depicting motifs imitating the carved wooden ceiling of the Reading Room.
The Reading Room, which unlike the Vestibule develops horizontally, hosts two series of wooden benches, the so-called plutei, which functioned as lecterns, as well as book shelves.
The collection once kept here is unique for its philological and artistic value.
The manuscripts and printed books lay horizontally on the lecterns and shelves, and were distributed by subject; the wooden panels placed on one side of each bench listed the titles of the items chained therein.
This display was maintained until the beginning of the 20th century, when the manuscripts were transferred downstairs, in the vaults were they are still housed.
The linden ceiling was carved in 1549-1550 by Giovan Battista del Tasso and Antonio di Marco di Giano, following earlier drawings by Michelangelo.
The floor, instead, in red and white terracotta, was realized in 1548 by Santi Buglioni according to a design by Tribolo. Its centre echoes the ornamental and symbolic designs found in the ceiling, which allude to the Medici dynasty.
The splendid stained-glass windows, which were the last part of the Library to be accomplished, display an ornamental array of Medici heraldry referring to Clement VII and Cosimo I.
The refined decorations combine grotesque motifs, arms, and emblems.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Tribuna d’Elci was added to the original library.
This Rotunda, in neoclassical style, served to house the rich book collection once belonging to the Florentine bibliophile and scholar Angelo Maria D’Elci, who donated to Florence his collection of first print editions of the Classics and incunabula (books printed in the 2nd half of the 15th century).
The Rotunda was inaugurated in 1841 and was the Library’s Reading Room until the 1970.
Now the room is employed for seminars, meetings, and inaugurations.
The Library is today considered one of the most valuable collections of ancient manuscripts in the world.
The collection had its genesis in the humanistic interests of Cosimo the Elder and his attendance of the Academy of Roberto de’ Rossi.
There followed his friendship with Niccoló Niccoli, with whom he shared a passion for collecting ancient manuscripts of works of classical authors.
With Niccoli’s guidance, Cosimo acquired a great number of these. At the former’s death in 1437, Cosimo inherited most of Niccoli’s library.
The original nucleus of volumes was then added to by Cosimo’s son Piero. Subsequently, Lorenzo completed the collection with the acquisition of, above all, Greek texts.
The library followed the ups and downs of the Medici family.
In 1494, following the sentence of exile imposed on Piero the Unfortunate and the banishment from Florence of the whole of the Medici family, the library was confiscated by the republican government and absorbed in toto into the library of the San Marco monastery.
In 1508 it was downed by Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, he became Pope Leo X), who transferred it to Rome.
His successor Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, son of Giuliano di Piero) brought the collection back to Florence in 1523 and immediately commissioned Michelangelo to design a library to house it.
Its collection includes the first complete manuscript of the Latin Vulgate Bible (the Bible Amiatina), original manuscripts on the founding of the Florentine Renaissance, some ancient papyrus and the oldest manuscript of the Corpus Juris Civilis (issued by the emperor Justinian).
The manuscripts were stored on shelves fastened onto the back of benches and were made available to the public, albeit safeguarded by means of solid chains.
They were organized by subject, and wooden tablets were used as a table of contents. This arrangement was maintained until the early 1900s, at which point the books were moved into the current depository.
Today, the Laurentian Library functions as a public library and is owned by the Italian State. It is also a center of documentation and literature search of primary importance in the world.
This post was originally published on September 30, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on April 16, 2018.