The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



Would Finishing a Florence Church Facade that Michelangelo Left Behind Mean Tampering With Art History? -

Would Finishing a Florence Church Facade that Michelangelo Left Behind Mean Tampering With Art History?
Photo by Claire H Cohen
500 years later, the city of Florence is picking up where Michelangelo left off.

By Ashton Cooper

Published: August 3, 2011

Courtesy Metadata Deluxe via Flickr
The unfinished façade of the famous San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence.

Getty Images
Florence's mayor, Matteo Renzi wishes to finish the façade of the San Lorenzo Basilica as a tribute to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s career is littered with the unfinished projects of testy popes and Vatican politics. Some ended up in the Louvre (Dying slave, anyone?), while others exist only on paper. In the 500 years since his death, other artists have used the master’s plans to finish everything from the Campidoglio to St. Peter’s. Now, 36-year-old Florence mayor Matteo Renzi — recently rated to be the most popular mayor in Italy — wants to finish what Michelangelo never even started on the façade of the San Lorenzo Basilica.

After being commissioned by Medici Pope Leo X, Michelangelo spent three years planning an all-marble façade to be built for one of the oldest churches in Florence. The grandiose church front was to include 12 monolithic columns and statues of religious figures and was estimated to cost four times what the basilica itself cost to build. The plans were eventually abandoned due to the high cost of bringing white marble from Northern Tuscany and the death of two Medici men who Michelangelo was ordered to immortalize in a mausoleum in the Basilica’s New Sacristy.

The mayor has suggested that contemporaries use surviving sketches and a wooden model to complete Michelangelo’s 1515 plans by 2015. This endeavor doesn’t come without controversy. Many Florentine residents think the façade’s humble all brick aesthetic has come to represent the Basilica and changing it would be tantamount to changing history. Others think the dull exterior could use a little lift and the project would greatly benefit Italian artistic trades.

Dennis Geronimus, a Renaissance Art History Professor at NYU, told ARTINFO in an email that "Implicit behind the call to "finish" the facade is the modern need to somehow make something from the past whole." He is skeptical about recreating Michelangelo's design and questions, "how successful could modern building methods be in meeting the exacting material standards, never mind the original conceptual intentions, of Michelangelo?" "Since the project was cut short and subsequently abandoned, we will never know if Michelangelo's project would have gone through additional iterations, as his inventions in every medium so often did," said Geronimus. "The interesting thing to note, historically, is that Giorgio Vasari, in describing Michelangelo's idiosyncratic designs for the New Sacristy in S. Lorenzo in his biography of the artist (1568), cautioned precisely about the dangers of imitating Michelangelo's unorthodox methods."

It has not been suggested who would go about executing and overseeing the implementation of Michelangelo’s plans. What happens when Renaissance Master meets starchitect? Michelangelo just might be rolling over in his grave.