January 01: Michelangelo’s new job

2012/01/01 § Leave a comment

On this date in 1547, Pope Paul III (1468-1549) appointed Michelangelo (1475 –1564) to the post of capomaestro of St. Peter’s basilica.

It would seem obvious that Michelangelo, the greatest all-around artist of his day, would be appointed to serve as architect of the most important building in Christendom.  But it was only thirteen years after  Alessandro Farnese was elected that he put Michelangelo to work on the project that had been underway for several decades without a lot to show for it.  Bramante’s plan had been laid out, begun, then revised by Raphael (who was much, much better in two dimensions) and Giuliano da Sangallo.  It is the latter’s project, when compared with the original of Bramante, that inspired some choice words from Michelangelo, who has left us some of the strongest architectural criticism history has ever known:

One cannot deny that Bramante was as skilled in architecture as anyone since ancient times.  He laid down the first plan of St. Peter’s, not full of confusion, but clear, simple, and luminous.  . .  It was held to be a beautiful design, and manifestly still is, so that anyone who had departed from Bramante’s order, as Sangallo has done, has departed from the truth.

Simultaneously elevating the great Bramante and degrading his rival Sangallo, Michelangelo reveals that he was as deft a crafter of words as he was with oils and marble.  He reasserted the strength of Bramante’s Greek Cross plan and designed the great dome that, even though it was somewhat altered after his death, is one of the great cupolas of the world.  The marring of Michelangelo’s work and legacy by Maderno is, as they say, another story for another day.

Image: the dome, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

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