(h/t: Medieval News)
From the Toronto Star:
From the espresso-serving waiters to the floor of the Uffizi, Florence residents are hotly debating a suggestion by the mayor that the city should take over where Michelangelo left off five centuries ago and complete a façade for the famous San Lorenzo Basilica.
The great artist was commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X to build the front of the ornate church — one of the oldest in Florence — out of white marble from Carrara. But when the financial strain of buying and hauling the huge chunks of rock from northern Tuscany became apparent, the pope abandoned the project and assigned Michelangelo to work on another part of the church.
Construction on the façade was never initiated. A few sketches and a wood model are all that remain of Michelangelo’s 500-year-old plans.
Now, Florence’s mayor, Matteo Renzi, wants to bring Michelangelo’s plans to life as a tribute to the artist and finish the façade by 2015 — a suggestion that has sparked controversy among residents and art historians alike. Some believe the unfinished brick façade should remain as is as a testament to history. Others say the opportunity to complete such a work would be a boon to Italy’s artistic trades and would brighten up the church’s otherwise drab, albeit famous, exterior.
“On the one hand, you don’t really want to change something that’s been like that for centuries,” Waldemar de Boer, a Florence-based historian specializing in Italian Renaissance art, told the Toronto Star from his home in Italy. “On the other hand, Florence has a history of finishing the facades for churches at a much later stage. I think the sentiment among most residents, however, is to just not touch it.”
Construction began on the main structure of the San Lorenzo Basilica in 1419 under the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. He died in 1446, leaving much of the building unfinished, including the façade.
In 1515, Pope Leo X, a member of the powerful Medici family, which assumed financial responsibility for the church in the previous century, commissioned Michelangelo to build the façade.
The artist worked on the plans and readied his materials for three years before the Pope called it off over spiraling costs — the façade alone was projected to cost four times as much as the cost to build an entire church. Plans show that the all-marble façade was to feature 12 monolithic columns, each as high as seven metres, and statues of religious figures in marble and bronze.
During the same period, two members of the Medici clan died, so the Pope decided a better use of the money would be to build a mausoleum for his departed family. Michelangelo was reassigned to build the Basilica’s new sacristy in 1520 instead, and his façade was abandoned.
“It was probably the most disappointing moment in Michelangelo’s career,” said William Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur. “This was intended, in his mind and in his patron’s mind, to be his greatest work of art. He said it was going to be the most beautiful thing ever made in Italy.”
Wallace told the Star that despite the fact Michelangelo was notorious for constantly changing his plans, he believes the city should complete the façade, despite the controversy it would cause, at least initially.
“The Italians have been doing this forever. Both the façade of Florence Cathedral and the façade of the Basilica of Santa Croce — two of the major monuments of Renaissance Florence — were completed in the 19th century,” he said. “They’re still considered Renaissance churches and they look better for it. People are happy to see buildings completed.”
But Anna Hudson, an art history professor at York University, said completing the façade would change the church’s relationship with its parishioners and local residents.
“There’s a question of what’s worth preserving and what’s not,” she said. “It would change the building, its legacy, and would result in the erasure of another thing. The existing façade, or lack thereof, has at this point come to represent that church.”