How can a stairway start an architectural revolution?
When it’s designed by Michelangelo.
Construction on the Laurentian Library of Florence began in 1525, and plans for the vestibule and stairwell to the reading room were conceived by Michelangelo when he was 50 years old. Several architects continued the project, keeping with Michelangelo’s design concept, until the library finally opened in 1571, seven years after his death.
Michelangelo’s vestibule and staircase to the Laurentian Library is an artistic force, one of those spaces where you can see human achievement pushed forward into a new era. The room is original, graceful, kind of weird, and even playful. It is full of elements from the classical era of architecture, familiar elements that seem out of place. Pillars are imbedded in the walls for decoration, rather than support. Notice how the pillars are flanked with bind windows with boldly placed scrolls underneath. And the center of the staircase—what the heck?—is a cascade of ovals with a broken balustrade in the middle, instead of the far sides. There’s so much going on, but it’s not a mess and nothing is superfluous. Mannerism is born.
As a Renaissance Humanist holy roller zealot, climbing Michelangelo’s stairs to a library of priceless classical text was akin to a Catholic going to Easter Sunday mass at the Vatican. I was geeked out and overjoyed and still think of the experience all the time.
Tourists in Florence make a beeline to see Michelangelo’s David, which is of course the right thing to do. David is a spectacle of skill that will make you be glad to be human (and maybe make you feel insecure about your abs). But don’t write Michelangelo off as just the statue and Sistine Chapel guy. He was also a fine architect, urban planner and wrote poetry throughout his life. (I just finished reading his complete poems, which include a few modern-ish gems that seem like they could have been written yesterday).
Florence is an art history wonderland but also a great place to get ripped off with overpriced restaurants. Skip the fancy lunch and head to Mercato Centrale, Florence’s central market. While not a tourist free zone, there are plenty of places to get tasty produce and a hot meal for a decent price. That blurry picture of me double-fisting two sandwiches is at the Da Nerbone stall—go there for hot sandwiches and daily pasta specials to give you energy for more churches and frescos.
At another nearby Mercado Centrale stall, we bought dessert: fresh figs stuffed with almonds roasted on sticks with bay leaves. Eating these delicious nuggets of yum after climbing Michelangelo’s strange stair case made for an exceptionally perfect day.
How we got to Florence: train from Rimini.
Where we slept: Hotel Lorena. Price: €50 for a double. Recommended: yes (and it’s across the street from the Laurentian Library.)