Well-Tempered Building: Michelangelo's full-scale template drawings at San Lorenzo

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Virginia Tech


This work questions the present migration toward prescriptive building procedures through a micro-historical reading of Michelangelo's use of architectural template drawings. Examining the artist's ten surviving paper templates (called "modani") from the facade of San Lorenzo (1516-1520), the Medici Chapel (1519-1525), and the Laurentian Library (1524-1527), Michelangelo's template-making practices are mined for possible ways to reorient current thinking toward a dynamic worksite that embraces, rather than shuns, in-progress alterations.

Taking the common word origin of 'template' and 'temper' as a starting clue, the relationship between Michelangelo's template drawings and the building site are theorized as a process of tempering, a 15th and 16th century term investigated through key sources such as Ficino's writings on health ("De vita"), the commentaries on Vitruvius by Barbaro and Cesariano, and Biringuccio's treatise on metallurgy ("De la pirotechnia"). From this, key connections emerge between Michelangelo's template-making and contemporaneous practices of tempering, where dynamic, in-situ material adjustments achieve great effect through tiny alterations. Whether in the health of the body, music, or material techniques, tempering offers a method of in-progress commensuration between axiomatic proportions and those of material, sensibly present harmonies.

The tempering power of templates is investigated in three parts that follow the transmutation of Michelangelo's templates between paper, tin, and stone. The investigation begins with paper and, following a close examination of the extant drawings, discredits the common conclusion that Michelangelo's templates were drawn free-hand. Rather, it is shown that the extant templates are actually a small fragment of a once robust collection of parent and offspring templates related through tracing. Next, parallel practices in bell-casting and column profiling are discussed in terms of template materials, particularly tin, and how small adjustments may be leveraged to great narrative and conceptual effect in the emerging work. The final part examines the San Lorenzo building site through assembling the body of architecture, where templates are seen as surrogate building stones in the conception and adjustment of the in-progress work.

The dissertation concludes with an assertion that Michelangelo's use of templates as instruments for micro-interventions amidst an unstable building site serves as a marvelous exemplar for tempering as a method for materializing the poetic image through disciplined practice.



Architecture, Templates, Michelangelo, Drawing, Building, Renaissance, San Lorenzo, Florence