By his mid-30s, Michelangelo was alredy used to illustrious clients lining up to secure his services for their projects. So it seems only logical that at the advanced age of 71 he was personally requested by the pope to take over the most important building project of the era, the completion of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Michelangelo was already widely regarded as the greatest sculptor and painter of his day when he turned to architecture. The friend of his youth, Giovanni de’ Medici, now Pope Leo X, had great plans for the family buildings in his home city of Florence. From 1516, Michelangelo gave expression to these wishes. For the church of San Lorenzo he designed a facade without equal: twelve monumental columns, each one several tonnes in weight, were to adorn the marble frontage.
However, only one of these survived unbroken from the quarry on the building site, and the many failures caused the building costs to soar. Michelangelo raged, the pope cancelled the contract, and promptly signed up the architect for another project. It was not the facade but a family vault that Michelangelo was now to tackle in San Lorenzo: in 1520-1534 the New Sacristy took shape (as a counterpart to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy). The next commission followed immediately with the next Medici Pope: Clement VII had Michelangelo plan and execute the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo.
The Biblioteca Lauren-ziana, designed in close co-operation with the pope, became Michelangelo’s most important architectural work: the most prestigious one was still to come. An Architect Against His Will Equally at home with all genres of art, Michelangelo was now known as simply the universal genius. It was only to him that Pope Paul III would entrust the task of bringing the work on St Peter’s, which had been dragging along for decades, to a successful conclusion.
Giorgio Vasari, friend and biographer of Michelangelo, noted the tatter’s enthusiastic reaction to the enquiry from Rome: “At last His Holiness decided, as I believe, by divine inspiraton, to send for Michelango. Michelangelo tried to avoid the
burden, saying that architecture was not his real field, and since his requests were of no avail, the Pope in the end positively ordered him to accept the commission.” Admittedly, Paul III sweetened the pill for his chosen candidate, appointing the Florentine as chief director of building in 1547 and granting him powers that no other architect was ever to be given by a client: Michelangelo alone was to decide what should be torn down and what should be added. So much freedom summoned envious rivals who were not sparing with their criticisms.
One reproach was that Michelangelo was designing only a small church of St Peter, a “San Pietrino,” instead of the greatest church in Christendom. Undeterred, Michelangelo reduced the size of hi; predecessor’s model, certain that the effect of the central-plan building would only be increased as a result. The chief architect of St Peter’s was already 71 when he took over the building project, and to provide against further changes to his plans by potential successors he ordered work to begin simultaneously on all the important areas of the building. It was a strategy that largely worked.