Michelangelo, Rebel of the Renaissance

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam Fresco Painting, Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy
Photo by Michele Falzone/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Step aside, Frank Gehry! Get to the back of the line, Thom Mayne. Apparently, the irreverent Michelangelo is the real rebel of the architecture world.

In 1980, amidst great public outcry, preservationists began cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, wiping away the dirt and soot that had darkened Michelangelo's frescoes for centuries. When the restoration was completed in 1994, many people were astonished to see what brilliant colors Michelangelo had used. Some critics questioned whether the "restoration" was historically accurate.

Painted Tricks on the Ceiling

The public first saw Michelangelo's frescoes on the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on November 1, 1512, but some of those vaults you see are not real. The Renaissance artist spent four years painting the detailed Biblical scenes remembered by most people. Few realize, however, that the ceiling fresco also includes tricks of the eye, also known as trompe l'oeil. The realistic depiction of the "beams" that frame the figures is architectural detail that is painted on.

The 16th century Vatican parishioners looked up to the chapel ceiling, and they were tricked. The genius of Michelangelo was that he created the appearance of multi-dimensional sculptures with paint. Powerfully strong images mixed with elegance and softness of form, reminiscent of what Michelangelo had accomplished with his most famous marble sculptures, David (1504) and the Pietà (1499). The artist had moved sculpture into the painting world.

Renaissance Man

Throughout his career, the radical Michelangelo did a little painting (think ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), did a little sculpting (think Pietà), but some say his greatest achievements were in architecture (think St. Peter's Basilica dome). A Renaissance Man (or Woman) is someone who has multiple skills in many subject areas. Michelangelo, literally a man of the Renaissance, is also the definition of a Renaissance Man.

Michelangelo's Architectural Tricks in the Library

Born on March 6, 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti is well-known for elaborate paintings and sculptures commissioned throughout Italy, but it's his design for the Laurentian Library in Florence that intrigues Dr. Cammy Brothers. A Renaissance scholar at the University of Virginia, Brothers suggests that Michelangelo's "irreverent attitude" toward the prevailing architecture of his day is what moves aspiring architects to study his work even today.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Brothers argues that Michelangelo's buildings, such as the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, trick our expectations just as the Sistine Chapel ceiling did. In the library's vestibule—are those indentations between the columns windows or decorative niches? They could be either, but, because you cannot see through them they can't be windows, and because they display no decorations, they can't be architectural "tabernacles." Michelangelo's design questions "the founding assumptions of classical architecture," and he brings us along, too, catechizing all the way.

The staircase, too, is not what it appears. It seems like a grand entrance to the Reading Room until you see two other stairways, one on either side. The vestibule is filled with architectural elements that are both traditional and out of place at the same time—brackets that don't function as brackets and columns that seem to only decorate the wall. But do they? Michelangelo "emphasizes the arbitrary nature of forms, and their lack of structural logic," says Brothers.

To Brothers, this approach was radical for the times:

By challenging our expectations and defying the accepted sense of what architecture can do, Michelangelo started a debate about architecture's proper role that is still going on today. For example, should a museum's architecture be in the foreground, like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, or in the background, like the many designs of Renzo Piano? Should it frame the art or be the art? In his Laurentian Library, Michelangelo demonstrated that he could be both Gehry and Piano, attention-grabbing in the vestibule and self-effacing in the reading room.

The Architect's Challenge

The Laurentian Library was built between 1524 and 1559 on top of an existing convent, a design that both connected with the past and moved architecture toward the future. We may think architects only design new buildings, like your new home. But the puzzle of designing a space within an existing space—remodeling or putting on an addition—is part of the architect's job, too. Sometimes the design works, like Odile Decq's L'Opéra Restaurant built within the historical and structural constraints of the existing Paris Opera House. The jury is still out on other additions, like the 2006 Hearst Tower built atop the 1928 Hearst Building in New York City.

Can or should an architect respect the past while at the same time reject the prevailing designs of the day? Architecture is built on the shoulders of ideas, and it's been the radical architect who carries the weight. Innovation by definition breaks old rules and is often the brainchild of the Rebel Architect. It's the architect's challenge to be both reverent and irreverent at the same time.


  • Photos of Biblioteca Medicea (vestibule and staircase, cropped) © Sailko via Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) or GFDL; Photo of Reading Room in Laurentian Library © ocad123 on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • "Michelangelo, Radical Architect" by Cammy Brothers, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11, 2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703453804575480303339391786 [accessed July 6, 2014]
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Craven, Jackie. "Michelangelo, Rebel of the Renaissance." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/michelangelo-rebel-of-the-renaissance-177252. Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Michelangelo, Rebel of the Renaissance. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/michelangelo-rebel-of-the-renaissance-177252 Craven, Jackie. "Michelangelo, Rebel of the Renaissance." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/michelangelo-rebel-of-the-renaissance-177252 (accessed January 28, 2023).