Lynch Architects

'Only fire forges iron: The architectural drawings of Michelangelo' in: Drawing - The Process (Intellect, March 2005) by Patrick Lynch

03 Mar 2005

‘Sol pur col foco il fabbro il ferro’

(Only fire forges iron/to match the beauty shaped within the mind)

Michelangelo, Sonnet 62’


The architectural drawings of Michelangelo depict spaces and parts of buildings, often staircases and archways or desks, and on the same sheet of paper he drew also fragments of human figures, arms, legs, torsos, heads, etc. I believe that this suggests his concern for the actual lived experience of human situations and reveals the primary importance of corporeality and perception in his work. Michelangelo was less concerned with making buildings look like human bodies, nor with the implied relationship this had in the Renaissance with divine geometry and cosmology. I contend that his drawing practice reveals his concerns for the relationships between the material presence of phenomena, and the articulation of ideas and forms which he considered to be latent within places, situations and things.

Michelangelo criticized the contemporary practice of replicating building designs regardless of their situation. The emphasis Alberti placed upon design drawings relegated construction to the carrying out of the architect’s instructions, and drawings were used to establish geometrical certainty and perfection. Michelangelo believed that ‘where the plan is entirely changed in form, it is not only permissible but necessary in consequence entirely to change the adornments and likewise their corresponding portions; the means are unrestricted (and may be chosen) at will (or: as adornments require). In emphasizing choice, Michelangelo recovers the process of design from imitation and interpretation of the classical canon, and instead celebrates human attributes such as intuition and perception as essential to creativity.

The relationship of Michelangelos’ “architectural theory” to his working methods leads James Ackerman to study his drawings and models and to conclude that he made a fundamental critique of architectural composition undertaken in drawing lines instead of volumes and mass. ‘From the start’, Ackerman, suggests, ‘he dealt with qualities rather than quantities. In choosing ink washes and chalk rather than pen, he evoked the quality of stone, and the most tentative sketches are likely to contain indications of light and shadow; the observer is there before the building is designed (my italics). This determination to locate himself inside a space which he was imagining, was a direct critique of the early Renaissance theories of architecture which emphasized ideal mathematical proportions based upon a perfect image of a human body, rather than the experience our bodies offer us in movement in space . ‘… Michelangelo directed (criticism) against the contemporary system of figural proportion. It emphasized the unit and failed to take into account the effect of the character of forms brought about by movement-in architecture, the movement of the observer through and around buildings-and by environmental conditions, especially, light. It could produce a paper architecture more successful on the drawing board than in three dimensions.’ The theories of Alberti, Sangallo, di Georgio, Dürer, et al were concerned with drawings which elicit a cosmic order , seen as inherent in the geometry of the human body. ‘When fifteenth century writers spoke of deriving architectural forms from the human body,’ Ackerman claims that, ‘they did not think of the body as a living organism, but as a microcosm of the universe, a form created in God’s image, and created with the same perfect harmony that determines the movement of the spheres or musical consonances. Michelangelo criticized Dürer’s proportional system as theoretical ‘to the detriment of life’, Pérez-Gomez claims in The Perspective Hinge. He quotes Michelangelo’s critique: ‘He (Dürer) treats only of the measure and kind of bodies, to which a certain rule cannot be given, forming the figures as stiff as stakes; and what matters more, he says not one word concerning human acts and gestures.’ Such a shift in focus from intellectual to sensible integrity completes a turn outwards from the enclosed world of the medieval textual space of the Hortus Conclusus and scholastic cloister garden; outwards to an open realm of civil architecture in which corporeal experience and secular city life are championed over religious and metaphorical spaces . Spaces became seen not as the representation of another ideal - such as an image of the garden of paradise - but rather, Ackerman suggests: ‘the goal of the architect is no longer to produce an abstract harmony, but rather a sequence of purely visual (as opposed to intellectual) experiences of spatial volumes.’

Ackerman continues to infer that Michelangelo’s drawings of mass, rather than indicating correctness of line, can be related directly to his compositional technique. Also, that matter and form are bound together through his working method-that drawing enabled him to think in a new way: ‘It is this accent on the eye rather than on the mind that gives precedence to voids over planes.’ Ackerman continues to state his case: Michelangelo’s drawings ‘did not commit him to working in line and plane: shading and indication of projection and recession gave them sculptural mass.’

The modeling of light as means of orienting ones movement through space, is best achieved and revised through model making. Typically, Renaissance architectural competitions were judged by viewing 1:20 models of facades as well as fragments of the building drawn at full scale . The only drawings, which existed for fabrication of buildings before the Renaissance, were the Modano; 1:1 scale patterns of attic column bases or capitals . The Modani slowly evolved from stage sets into Modello, architectural models, and often full-scale mock-ups of buildings, which enabled architects such as Michelangelo to ‘study three-dimensional effects.’ Models enable scale to be judged as well as enforce the relationship between materiality and form. They also allow aesthetic decisions to be made, which relate solely to perception. For example, the intellectual matters of expression of structural logic may appear well in an orthographic drawing but be in fact detrimental to the actual quality of our experience of a building. Ackerman believes that Michelangelo used sketches and model-making ‘because he thought of the observer being in motion and hesitated to visualize buildings from a fixed point… this approach, being sculptural, inevitably was reinforced by a special sensitivity to materials and to the effect of light.’ He viewed sculpture also as the art of making ideas, form, visible in matter . Michelangelo in particular distrusted the ways in which architectural drawings can mislead us and rather his own drawings are less objects for scrutiny than sites of his own concentration and ‘drawing out’ of his ideas. Alberto Pérez-Gomez claims that Michelangelo was suspicious of Perspective, he ‘resisted making architecture through geometrical projections as he could conceive the human body only in motion.’ Conventional orthographic architectural drawings can be compared to anatomical sections, which cut through matter to reveal connections. The anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci depict an objective view of still objects . Michelangelo wished to infuse his cadavers with life and arranged their limbs in order to express the structure of human gestures. He sought, rather than a medical theory, to improve his capacity to depict the living body in movement. This attention to the gestures we make, is closely related to the manner in which his spaces allow for and celebrate passage and movement through doorways, up staircases and across the ground. His drawings of spaces show also people doing certain things there, and this is what enables us to read in his working methods the innate relationship between thinking and doing, and drawing and seeing .

The drawings which survive of Michelangelo’s architectural projects are made with chalk and pen and ink and often have figures superimposed over views of spaces. This leads me to propose that he was thinking about how the human figure perceives space and also how it appears in a space, whilst he was designing. For example, the façade drawings for the Porte Pia in Rome depict not only the material of the elevation, but also show a part of a leg striding out of the picture plane, through the gateway, towards the viewer. Micehlangelo’s twin concerns for scale and movement, are embedded in this moment of creativity. Similarly, the design of the library for the Medici library at San Lorenzo in Florence (also exhibited in Casa Buonarroti there ), transpose life size sketches of column profiles, actual views of staircases, sectional anatomical cuts through the building, fragments of limbs in movement with particular events unfurling in time. Michelangelo also drew faces in profile upon the profiles of columns, reflecting the importance of the figure in Humanist architecture as well as the emerging interest in the body as a model for meaning and communication of character . The massiveness of the stone, its thickness and weight is drawn as a shadow, a dense profile, the space surrounding it alive with the movement of limbs. In a crude structural analysis, the Pietra Serena stone columns of the library vestibule are recessed, rather than proud or disengaged from the walls, in order to bear the weight of the beams submerged beneath the ceiling surface above. They are bearing a load and this is expressed in the coiled spring of the brackets, which sit below the implied ground datum of the library floor height frieze. The stairway is set in a space of compression; it is small, very tall, with light only entering from above. The columns bear weight downwards and we make a corresponding movement upwards toward the light, away from the chthonic realm of matter and weight. The implication of a hierarchy suggests Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonism as well as his religious piety . The library and its enlightening books are set above the darkness of the mundane life of the city. The staircase articulates this movement as a psychological shift also; we are led inexorably upwards, the architect drawing us towards the drama of the spatial and literary elucidation of the library.

A drawing of the reading booths not only shows a figure seated, reading, but also, drawn on the same paper we see a hand drawn turning a page. The space a body takes up is cast as the form of the architecture; architecture the presence of human absence, a residue of movement, the setting for life.

In rejecting the means of representation of earlier Humanist architects, Michelangelo formulated a modern aesthetic sensitivity to the act of creativity as a spontaneous and memorial whole to which nothing has to be added ‘to make it better… Unity consists in act’ . The act of drawing revealed the power of the mind to see in matter the immanence of forms, the presence and emergence of ideas. Michelangelo expressed this Neo-Platonic passivity simultaneously with a celebration of the compulsion to imagine forms within things: ‘No block of marble but it does not hide/ the concept living in the artist’s mind-/ pursuing it inside that form, he’ll guide/ his hand to shape what reason has defined’ . As an anti-theory, or call to the creative contingency of human responses to situations; Michelangelo’s comments upon architectural composition expose the academic reproduction of prototypes to the modern critique of originality, autonomy and individual virtuosity on the one hand, and the potency of place, action and situation on the other. His drawings are records of action and thought. Extemporary performances of imagination and skill combining a material sensibility with care for the appearance of things inherent in the ways things come into Being. Michelangelos’ drawings suggest that how we do something enables what we do to occur. Drawing simultaneously records and reveals the correspondence between speaking and doing, making and imagining, things and ideas, imagination and time, materiality and the immaterial; “Only Fire Forges Iron.”