Aug 28, 2012

MICHELANGELO’S WAR



(above and below) Michelangelo Buonarotti’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy.
In 1528, when the Papal armies were threatening to attack Florence and restore the Medici family to autocratic power, the Florentine Republic gave Michelangelo Buonarotti the responsibility of strengthening the city’s fortified defenses. By the time the attack came in 1529, he had designed and overseen the construction of a number of ‘bastions’ at crucial junctures in the existing defensive wall around the city. These were so effective that the citizens of Florence were able to repel the superior attacking troops for nearly eleven months, until—through an act of political treachery—the city finally fell in 1530.
The design drawings Michelangelo made for the bastions had to consider their two main functions. First, to provide protected openings for the defenders to fire their muskets at the attackers, each of which covered a relatively narrow field of fire, but together covered the widest possible field of fire. Second, the walls of the bastion had to deflect incoming cannon fire in the form of cannon balls, which were as yet non-explosive. To accomplish both of these purposes, the walls had to be not only thick but relatively short and angled sharply with adjoining walls, creating a ‘corrugation’ that would conceal gun ports and better resist the impact of cannon balls. In his drawings, Michelangelo primarily studied possible variations on this fundamental idea.
For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power. Of course, this is because they are made by one of the greatest sculptors, and a self-taught architect—an “amateur of genius,” as he has been called—but it is also because the bastions required had too short a history as a building type to have ossified into a rigid typology. Michelangelo was relatively free to invent strong new forms and didn’t hesitate to do so. Using straight and curved lines in various combinations, these designs assume—to the contemporary eye—the character of plans for buildings belonging to our era rather than his; or, at the very least, they anticipate expressionistic architecture of the present and last centuries that has been realized because of advances in building technology.
This bit of speculation is not, however, at the heart of the drawings’ emotional and intellectual power. For that, we have to look to a fluidity of invention captured in the drawings. Michelangelo’s mastery of mostly freehand pen and ink drawing (each line is precise and cannot be erased) gave him the freedom to experiment with form. Without this mastery, he would have sought, as any artist would, the safety of more familiar forms. We are struck by the élan of the designs, as much as by their visual coherence. We are moved by the seemingly effortless way they undertake the always risky task of invention. Not least, the fortification drawings inspire us to equip ourselves with the skills necessary to explore daring new possibilities for architecture, ones that engage the daunting challenges we—as Michelangelo—must confront.
LW
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