Michelangelo's basilica may finally be completed

The mayor of Florence wants a referendum to decide if the city should embark on a major work by Michelangelo that was shelved because of the huge cost nearly 500 years ago.

Michelangelo produced sketches and models in 1515 for a white marble façade complete with columns and statues for the city's mighty San Lorenzo Basilica.

The church's central structure was designed by the seminal Renaissance figure Filippo Brunelleschi between 1419 and 1446. Pope Leo X asked Michelangelo to complete the building in magnificent style – only to balk at the plan when he realised how much it would drain the papal coffers to buy and carry hundreds of tons of white marble from Carrara near the north Tuscan coast.

And so the façade of the church, containing the chapel of the Medici family, has remained unfinished. But Florence's Mayor Matteo Renzi said this week that it would be a fitting tribute to Michelangelo to enact his vision for the church by 2015. The notion of recreating or even second-guessing the vision of the great artist and architect has sparked a fierce debate among Italy's cultural élite.

"It would be wonderful to complete the exact work 500 years on," Mr Renzi told a council meeting. Paolo Portoghesi, Professor of architecture at La Sapienza University, hailed Mr Renzi's "heroic idea". But Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican museums, dismissed the Mayor's plans. "To start working on the basilica after 500 years is too late and makes no sense because it will involve construction techniques, styles and sensibilities out of synch with the existing building," he told La Repubblica newspaper. "They should leave the basilica and Michelangelo in peace."

Mr Renzi said that the final decision would rest with the local people. "It should be for the people of Florence to vote on the matter," he said.

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