Unfinished Churches in Italy: Lessons in Project Management

Imagine leading a project involving hundreds of workers, no email, lots of big egos, and with a timeline of several hundred years. And yet many such art & architecture projects have been very (!) successfully completed in Italy over the last several thousand years (hence: appreciative tourists).

But it does make sense that some projects wouldn’t be as well executed as others: political errors, funding challenges, or a change in management could cause a building to remain half-finished. All of which means: you can’t necessarily judge a church by its façade. The churches below are very impressive on the inside but with façades that took the hit from project management errors.


Unfinished Church in Italy example 1:

“What Was the Plan Again?” San Lorenzo in Florence

Flickr rogilde

“The Guardian” by Rogilde used with permission

Begun in 1419, this church is attributed to the famous architect Brunelleschi, but due to a change in management and a lack of funds, the only part of his design that was actually implemented is the transept. Then, 100 years into the project, Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope to design a façade out of white marble, which he did, but (as you can see) was never added. Michelangelo did however build an internal façade, and funds are currently being raised to complete the external façade according to his specification.


Unfinished church example 2:

“Can’t Come to Work, I’ve Got the Plague”: San Fortunato in Todi, Umbria

San Fortunato, Todi, Italy

Photo by AC via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0



Construction of this church started in 1292 but was stopped when the plague hit in 1348. The lower part of the façade was finished 100 years later. The art and wooden choir inside are worth a visit. Okay I guess when your whole team and your whole backup team are sick with the plague, it’s more unlucky than bad planning. But they still didn’t manage to finish the façade after everyone got healthy.


Unfinished church example 3:

“It was nobody’s fault”

San marcuola beachcomber flickr

“San Marcuola” by Steve Knight used with permission

There are lots of examples here!

  • The church of Sant’Anastasia (photo) is Verona’s largest church and is considered the city’s best example of Gothic architecuture.
  • The church of San Marcuola in Venice (photo above) has two incredible Tintoretto frescoes as well as sculpture worth seeing on the altar.
  • Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato (photo), Tuscany was built in the late 15th century after a painting of the Virgin Mary on one of the walls of the local prison became animated. The inside has stained glass by Ghirlandaio and glazed ceramics by Andrea della Robbia.
  • The Basilica di San Clemente in Santa Maria dei Servi (photo), Siena was begun in the 13th century and altered in the 15th and 16th centuries. Inside it has frescoes, a 13th century holy water stoup, and a 14th century crucifix.


Unfinished church example 4.

“Oops I Ticked Off the Pope”: Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna


San Petronio, Bologna, Italy

“Basilica di San Petronio” by Pedro via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Construction of this Basilica began in the 14th century and lasted several hundred years. Then 120 years into the project, the city of Bologna decided the Basilica could rival St. Peter’s in Rome, in size, footprint, and ornamentation. The building project immediately lost the support of the Pope, and the proposed Latin cross design was never finished, so the church is in the shape of a T. And none of the many proposals for finishing the façade were accepted.
However the church has still had a long and important history. And when you visit the inside, you’ll see that it had a big (just not big enough) budget: there are incredible stained glass windows, marble walls and ornamentation, two organs, frescoes, an amazing altar, the longest sundial in the world. All this, and a capacity of 28,000 people.


Photo of San Petronio by Il CamaPhoto of San Lorenzo by Rogilde; Photo of San Fortunato by Gaspa; Photo of San Marcuola by Steve Knight

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Posted by on Oct 5, 2009 in Architecture | One Comment

1 Comment

  1. Pandora
    March 30, 2012

    well this blog is great i love reading your articles.


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