The Medici Chapels consist of two structures that form part of the monumental complex of San Lorenzo, in Florence. They house monuments that belonged to members of the Medici family in the New Sacristy of the Church of San Lorenzo. This was the official church of the Medici when they lived as private residents in their palace in Via Larga (now via Cavour), and later became their mausoleum until the extinction of their line.
For several generations, the Medici family, of which author Dan Brown mentions in his latest book Inferno, had an outstanding reputation for promoting the arts, culture, spiritual ideas, as well as the scientific advancements of their time in the city of Florence and throughout Tuscany.
Today, the Medici Chapels are a public museum famous for the New Sacristy, which was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti, and the Chapel of the Princes, whose design is a collaboration between the family and certain architects. Access to the museum is located at the back of the Church of San Lorenzo, from Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini. The museum also includes the Lorenese crypt, which houses the remains of the Lorena family, and the funerary monument of Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), the first ruler of Florence.
The New Sacristy
The project for a family tomb was conceived in 1520 when Michelangelo began working on the New Sacristy. The later corresponds to the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, which is located on the other side of the Church of San Lorenzo. It was above all Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, who wished to erect a mausoleum for certain members of his family, namely, Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brothers Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino (1492-1519), and Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (1479-1516).
Michelangelo created one of the masterpieces of architecture and sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. He built the New Sacristy starting from the same plan used to build the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, sharing its format of a cubic space surmounted by a dome of gray pietra serena and whitewashed walls, but dividing the space into more complex shapes, with triumphal arches that open on the species of the apses. There were intended to be four Medici tombs, but those of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano were never begun. Both were buried at the entrance wall, and over them was set a marble group consisting of a “Madonna and Child,” and the Medici patron saints Cosmas and Damian. The Madonna is a work of imposing majesty entirely made by Michelangelo’s own hand. The saints are the works of his pupils.
Michelangelo worked on the sculptures of the sarcophagi. However, the only ones that were actually completed were the statues of the Dukes Lorenzo and Giuliano, the allegories of Dawn and Dusk, Night and Day.
These two monumental groups of sculptures each comprise an armed figure seated in a niche, with an allegorical figure reclining on either side of the sarcophagus below. The seated figures, representing the two dukes, are not treated as portraits, but as types. Lorenzo, whose face is shaded by a helmet, personifies the reflective man; Giuliano, who is holding the baton of an army commander, portrays the active man. At his feet recline the figures of Night and Day. Night, a giantess, is twisting in uneasy slumber, while Day, a herculean figure, looks wrathfully over his shoulder.
Just as imposing, but far less violent, are the two companion figures reclining between sleepiness and wakefulness on the sarcophagus of Lorenzo. The male figure is known as Dusk; the female, as Dawn.
The Chapel of the Princes
The octagonal Chapel of the Princes is a great, shining jewel encrusted inside semi-precious stones. With its stately and exterior white marble stone and with its large dome covered in red brick, it is recognized in the city for its impressive size, inferior only to that of Brunelleschi.
The chapel was an idea formulated by Cosimo I but put into effect by his successor Ferdinando I de’ Medici. It was designed by Matteo Nigetti, following sketches tendered for an informal competition take took place in 1602 by Don Giovanni de’ Medici, the natural son of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The sketches were Bernardo Buontalenti executed the work.
The Grand Ducal hardstone workshop, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, was established for the execution of its astonishing revetment of marbles inlaid with colored marbles and semi-precious stone. The art of commessi, as it was called in Florence, consisted of assembling jigsawn fragments of specimen stones to form the designs of the revetment that entirely cover the walls.
Six grand sarcophagi are empty; the Medici remains are interred in the crypt below. In the dado’s sixteen compartments are found coats-of-arms of Tuscan cities under Medici control. In the niches that were intended to hold portrait sculptures of Medici, two (Ferdinando I and Cosimo II) were executed by the Italian sculptor Pietro Tacca.