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 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 articulation of the architectural structure and the strength of Michelangelo’s sculptures reflect a complex symbolism of Human Life, where “active life” and “contemplative life” interact to free the soul after death, a philosophical concept closely linked to Michelangelo’s own spirituality.
Numerous drawings by Michelangelo were found in a small space beneath the apse, and may be related to the statues and architecture of the Sacristy.
The Chapel of the Princes
The octagonal Chapel of the Princes is a great, shining jewel encrusted inside semi-precious stones conceived to celebrate the power of the Medici dynasty, which had successfully ruled Florence for several centuries. 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.
The interior of the dome was planned originally to be entirely covered with lapis lazuli, but was left incomplete at the end of the Medici period. The frescoes we see today were painted by Pietro Benvenuti in 1828 and feature scenes of the Old and New Testaments. These frescoes were commissioned by the then-reigning Lorraine family.
The sarcophagi of the Grand Dukes are contained in niches and complemented by bronze statues.
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.
A view on the entire complex: Church of San Lorenzo
The Medici Chapels developed over almost two centuries in close connection with the church of San Lorenzo, considered the “official” church of the Medici family.
Of all the religious buildings in Florence, none is documented earlier than San Lorenzo.
It was consecrated in 393 by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and acted as the city’s cathedral, before either the Baptistery or Santa Reparata. It was rebuilt in the romanesque period and re-consecrated in 1059.
In 1418 the Medici decided to rebuild it entirely and entrusted the project to Filippo Brunelleschi, who in 1421 designed the “old” sacristy and the whole church, completed by Antonio Manetti in 1461.
In the next century, Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned to build the New Sacristy and the Laurentian Library, and to design the façade (which was never built).
Inside, the church is planned as a Latin Cross, its aisles separated from the nave by Corinthian columns surmounted by high sculpted entablature blocks, supporting rounded arches.
The nave is covered by a coffered ceiling with gilded rosettes on a white ground. The slender elegance of Brunelleschi’s architectural forms, and the contrast of grey pietra serena and white plaster, make the interior of San Lorenzo one of the supreme architectural masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance.
The history of the church’s construction is closely linked to the patronage of the Medici family, who paid for most of the works of art inside. The two bronze pulpits are great works of Donatello’s late manner (c. 1460; finished by his assistants Bertoldo and Bellano), achieving intense dramatic expressivity in the New Testament scenes executed by Donatello himself in “stiacciato” low relief, particularly the Deposition.
Extreme technical refinement is apparent in the beautiful marble Tabernacle of the Sacrament, now in the right aisle, by Desiderio da Settignano (c. 1460).
Like the Medici, the Martelli also made their mark on San Lorenzo, and their chapel off the left transept has a panel of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi (c. 1450).
Minor painting of the 15th century is represented by the altarpieces in the left transept such as Raffaellino del Garbo’s Nativity with St. Julian and St. Francis, and St. Anthony Abbot enthroned between St. Laurence and St. Julian, from the workshop of Ghirlandaio.
The altars in the side aisles mostly have 16th-century altarpieces, most notably Rosso Fiorentino’s mannerist Betrothal of the Virgin, painted in 1523.
His contemporary Pontormo executed some lost frescoes in the choir. The enormous fresco of the Martyrdom of St. Laurence in the left aisle (1565-69) is by Pontormo’s pupil Bronzino.
The basilica was completed by the Old Sacristy, commissioned by the Medici as their family mausoleum. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici entrusted the project to Filippo Brunelleschi, who between 1421 and 1426 built one of the most complex masterpieces of renaissance architecture.
Dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, it is structured as a cube covered by a hemispherical umbrella dome divided by ribs. The chromatic interplay of grey stone and white plaster is heightened by the presence of painted stuccoes: the frieze with cherubim and seraphim, the roundels with the Evangelists on the walls and the ones in the spandrels of the dome with Scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, by Donatello, who was also responsible for the bronze doors with Saints, Martyrs, Apostles and Doctors of the Church.
The frescoes in the small dome in the apse show the Sun and constellations as they appeared over Florence on the night of 4 July 1442. It is thought that this celestial map was executed by the eclectic painter and decorator Giuliano d’Arrigo, known as Pesello.
The funerary monument to Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici, sons of Cosimo il Vecchio, was commissioned from Verrocchio in 1472 by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano: one of the most sophisticated products of Laurentian artistic culture.
This post was originally published on May 4 2015, and has been updated and enriched on December 15, 2018