The Basilica of San Lorenzo (Basilica of St Lawrence), located in the centre town piazza of the same name, is one of the oldest churches in Florence. Its thousand-year history is tied to the Florentine Christian community. It is also closely connected to the triumphant rise to power of the Medici dynasty, whom author Dan Brown mentions in his latest novel Inferno, and who chose San Lorenzo as its family church.
When it was consecrated in AD 393, it stood outside the city walls. For three hundred years it was the city’s cathedral before the official seat of the bishop was transferred to Santa Reparata.
The church is part of a larger monastic complex that contains other important architectural and artistic works, such as the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi; the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, which contains fine examples of Mannerist architecture; the New Sacristy, based on Michelangelo’s designs; and the Medici Chapels by Matteo Nigetti, where most of the Medici family members are buried.
San Lorenzo’s building has a complicated building history
In 1418, the Medici decided to begin a serious renovation of the church to turn it into a family temple. The project was given to Brunelleschi, who died, however, before being able to finish it. While the project was begun around 1419, lack of funding slowed down construction and forced changes to be made to the original design. By the early 1440s, only the sacristy (now called the Old Sacristy) had been worked on, given that it was the only part of the building being funded by the Medici at the time. In 1442, the Medici took over financial responsibility of the church as well. Brunelleschi died in 1446, and the undertaking was handed over to either Antonio Manetti or Michelozzo; scholars are not in agreement.
Though the building was “completed” in 1459 in time for a visit to Florence by Pope Pius II, the chapels along the right-hand aisles were still being built in the 1480s and 1490s.
By the time the building was complete, many aspects of its layout, not to mention detailing, no longer corresponded to the original plan. The principal difference is that Brunelleschi had envisioned the chapels along the side aisles to be deeper, and to be much like the chapels in the transept.
Nevertheless, Brunelleschi’s touch is obvious: the huge space with its imposing dimensions is governed by a scheme of controlled proportions and precise mathematical ratios. It can truly be considered a Renaissance architectural manual, both for its use of classical elements derived from ancient architecture, such as the round arches or grey pietra serena, columns with Corinthian capitols, as well as for the perfect measures of its spaces.
Inside the bronze pulpits (circa 1460) are Donatello‘s last work, which depict the Resurrection and scenes from the life of Christ. From these pulpits, Savonarola used to preach his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. A fresco by Bronzino depicting the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1569) is a Mannerist study of the human body.
Outer and inner facades
Michelangelo was commissioned by the Medici Pope Leo X to design the facade in white Carrara marble in 1518. He made a wooden model, which shows how he adjusted the classical proportions of the facade, drawn to scale, after the ideal proportions of the human body, to the greater height of the nave.
The work remained unbuilt. Michelangelo did, however, design and build the internal facade, seen from the nave looking back toward the entrances. It comprises three doors between two pilasters with garlands of oak and laurel and a balcony on two Corinthian columns.
In recent years, the association of “Friends of the Elettrice Palatina” and the Comune of Florence re-visited the question of completing the outer facade according to Michelangelo’s designs. To assist with the public debate, a computerized reconstruction was projected onto the plain brick facade in February 2007.
As yet, no decision has been made on the project.
The Laurentian Library
The famous library Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana is also part of the basilica complex, and the wide stairway at the entrance is one of Michelangelo’s most original works. With its outsized, almost overflowing, dimensions, and the ingenious spiral shape of the stairs, it is a typical example of manneristic art and an introduction to Baroque expression.
The library has the most prestigious collection of Italian manuscripts, a collection begun by Cosimo the Elder, one of the great Renaissance princely benefactors, and was later enlarged by Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The space destined to hold this precious treasure trove of culture is one of the first examples of a library not pertaining to a religious institution.
Giorgio Vasari and Bartolomeo Ammannati, Medici architects after Michelangelo, completed the construction of the stairway, scrupulously following the Masters design.
The Biblioteca Laurenziana is open to the public only when there are special events and exhibits.