Cemetery of the Week #101: the Medici Chapels

Exterior of the Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence

Exterior of the Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence. All photos come from The Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and Its Medici Chapels, which is reviewed on 8/1/13.

The Church of San Lorenzo
Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini, 6, 50123 Florence, Italy
Founded: 1442
Number of interments: 40-some?
Open: Daily from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. or from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last entry at 5:30. These hours may be seasonal, but I’m having trouble getting a straight answer from the internet tonight. The church is closed the second and fourth Sundays of the month, as well as on the first, third, and fifth Mondays of the month. It’s also closed January 1st, May 1st, and Christmas Day.
Admission: There is an admission fee, but the Church’s website is down tonight and I can’t confirm it for you.

Saint Laurence was a 28-year-old deacon martyred by the Emperor Valerian on August 10, 258 CE. A church was dedicated to his memory in Florence in the fourth century. Of the original Church of San Lorenzo, nothing remains.

The tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, by Michelangelo

The tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, by Michelangelo

The wealthy families of Florence decided in December 1418 to enlarge the old Romanesque church. The Medici family took responsibility for remodeling one of the chapels and the sacristy, where the priest’s vestments and other objects used in the service are kept. Cosimo de Medici started paying for the chapel in 1442. In 22 years, he spent sums that can’t even be estimated now. In that time, San Lorenzo had become the parish church of the Medici family. Cosimo himself is buried in the crypt, below the altar, to be nearest the holy relics.

The first Medici had been buried in a poor and obscure church in the Old Market, according to The Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and the Medici Chapels. Now that the Medicis were spending their fortune on the church, they wanted to be buried there as well. Cardinal Guilio de Medici and his cousin Pope Leo X decided in 1520 to move Lorenzo the Magnificent (died 1492) and his brother Guiliano, who had been assassinated in the cathedral in 1478, as well as the Dukes of Nemours (died 1515) and Urbino (died 1517) into what would become the New Sacristy.

Detail of the tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino

Detail of the tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino

Michelangelo Buonarroti was hired to build suitable tombs for them and turned in his initial plan in November 1520. He hoped the space would become the final resting place of Dante, who still has not been returned to Florence to this day. (See Rest in Pieces for the full story.)

Construction of the New Sacristy began in March 1521 and proceeded rapidly. Michelangelo completed several sculptures for it, including a Madonna, the two “captains” who would represent Lorenzo and Guiliano, and began the allegorical figures that would adorn the tombs. Pope Leo commanded that Michelangelo accept no other commissions on pain of excommunication until the Sacristy was finished, but Leo’s death in 1532 rescinded that order. Michelangelo was called to Rome to paint The Final Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He did not return to Florence until after his death.

Night, detail on the tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino. She is the only allegorical figure Michelangelo completed.

Night, detail on the tomb of Guiliano, Duke of Nemours. She is the only allegorical figure Michelangelo completed.

As Michelangelo knew he was dying, he burned all his notes and sketches for the Medici chapels, so that later artists could not discredit him by completing his work in a substandard way. For that reason, the sculptures are pretty much the way the master left them. Only one of the sculptures is entirely finished. The other three figures are in various stages of incompletion, from lacking background details to lacking a face.

When he died in July 1564, Michelangelo’s funeral was held at San Lorenzo. 80 sculptors and painters were present. Afterward, he was buried in Santa Croce.

The Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence

The Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence

After Michelangelo had left the building, the Chapel of the Princes was conceived as a third sacristy and the tomb of the “ennobled” Medici in 1568. Its foundation was finally laid in January 1605, but the chapel was far from finished in 1649 when its architect died. Anna Maria Ludovica, the last of the Medicis, left money for its completion in her will, but her wishes were set aside. The House of Lorena, who succeeded the Medici, continued the work and also received the right to burial there. In 1929, the pavement was completed at last and the altar itself erected.

The Chapel of the Princes may be the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen. It’s decorated in pietre dure, precious stones, including the rarest and costliest stones of Italy, Corsica, Bohemia, Spain, France, Flanders, and the Aegean in shades of blue, green, and amber.

Some useful links:

Full history of the chapels and the church

Color pictures online

To buy tickets “without lining up” from the Uffizi site.

The official Uffizi homepage.

Other Italian church burials on Cemetery Travel:

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Sebastian’s Catacombs

The Pantheon

The Capuchin Catacombs 

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
This entry was posted in Cemetery of the Week, Church burial and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #101: the Medici Chapels

  1. Pingback: Vintage view of the Medici Chapels | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #108: the English Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

What would you like to add?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s