Illustrated with luminous black & white photos, this vntage guidebook to the statuary and graves in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and its Medici Chapels is a good introduction to this beautiful place. Of course, black and white does not do justice to the amazing chapels created out of precious stones, but it does capture Michelangelo’s statuary and allow you to examine it more closely that you’re able to do in person.
The text is an academic translation from the Italian, so it gives less detail than a modern reader might prefer and is much less descriptive that necessary. Then again, I didn’t buy it for the text.
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 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
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 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
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.
The Basilica of Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce 16
50122 Florence, Italy
Telephone: +39 (0) 55 2466105 Consecrated: 1433 Open: Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays and holidays from 2 p.m. to 5. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, St. Anthony of Padua (June 13), St. Francis (October 4), Christmas (December 25), St. Stephen’s Day (December 26). Admission: Full price: 6 euros. Reduced for children 11-17: 4 euros. Children under 11 are free.
Tall, skinny Santa Croce was begun by the Franciscans in 1294, but plagues and floods delayed its consecration until 1433. In 1565, Cosimo de Medici assigned Giorgio Vasari to redesign the interior. Vasari whitewashed the church’s murals, some of which have since been restored. The 1380 frescoes by Gaddi, in the Cappella Maggiore, look like decals stuck on the plain walls. They tell the story of the holy cross (“santa croce” in Italian).
Other art in Santa Croce includes frescoes by Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, which illustrate the lives of St. Francis, whose order served the church, and St. John the Evangelist. Donatello’s Annunciation in gilded limestone adorns the wall of the south nave. One of the chapels was designed by Brunelleschi.
Santa Croce, according to TripAdvisor, is the richest medieval church in Florence, which features one of the finest of all early Renaissance tombs: that of Leonardo Bruni, Chancellor of the Republic. The statue of a man lies on his deathbed, face turned toward potential mourners. His bed balances atop a simple rectangular sarcophagus, which in turn balances atop lions with outsized feet. From the unveiling of the tomb in 1450, Santa Croce became the place to be buried in Florence.
Michelangelo’s tomb photographed without tour groups in the way.
The church’s floor is looped and scalloped with swoops of green or red marble across the cream base. It is lined with grave slabs. Among those buried in the floor is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who isn’t buried in his Vasari-designed tomb. Permanent Italians describes the monument as “Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture loung[ing] listlessly around on a sweltering August afternoon.”
Vintage postcard of Machiavelli’s tomb.
Another tomb holds the remains of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince. A solemn muse, identified by Permanent Italians as Democracy, sits on the claw-foot sarcophagus and holds a cameo of the author. His epitaph translates to “For such a great man, no eulogy is sufficient.”
Gioacchino Rossini died in Paris and was buried in Pere Lachaise for a little more than 20 years before his French wife gave her approval and let his remains come home. His tomb also has an adoring mourner and at claw-foot sarcophagus, but it’s much fancier than Machiavelli’s.
Although there are many other people buried in Santa Croce whose tombs are worth a visit, you shouldn’t miss Galileo Galilei near the back doors. His odd bust depicts a skinny old man from the waist up, clutching a telescope and flanked by statues of Geometry and Astronomy. After being tried by the Inquisition for espousing the Copernican theory of the universe, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest and his books were banned. He was forbidden a Christian burial until 95 years after his death. Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses reports that he spent that time in a “closet-sized room beneath the bell tower.” When a Florentine Pope finally gave permission for Galileo to be reburied inside the church, his tomb held not only his remains but also those of a young woman. It was believed (though apparently not proven) that the second corpse belonged to Maria Celeste, Galileo’s favorite daughter. She was reinterred with him inside his tomb.
Vintage postcard of Rossini’s tomb.
Not actually buried here is native son Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, who was exiled – under pain of being burned alive, should he ever return to Florence – and died in Ravenna. Though they wouldn’t give him back, the Florentines commissioned a cenotaph to his memory.
Santa Croce is a living church, so conservative clothing is required. Silence is encouraged while visiting. Photography is allowed, without use of a flash or a tripod.
Exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica on a rainy day taken by Mason Jones
St. Peter’s Basilica
Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Rome, Italy
Telephone: + 39 06 69 885 318
Email: email@example.com Established: 64 AD? Open: St. Peter’s tomb and the Vatican necropolis are only allowed 250 visitors per day. A guide leads small groups of 12 at a time, so you must request a ticket well in advance. Tours last an hour and a half. Details are here. Admission: $16.50 for visitors age 15 and up. Children under 15 are not allowed.
In the bible, one of the apostles is called Simon until Jesus says, “You are ‘Rock’ and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Simon became Peter, who denied Christ three times before the crucifixion and, after Christ’s resurrection, received the command to “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16). After Christ’s ascension, Peter was the undisputed leader of the new Christian church. The modern popes draw their authority as Successors of Peter.
On July 19, 64 AD, an enormous fire started in Rome. The initial suspect was Emperor Nero, who wanted to clear the area to build a more beautiful Rome. When he began to fear the civil unrest, he blamed the Christians. At Nero’s Circus, Christians were fed to wild animals, crucified, or turned into living torches so that spectacle could continue through the night. The remains of these martyrs were taken afterward to Vatican Hill, a Christian and pagan graveyard at the edge of town.
There is no contemporary account of Peter’s martyrdom, but later historians tell us that he was crucified upside down. The earliest surviving account of Peter’s martyrdom comes from a letter written about 95 AD, several generations after his death. It says that Peter was martyred in Rome and buried on Vatican Hill.
Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica showing the baldachino above the altar over St. Peter’s grave. Vintage postcard.
In 324, the Emperor Constantine – the first Emperor to convert to Christianity – began construction of a basilica (a large oblong building with a semi-circular sanctuary on one end) over Peter’s tomb. The building enclosed Peter’s tomb on three sides and allowed pilgrims to see it on the East. It was visible until Pope Gregory the Great covered it with an altar during his reign from 590-604.
By the 15th century, the basilica was in dire straits. It had been repeatedly sacked during the barbarian invasions and completely neglected with the Popes moved to Avignon. In 1506, Pope Julius II began demolition of the old basilica. It was completed in 1593, but by then, St. Peter’s tomb was covered in construction debris and lost.
When I toured the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, the guide told us that graffiti found there said that Saints Peter and Paul had rested there. This confused me, since I knew Saint Peter was supposed to be buried under the basilica that bears his name in the heart of the Vatican. Church doctrine holds that Peter’s bones were taken from his grave during the reign of Emperor Valerian, when Christian graves lost their protected status. They were taken to the catacombs out on the Appian Way, where they were hidden until it was safe to return them to the original grave.
The “confessio” below the altar, above St. Peter’s grave. Vintage postcard.
The two basilicas and their attendant buildings covered much of the ancient Roman-era graveyard, but excavations of the area continue. One excavation beneath the floor of the basilica, begun in 1940, discovered stone tablets with inscriptions that showed veneration of Peter was well underway by 120 AD. It also discovered a tomb surrounded by a brick wall, covered in reddish plaster, that bore the graffito PETR and EN, which Vatican archeologists translated as “Peter is here.” Peter was buried beneath the present altar of the “Confessio.”
In 1941, some bones were found in a niche in the red wall, wrapped in purple and gold fabric. These were declared by Pope Paul VI to be the bones of St. Peter in 1968. The bones were placed in Plexiglas containers, ten of which remain in the tomb now.
During the last years of the Roman Republic, after Caesar conquered Egypt and vanquished Cleopatra, Egyptiana became the fashion in Rome. AccessRome says, “Numerous pyramids sprouted all over Rome.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that the only Roman-era pyramid still in existence sits across the street from the Piramide stop on Rome’s subway line B.
The estate of Caius Cestius built his pyramid in 12 B.C. His tomb claims he was a praetor and tribune, as well as an epulo: one of seven priests who offered sacrificial meals to the gods. Other than the pyramid, he left no mark in recorded history. Only his tomb ensured the survival of his name.
Unlike the other tombs—long destroyed—which once lined the road to Ostia, Cestius’s pyramid survived because it was incorporated into the eleven-mile wall Emperor Aurelian built to protect the city from barbarians in 271 AD. During the Middle Ages, people believed the tomb belonged to Romulus, founder of Rome. I’m fascinated by how different ages mythologized the pyramid to suit their needs. Their veneration kept the tomb intact. In fact, the pyramid owes its continued existence to serving as a landmark as much as to the protection of the Popes, even though it was as pagan as pagan could be.
My husband Mason and I came up out of the Metro to see Cestius’s hundred-foot-tall pyramid directly across the road. Aurelian’s old brick wall connected right up to it. The crumbling bricks looked fragile in comparison to the older pyramid.
Half of the pyramid lies lower than the modern surface of the ground, which seems strange because the Protestant graveyard beside it rises much higher. The cemetery was built on a hill where Rome dumped its garbage, I understand. For how many hundreds of years had this area served as a dump? What treasures lie in the soil accumulated around the pryamid?
Outside the moat around the pyramid, an historical plaque said that in his will, Cestius stipulated that he wanted his Egyptian mausoleum constructed before a year had passed after his death. The project bankrupted his heirs.
A frescoed burial room inside the pyramid spans twenty-by-fifteen feet. Apparently, one can enter the pyramid through an entrance cut into its walls during its restoration in 1663. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that when we visited. It probably wouldn’t have helped if I had. My sources, published over a span of forty years, disagree on how one might get permission to visit the interior of the tomb.
The pyramid’s marble façade glowed bright white in the late April sunshine. Although Cestius’s inscription was still legible, grass and wildflowers had sprouted from toeholds between the stone blocks, bright crimson and lavender and deep pink. I hoped my photos would capture the colors.
The pyramid as seen from inside the Protestant Cemetery
The Protestant Cemetery lies directly beside the pyramid. It was my Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome in Rome, Italy.
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