Medici Chapel

San Lorenzo, Florence

Begun 1520

Architect:  Michelangelo





Pope Leo X decided to build a family funeral chapel that would serve as a second sacristy at San Lorenzo, the Medici family church. This decision was prompted by the deaths in 1516 and 1519 of his brother Giuliano de' Medici, and his nephew Lorenzo the Younger, who had both been governors of Florence.


Michelangelo was commissioned to begin designing and building it by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, who handled the details from his position in Florence as its governor, a position that he filled after Lorenzo the Younger's death in 1519.  He became Pope Clement VII in 1523.


The decision to build the funeral chapel forced Michelangelo to abandon the Medici project of building a façade for San Lorenzo, which he had been working on for three years.


This addition had been envisioned as an opposite-side counterpart to Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy since the church's inception.



In addition to being called the "Medici Chapel," the sacristy is called the "New Sacristy" to distinguish it from Brunelleschi's "Old Sacristy."



Although it was far from finished, this project came the closest to completion of any of Michelangelo's multi-figure sculptural projects.  It features many of Michelangelo's finest works of sculpture within an architectural setting that he himself designed.  It has been a mecca for art lovers since the sixteenth century, and today, it is a crowded tourist attraction.





1519:  Commission by Giulio de' Medici.  Giulio de' Medici commissioned Michelangelo to build the chapel and execute its sculpture and other decoration.


1524:  Installation of lantern.  The lantern over the dome was constructed.


1527:  Expulsion of Medici. Construction ceased after the Medici family was expelled from Florence following the Sack of Rome, which left the Medici Pope Clement without power.


1530:  Return of Medici.  The Medici reinstated themselves as the rulers of Florence by force of arms.  An edict authorizing Michelangelo's assassination was issued because he had designed fortifications to prevent their return.  After Pope Clement revoked the order, Michelangelo resumed work on the chapel sculpture.


1534:  Departure of Michelangelo.  Shortly before the death of Clement, Michelangelo moved to Rome.  Most of the sculpture was unfinished or had not been begun.  The frescos planned for the semi-circular panels had not been painted, but some of the sketches have survived. Drawings on the walls of the altar chapel have also been found.


1545:  Installation of sculpture.  The tomb sculpture that remained in Michelangelo's studio in Florence, notably the seated and reclining figures, was installed by his pupils in 1545.


1560s:  Abandonment of original plans. Although Vasari urged Duke Cosimo I de' Medici to have the double tomb for Lorenzo, il magnifico, and his brother, Giuliano, finished by young sculptors, plans for building it were abandoned.





Family Members to be Entombed

The chapel was planned to contain the tombs of four important members of the Medici family.  At one point, Giulio had also planned to include his own tomb and that of Pope Leo X.


1.Giuliano. Giuliano de' Medici (died 1478), who was murdered by political enemies during the infamous Pazzi conspiracy, was Giulio's father and a grandson of Cosimo the Elder.


2.Lorenzo, il magnifico. Lorenzo the Magnificent (died in 1492), also a grandson of Cosimo the Elder, was Pope Leo X's father.  


3.Giuliano. Giuliano de' Medici (died 1516), the Duke of Nemours, was a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the brother of Leo X.


4.Lorenzo. Lorenzo the Younger (died 1519), who became the Duke of Urbino, was a grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent.  


Arrangement of the Tombs

The original design featured a freestanding tomb whose four facings would each contain one of the sarcophagi.


The arrangement finally decided upon called for building individual wall tombs for the younger Medici and entombing the elder family members in a double tomb beneath the sculpture group on the wall opposite the altar.  For this tomb, only the figure of the Madonna was completed by Michelangelo, but some of his sketches for it remain.


The sarcophagi are elevated by bases that raise the sculpted figures well above eye level.


Sculptural Program

The wall tombs, the Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici and the Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, feature seated figures of the deceased in niches.  Below each is a sarcophagus that is topped by a pair of reclining nudes, a male and a female, which represent times of day.  The seated statues of the deceased are not treated as portraits in the sense of being likenesses, but instead, they are treated as allegories of two types of man:  the active and the contemplative.


Giuliano's armor relates him to the active life.  He holds a baton, a symbol of his position of Captain of the Church. Below Giuliano are Day who exemplifies the figura serpentinata, and Night, who is accompanied by an owl, a bird of the night.


Across the room, Lorenzo's thoughtful gaze and self-absorbed pose link him to the contemplative life. Below Lorenzo are Dawn and Dusk.


On the basis of drawings, many art historians believe that Michelangelo also planned two pairs of reclining river gods, which would have been mounted on the floor below the overhanging legs of the reclining figures.  It is not known whether they would have symbolized the four rivers of paradise, alluded to actual rivers like the Arno and the Tiber, or represented something else associated with rivers like baptism.


Entrance-End Sculpture Group

Three statues are mounted on a platform next to the wall opposite the altar.  The central one, known as the Medici Madonna, represents the Madonna nursing, a theme that pervaded Michelangelo's work from his youth. The flanking figures, which were executed by pupils, represent saints Cosmas and Damian, patron saints of the Medici family.






The commission for the New Sacristy called for it to be compatible with Brunelleschi's earlier one.  Because both sacristies have pietra serena trim with white plaster walls, their similarity is immediately apparent.  In his biography of Michelangelo, Vasari describes the New Sacristy as an "imitation" of the old one that used a "different order of ornamentation."


Similar Plans

The old and new sacristies have the same plan, a square with a square recess for the altar.


Different Dome Shape and Structure

The ceilings of both sacristies are formed of domes supported on pendentives, but the domes differ significantly.  Instead of using a radially ribbed dome like that of Brunelleschi's Sacristy, Michelangelo used a coffered dome like that of the Pantheon.  This was the first Renaissance use of a coffered dome.


The dome of the New Sacristy was originally decorated with colored ornament by Giovanni da Udine, but Pope Clement had it whitewashed.


Increased Number of Stories

Michelangelo detailed the wall below the pendentives as two stories instead of one.


Windows at Pendentive Level

Michelangelo illuminated the upper level by large windows in the lunettes instead of by oculi in the base of the dome.  The windows become narrower as they approach the dome, conveying a more dramatic sense of perspective to the viewer below.


Expanded Use of Pietra Serena

Michelangelo used pietra serena for only one part of his two-part scheme of stone trim, whereas Brunelleschi, whose ornamental scheme included terracotta plaques, had used it for all the stone trim.


Like Brunelleschi, Michelangelo used pietra serena pilasters on corners, but he also used them to sub-divide the wall space into large and small compartments on the main and attic levels.


Michelangelo also treated the pilasters at the outside corners differently:  instead of placing the pilasters on the actual corners, he exposed a strip of the corner piers, which are also faced with pietra serena.





Pietra Serena Trim

The pietra serena trim is concentrated on clarifying the principal parts of the total structure and organizing the wall space into compartments.


Marble Trim

Within each of the compartments defined by the pietra serena pilasters is a complex decorative scheme in marble that frames the doors of the small compartments and forms a background to the sculpture of the large ones.  Although there is no tonal contrast within the marble architecture, the deep shadows cast by the high relief make the forms stand out boldly.





Wall-Tomb Ensembles

The wall-tomb architecture consists of a complex arrangement of ornamental architectural forms.


Subdivisions. The wall-tomb area is subdivided horizontally by a ledge below the floor of the niche and crowned by an entablature.  It is subdivided vertically by pairs of pilasters, whose vertical lines are continued upward through the entablature by ressauts that support pairs of balusters within recessed sections of the frieze, which is carved in relief with garlands.


Scroll-ended pediment-like sarcophagus lids. The scrolling form of the top of the sarcophagus anticipates the scroll-ended broken pediment that Michelangelo designed for the Porta Pia four decades later. 


Doorway Ensembles

Four of the chapel's eight doors are dummies that serve to maintain symmetry in the corners.


The doors are part of a two-part arrangement that includes the tabernacle frames above them.


Mannerist Features

The spatial coherence achieved by this framework is cited by some art historians as grounds for not regarding the Medici Chapel as a whole to be Mannerist despite its use of Mannerist characteristics on individual parts.  The design of the marble architecture, on the other hand, is clearly Mannerist in its general complexity and ambiguity as well as in a number of specific features.


=Immensity of tabernacles.  The tabernacles above the doors are larger than the frames of the doors, the attic windows, or the niches of the wall tombs.


=Dissimilarity of shapes. Within the tabernacle's pediment is a T-shaped panel whose squared corners form a contrast to the arcs of the segmental pediment and the relief-carved swag.


=Ambiguity between parts. The tabernacle's sill serves as the upper member of the door trim.  Similarly, the upper members of the tabernacle's novel capitals double as the lower members of the broken pediment.


=Sunken faces of pilasters.  The tabernacle's pilasters have recesses within their faces that give the shafts a panel-like appearance.


=Overlapping of the pietra serena.  The segmental pediments, which are wider than the space between the pilasters, overlap the pilaster capitals in the corners.


=Upward massing of ornament.  Ornament is concentrated at the upper level of the lower story.


Overall Effects

The contrast between the flat, structure-defining framework of pietra serena and the sculptural, dynamic assemblage of forms in marble exemplifies the difference between the styles of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.


The crowding of the marble forms against each other and against the pietra serena pilasters and entablature creates a tension between the two systems in which the marble forms appear to burst through their imprisonment by the darker framework.




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Michelangelo 2 of 6




Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence, begun 1520