Exploring San Lorenzo in Florence

Exploring San Lorenzo in Florence: A Visitor’s Guide

Among the most important art achievements of the Western world, the Church of San Lorenzo , the Old Sacristy , the New Sacristy , the Princes’ Chapel , and the Laurenziana Library combine priceless individual art treasures in a setting of outstanding architecture. Probably the greatest patrons of the arts in the world, the Medici family brought together the masters of their age to build a church complex for their own worship and as a mausoleum for generations of the powerful family.

So it was that Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo all had a hand in the construction and decoration of San Lorenzo. The original church on this site is believed to have been founded by St Ambrose in 393 and was rebuilt in the 11th century in the Romanesque style. In 1419, the Medici commissioned the main proponent of Florentine Renaissance architecture, Brunelleschi, to transform the church into what you see today. The work was completed in 1460, after Brunelleschi’s death, but followed his plans.

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San Lorenzo square

San Lorenzo square

The piazza around the Church of San Lorenzo is often almost completely obscured by the market stalls that fill it and run down Via Ariento, up to Via Nazionale. You will be impressed by the contrast between the chaotic market, filled with everything from leather imports to throw-off sunglasses and the finesse of artistry that fills the church’s majestic marble interior. Also contrasting is the inner grandeur with the rough brick facade. Michelangelo designed a façade – you can see his drawings and models in the Casa Buonarroti – but his plans were never implemented, so the bare stones are still visible.

San Lorenzo Church

San Lorenzo Church Nathan Hughes Hamilton / photo modified
San Lorenzo Church Nathan Hughes Hamilton / photo modified

The light, harmonious interior that Filippo Brunelleschi has created here is almost a textbook of his ideal of Renaissance architecture. Take a moment to take in the beautiful marble pavement, the columns with Corinthian capitals supporting the broad arches, the intricate coffered ceiling with delicate rosettes and the proportions of the nave and aisles with their side chapels. On either side at the end of the nave, look up to see a pair of bronze pulpits by Donatello, the artist’s last masterpiece, completed around 1460 by his students and vividly depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the saints. He is also thought to have designed the marble balcony over the door to the cloister in the left aisle.Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. On the altar of the Cappella Martelli (in the left arm of the transept as you face the high altar) is a diptych of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi, done in 1440.

This left arm of the transept leads to the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy), originally planned as a funerary chapel and as a sacristy. This was the first complete architectural work by Brunelleschi (1420-1428) and it had a profound influence on European architecture. As elsewhere in San Lorenzo, this sacristy is a whole piece, the impact of the architecture enhanced by works of art. And the artists matched Brunelleschi’s genius – the medallions and stucco reliefs of the Evangelists are by Donatello, as are the bronze doors. The beautiful tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’Medici (1472) belongs to Andrea Verrocchio. A door from the left aisle leads to the cloister, built in Brunelleschi’s style in 1475.

Address: Piazza San Lorenzo, Florence

Biblioteca Laurenziana (library)

Biblioteca Laurenziana (Library) Nathan Hughes Hamilton / photo modified
Biblioteca Laurenziana (Library) Nathan Hughes Hamilton / photo modified

The Biblioteca Laurenziana, which you can reach through the cloister, was built on the foundations of a 13th-century convent and was designed to house the Medici’s collection of documents and books. These had moved to Rome, but Pope Clement VII (also a Medici) returned them to Florence and commissioned a building for them so that they would be available to the public. Work began on Michelangelo’s designs in 1524 and it opened in 1571. Although Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, he continued to participate in the building work through letters and models and was clearly at the height of his game as an architect. Here you can see all the decorative elements of Renaissance architecture.

You enter the library through a vestibule, where a curved staircase leads to the reading room. Michelangelo planned it to be in walnut, but in 1559 Bartolomeo Ammannati used a fine-grained gray stone called pietra serena, following a wax model by Michelangelo. The triple flight, with elliptical stairs on the power station, was quite different from what had been seen before. The vestibule was not completed until the early 1900s when the ceiling was covered in painted canvas; don’t forget to see how it reflects the design of the reading room’s carved wooden ceiling. The reading shops in this large gallery were also designed by Michelangelo, the floors and ceiling by Tribolo. You need a separate ticket to visit the library.

Address: Piazza San Lorenzo 9, I-50100 Florence

Official site: https://www.bml.firenze.sbn.it/ing/tour_of_the_complex.htm

Medici chapels and tombs

Medici Chapels and Tombs Morgaine / photo modified
Medici Chapels and Tombs Morgaine / photo modified

Although the Medici Chapels are part of San Lorenzo, you must visit them separately, through a different entrance. You will first come to the crypt, with tombs of members of the Medici family, then to the memorial chapel of the Medici monarchs, the Cappella dei Principi.

Chapel of the Princes

In 1602, Grand Duke Ferdinando I planned such a magnificent family vault for the Medici dynasty that rumors spread that they transferred the tomb of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem to Florence; such an extravagant tomb was not intended for mortals, not even monarchs. Work was begun in 1604 by the architect Buontalenti and continued by others, but the chapel was not completed until the death in 1737 of the last Medici to govern Florence. The huge dome was not completed until the 19th century. No expense was spared in this testament to the Medici interest: paintings of biblical scenes, mosaics, marble, 16 coats of arms inlaid with semi-precious stones, and surmounted by a huge Medici coat of arms. Six Grand Dukes are buried here and for all the craftsmanship and fine materials it has a distinct helping of pretense, suggesting that the heyday of Renaissance art came and went with the 16th century. Behind the altar is the entrance to the relic and treasure chapels.

New sacristy

Beyond the Cappella dei Principi is the Sagrestia Nuova, the new sacristy, built by Michelangelo between 1520 and 1534 to house more Medici tombs. This was Michelangelo’s first work as an architect and his plan also applied his talents as a painter and sculptor. The architectural elements – walls, niches, arches and facades – are sculptural, accentuated by the dark gray and brilliant white marble illuminated by the windows in the dome. Michelangelo was also commissioned to sculpt the tombs, but only completed two of them before he left permanently for Rome in 1534. However, these two are among his best known and most influential sculptures. Then complained that neither the statue of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours; nor Lorenzo, duke of Urbino, on their tombs actually resembled the deceased, Michelangelo replied that in a thousand years no one would care what the two really looked like. He deliberately transcended portraits to create timeless figures, calling them ‘la vigilanza’ (vigilance) and ‘il pensiero’ (thought).

On the sarcophagus lid below Giuliano lies the figure of Night , with crescent moon and stars in her hair, and the unfinished figure of Day . Both figures are modeled after Classical lines, but with a new Christian-philosophical dimension. Below the seated figure representing Lorenzo de Medici is the allegorical Dusk (left) and Dawn(right). Like Giuliano, Lorenzo looks to the Virgin to be redeemed. The Virgin, in turn, faces the altar, symbolizing the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life. All the figures interact with each other, their interlocking gaze across the room, an original concept of Michelangelo’s. Through architecture, sculpture and painting together, he intended to reflect the path of life from the material world of river gods and sarcophagi through humanity to eternal life in the Resurrection fresco. Although Michelangelo’s grand design for the work as a whole was never executed, and the fresco of the Resurrection is not there to draw the eye skyward, the effect is still compelling, and the chapel is one of Florence’s most memorable tourist attractions.

Address: Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini 6, Florence

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