Florence: San Lorenzo

The San Lorenzo. On the right we see, from left to right, the dome of the Cappella dei Principi, the bell-tower and the dome of the New Sacristy.

The basilica of San Lorenzo is among the oldest and most famous churches of Florence. The church is immediately recognisable by its unfinished façade and the enormous dome of the chapel behind the choir, the famed Cappella dei Principi. There is probably no church in Florence that has a closer relationship with the De’ Medici family, who in the fifteenth century were chiefly responsible for financing the rebuilding of the San Lorenzo. In the two sacristies of the basilica there are beautiful funerary monuments for important members of the family, which were complemented from the seventeenth century onward by equally impressive monuments for the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the Chapel of the Princes. If you want to visit the whole complex of San Lorenzo, you will need two tickets. One ticket gives access to the basilica, the Old Sacristy, the cloister next to the church, the treasury and the crypt. With a second ticket one can enter the Medici chapels – Cappelle Medicee –, which is the term used for the New Sacristy and the Cappella dei Principi. The famous Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana is also part of the large complex, which is best admired from a high spot, for instance Giotto’s campanile.


According to tradition the history of the San Lorenzo goes back to the fourth century. In 393 or 394 Saint Ambrosius, the bishop of Milan, visited Florence to celebrate Easter there, and on that occasion he is said to have dedicated a basilica to the popular martyr Saint Lawrence, who was roasted alive on a gridiron in the year 258. Saint Zenobius (San Zanobi), who is traditionally considered the first bishop of the city, is said to have been present at the dedication ceremony. He died between 417 and 429 and was for a long time one of the most important patron saints of Florence. His relics were kept in the San Lorenzo, which for several centuries served as the cathedral of the city. The basilica had been built outside the city, and it was presumably in the ninth century that the decision was taken that it would be better to move the remains of Zenobius to a church within the city walls. The church chosen was the Santa Reparata, which subsequently had the dignity of being the cathedral of Florence until the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore, the current Duomo.

The complex of San Lorenzo, seen from Giotto’s campanile.

The San Lorenzo was rebuilt in the eleventh century (ca. 1045-1060) and then consecrated by Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061), the former bishop of Florence. At the start of the fifteenth century the canons associated with the San Lorenzo decided to have their church rebuilt once more. The project commenced around 1418 with the renovation of the transept, but progress was very slow. A lack of funds seems to have been the chief cause of the delay. Moreover, the architect involved, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), had other obligations as well, the most important of which was the construction of the dome of the Duomo between 1420 and 1436. In 1421 Brunelleschi had furthermore been hired by the rich banker Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429), founder of the Banco dei Medici. On Giovanni’s orders he built the Old Sacristy (Sagrestia Vecchia), which is connected to the southern transept of the San Lorenzo and was among other things intended as a family mausoleum. The Old Sacristy was completed in 1428, which made it possible to give Giovanni his final resting place there the next year. A couple of years later he was joined by his wife Piccarda Bueri (died 1433).

Chiostro dei Canonici. In the background the dome of the Duomo and Giotto’s campanile are visible.

In 1442 the rebuilding of the San Lorenzo was given a boost when Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), the son of Giovanni di Bicci, provided a loan of 40,000 florins and thus became the biggest financier of the project. Filippo Brunelleschi died in 1446, after which the role of lead architect passed to either his student Antonio Manetti (1423-1497) or the architect Michelozzo (1396-1472). Manetti was certainly responsible for the construction of the cloister next to the basilica, also known as the Chiostro dei Canonici (cloister of the canons). Michelozzo, for his part, got on well with the De’ Medici family. Between 1444 and 1460 he built the Palazzo Medici Riccardi for Cosimo, which is just a stone’s throw away from the San Lorenzo. My sources mention various years of completion of the church, ranging from 1459 and 1461 to 1469. However this may be, it looks like work on the side chapels continued until the end of the fifteenth century. Many experts have argued that after Brunelleschi’s death quite a few changes must have been made to his design.

One of the most conspicuous features of the San Lorenzo is its uncompleted façade. Attempts have certainly been made to provide the basilica with a beautiful marble façade. During the pontificate of Pope Leo X (1513-1521), who had been born Giovanni de’ Medici, the great architect Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) won a design competition and was allowed to build the new façade of the San Lorenzo. Michelangelo started the project in 1518 in high spirits, but would never progress beyond making a wooden scale model and searching for the right Carrara marble. The death of Leo X in 1521, among other things, put an end to the project. However, Michelangelo was still able to leave his mark on the San Lorenzo. In 1523, after a Dutch intermezzo, a second Medici pope took office, Clemens VII (1523-1534), who had been born Giulio de’ Medici. For him the great architect worked on the New Sacristy (Sagrestia Nuova), the tribune of the counter-façade of the church and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. Again it was the death of the pope that put an end to the work. After 1534 Michelangelo mostly worked in Rome.

Tribuna delle reliquie – Michelangelo.

Cappella dei Principi.

A second feature of the San Lorenzo that catches the eye is the Cappella dei Principi with its enormous dome. A brief summary of the history of the chapel could be as follows. In 1537 Cosimo I de’ Medici had become Duke of Florence. He was a scion of a different branch of the family and a descendant of a younger brother of Cosimo the Elder. In 1569 Cosimo I was promoted to Grand Duke of Tuscany, and at some point he must have come up with the idea to have a new family mausoleum built. However, when he passed away in 1574 this idea had not yet been implemented. Construction did not start until the reign of his son Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke between 1587 and 1609. The design is usually attributed to Giovanni de’ Medici (1567-1621), an illegitimate son of Cosimo I. The architect who was subsequently appointed to build the Cappella dei Principi was Matteo Nigetti (ca. 1560/70-1648). He started in 1604 and may have initially received some assistance from his teacher Bernardo Buontalenti (ca. 1531-1608). Construction took several decades, and decoration of the Cappella dei Principi continued until well into the nineteenth century.

The bell-tower of the San Lorenzo dates from the eighteenth century. It was built in 1740-1741 by Ferdinando Ruggieri (1691-1741), who received his assignment from Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743). The tower has a height of 54 metres. Anna Maria Luisa also commissioned the painter Vincenzo Meucci (1694-1766) to paint the large fresco on the inside of the dome of the basilica.[1] Meucci’s Glory of the Florentine Saints dates from 1742. Anna Maria Luisa was the last direct descendant of Cosimo I de’ Medici. She was the daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo III, who ruled over Tuscany between 1670 and 1723. Her brother Gian Gastone de’ Medici was the last Grand Duke from the De’ Medici family. He died childless in 1737. Although Cosimo III had wanted his daughter to succeed her brother, the European powers refused to accept a woman on the throne. A member of the House of Lorraine became the new Grand Duke, and so the De’ Medici family fell from power in Florence. Upon the death of Anna Maria Luisa in 1743 the ties with the San Lorenzo were also cut.

Interior of the basilica.

The basilica

Tombstone of Francesco Landini.

The San Lorenzo has a stylish and quiet interior (see above) that is dominated by the grey pietra serena, a type of stone popular in Florence and environs. The harmony of the interior is somewhat disturbed by the aforementioned dome fresco by Vincenzo Meucci, which is quite colourful. Columns divide the basilica into a nave and two aisles. A conspicuous feature is that the arches of the nave do not rest directly on the capitals of the columns, but on so-called “imposts” (pulvini in Italian). The art in the side chapels is not that special. My personal favourite would be the tombstone of the Florentine composer Francesco Landini, who died in 1397. On the slab he is depicted with a portable organ.

The most beautiful painting in the basilica is without any doubt a panel of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469). The Annunciation can be found in the Cappella Martelli in the southern transept. The work is usually dated to ca. 1440. This Annunciation has a number of interesting features. Usually we only see the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, but in this case Gabriel is accompanied by two other (nameless) angels. The composition of the painting is a bit special too. Most Annunciations depict Gabriel on one side and Mary on the other, but on Lippi’s panel Gabriel is kneeling a little right of the centre, while his leg and wings are partially hidden behind a column of the loggia where the Annunciation takes place. Mary’s lectern is also partially hidden from view. On the right side a chunk of the floor has been removed, and in the hole a glass vial has been placed. Apparently the vial is intended to receive the lily held by Gabriel, perhaps symbolising the Conception. The painter provided his work with a detailed background, with a garden and several buildings, one of which has a pink colour.

Annunciation – Filippo Lippi.

Annunciation – Filippo Lippi (detail).

Very impressive are the two pulpits by the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466). He completed them after 1460 and they are considered his last works. At the time the great master was well into his seventies, so it should not come as a surprise that he received much aid from assistants and students. The pulpit on the left is the Pulpito della Passione, the one on the other side the Pulpito della Resurrezione. The Pulpit of the Passion consists of five bronze panels, to which two wooden panels were added in the seventeenth century (obviously not by Donatello). The scenes we see are the Agony in the Garden, Christ before Pilate and Caiaphas, the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross and the Entombment. The wooden panels depict the Flagellation and Saint John the Evangelist. As its name indicates, the Pulpit of the Resurrection is all about the Resurrection of Christ. Odd one out here is a panel of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, although its presence does not seem inappropriate in a church dedicated to him. This pulpit received an extra two wooden panels in the seventeenth century as well. Unfortunately very little of the history of the two pulpits is known with certainty. They were in any case not assembled until 1515 and were only mounted on columns in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Pulpito della Passione (left) and Pulpito della Resurrezione (right).

Crucifixion – Donatello.

Martyrdom of San Lorenzo – Bronzino.

The Pulpit of the Passion somewhat obstructs the view of an enormous fresco of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in the left aisle. It was painted in 1565-1569 by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) as one of his last works. The painter was in any case dead before he could start a fresco on the opposite wall. The Mannerist fresco shows us how Saint Lawrence – his private parts only just covered – is lying on his gridiron. On the right the executioner, virtually naked as well, is ready to decapitate him with a sword (the usual punishment for a Roman citizen, which Lawrence undeniably was). The fresco is a genuine orgy of naked bodies and muscles, so the three fully dressed and bearded men in the top left corner are easily missed. They are Bronzino himself, his teacher Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557) and his student Alessandro Allori (1535-1607).

In the sixteenth century Pontormo painted frescoes for the choir of the San Lorenzo, but these were unfortunately lost in the eighteenth-century interventions by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. Directly under the dome is a conspicuous yellow urn on a marble tomb slab, on which we may read the following text:



Which translates as: “Here lies Cosimo de’ Medici, by public decree Father of the Fatherland. He lived for 75 years, three months and twenty days.”

Tombstone of Cosimo the Elder.

This Cosimo de’ Medici is the aforementioned Cosimo the Elder, who died in 1464. The moniker “Father of the Fatherland” is quite remarkable, as Cosimo ruled over Florence purely on the basis of his immense wealth and influence, not because he held high public offices. The same holds true for his successors. In 1465 the city council – or Signoria – commissioned the sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) to make a monument for Cosimo the Elder. Verrocchio crafted the tombstone and a sarcophagus for the body of the deceased, but in order to see the sarcophagus one has to visit the crypt. The sarcophagus is basically an enormous pillar that supports the basilica above it, just like Cosimo himself supported the Florentine state. In the same crypt we also find the grave of Donatello, for whom a more modern monument was set up in the basilica itself.

Sarcophagus of Cosimo the Elder.

Grave of Donatello.

Of all the noteworthy things in the basilica I would lastly like to mention the tribune of Michelangelo (see the image above). This tribune against the counter-façade dates from ca. 1531-1532 and is also known as the Tribuna delle reliquie. We see a balcony with three portals behind it. Behind the doors a number of reliquaries are kept. The objects were lost by the De’ Medici family in 1494 when they were expelled from Florence by the Signoria and their family palazzo was looted by a furious mob. The family was only able to return to the city in 1512. In the years that followed they managed to recover some of the lost objects.

Old Sacristy

The Old Sacristy (Sagresta Vecchia), completed in 1428, is dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. This dedication is evident from the decorations that Donatello made for the sacristy. Four tondi of painted stucco on the pendentives of the dome show scenes from the life of Saint John. In the other four tondi we see the four evangelists with their respective symbols. The decorations above the two portals in the sacristy are also by Donatello. They represent Saints Stephen and Lawrence (left) and the twin brothers Cosmas and Damianus (right). Especially Lawrence (Lorenzo) and Cosmas (Cosimo) were important saints for the De’ Medici family. Many male family members were named after them. The sacristy has a square apse or scarsella that has its own dome. On the inside of this dome a blue starry sky has been painted with a constellation that is said to correspond to the night of 4 July 1442. Both this date and its significance are debated however. The dome painting is attributed to Giuliano d’Arrigo, also known as Pesello (1367-1446).

Sagrestia Vecchia.

The raising of Drusiana – Donatello.

In the centre of the Old Sacristy, under a marble table, we find the sarcophagus of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri. The maker of the sarcophagus was probably Andrea Cavalcanti, also known as Buggiano (1412-1462). He was the adoptive son of Brunelleschi, the architect of the sacristy. After Giovanni di Bicci’s death the Medici dynasty was led by Cosimo the Elder, whose tomb I have already mentioned above. After his death in 1464 his son Piero the Gouty (1416-1469) took control of the state. Piero was also buried in the Old Sacristy, together with his younger brother Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici (1421-1463). Their joint tomb is a work by Verrocchio from 1472. Piero’s successor as head of the family was his son Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492). During Lorenzo’s reign Florence experienced an unprecedented golden age in the field of art, culture and science. For Lorenzo’s funerary monument we must visit the other side of the church, as it is located in the New Sacristy.

Tomb of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri.

Tomb of Piero the Gouty and his brother Giovanni.

New Sacristy

Sagrestia Nuova.

Michelangelo’s New Sacristy (Sagrestia Nuova) was clearly built as a counterpart to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy. The aim of the men who commissioned it – the Medici popes Leo X and especially Clemens VII – was to create a second family mausoleum. Michelangelo started the project in 1520 and worked on it intermittently until 1534. In the latter year he left for Rome and never set foot in Florence again. The current internal arrangement of the sacristy dates from more than two decades after his departure. It is the result of Duke Cosimo I’s order to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Bernardo Buontalenti to put all the funerary monuments made by Michelangelo and his associates in place. Directly opposite the altar we find the tomb of Lorenzo Il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano, who was murdered in 1478 during the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy. On the monument are three statues. The Madonna and Child in the centre were made by Michelangelo himself, while Cosmas (left) and Damianus (right) were sculpted by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507-1563) and Raffaello da Montelupo (1504-1566) respectively.

Lorenzo Il Magnifico was succeeded by his son Piero (1472-1503), who acquired the nickname “The Unfortunate”. In 1494 he and the rest of the family were driven from Florence by the Signoria. Piero spent the rest of his short life trying to return and regain power in the city, but in 1503 he drowned in the river Garigliano when his ship laden with heavy artillery capsized. Piero found his final resting place in the abbey of Montecassino, which makes him one of the very few Medici family members not buried in the San Lorenzo. Two others are, surprisingly, the men who commissioned the New Sacristy, i.e. Popes Leo X and Clemens VII. Leo (Giovanni de’ Medici) was a younger brother of Piero, while Clemens (Giulio de’ Medici) was the natural son of the murdered Giuliano. Both were ultimately not laid to rest in their own creation, but in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

Tomb of Lorenzo Il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici.

When he developed the idea of the New Sacristy, Pope Leo X was inspired by the death of his brother Giuliano de’ Medici (1479-1516) and his nephew Lorenzo de’ Medici (1492-1519), the son of Piero the Unfortunate. Both bore the title of Duke. Giuliano had been invested with the title of Duke of Nemours by the French king, while Lorenzo had been Duke of Urbino in the Marche since 1516. In terms of character Giuliano and Lorenzo were quite different. The former was calm, mild and not very ambitious.[2] In spite of Giuliano’s modesty Michelangelo sculpted him as a military commander with the matching general’s baton. The two other statues on the tomb represent Day and Night. Lorenzo, on the other hand, has been sculpted in a pensive pose. The statues below him are Dawn and Dusk.

Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours.

Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino.

Cappella dei Principi

Statue of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere – Baccio Bandinelli.

In 1532 the Emperor Charles V dissolved the Florentine Republic and appointed a Duke. The honour went to Alessandro de’ Medici (1510-1537), who was presumably the son of Pope Clemens VII. Charles also decided to set Alessandro up with his own extramarital daughter Margaret, and in 1536 the two were duly wedded. Unfortunately Alessandro was murdered the next year. Margaret then married Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, while Cosimo I de’ Medici became the new Duke of Florence. As of 1569 he was allowed to style himself Grand Duke of Tuscany. Cosimo was a direct descendent of Lorenzo the Elder (ca. 1395-1440), the younger brother of Cosimo the Elder. His father was Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (1498-1526), a famous Italian condottiero who died on the field on honour and for whom a monument was later erected in front of the San Lorenzo. Giovanni dalle Bande Nere is among the 34 members of the De’ Medici family who were laid to rest in the third family mausoleum, the Cappella dei Principi.

I have already addressed the history of this Chapel of the Princes above. In this octagonal chapel are six funerary monuments for the Grand Dukes, i.e. for Cosimo I (1537-1574), Francesco I (1574-1587), Ferdinando I (1587-1609), Cosimo II (1609-1621), Ferdinando II (1621-1670) and Cosimo III (1670-1723). No funerary monument was made for Gian Gastone (1723-1737), the last Grand Duke of the Medici line. It should be noted that all the monuments are cenotaphs: the bodies of the deceased were interred in the crypt below the chapel. Although all six monuments have a niche for a statue of the relevant Grand Duke, only two of the niches are actually occupied. This is the case for the monuments for Ferdinando I and Cosimo II. The statues are by Pietro Tacca (1577-1640), with Tacca’s son Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1686) providing assistance with regard to the statue of Cosimo. The play of colours in the Cappella dei Principi is beautiful, although some might find the chapel a bit flashy. Nevertheless, the list of materials used for the chapel is definitely impressive. An information sign mentions porphyry, grey granite, jasper, quartz, lapis lazuli, alabaster, coral and mother of pearl. Work on the funerary monuments continued until well into the eighteenth century, while the dome fresco by Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844) was painted between 1828 and 1837.

Cappella dei Principi.

Cappella dei Principi, left side.

Cappella dei Principi, right side, with the statues of Ferdinando I and Cosimo II.

The crypt below the Cappella dei Principi was initially inaccessible from outside. This changed in 1791, when Grand Duke Ferdinando III of Lorraine had a street entrance made. This move was followed by the creation of a second crypt, underneath the first one. The sarcophagi of the Medicis were subsequently transferred to the new crypt, where they became an easy prey for thieves. This unacceptable situation was ended in 1857. The sarcophagi were all inspected and then returned to the second crypt, exactly under the correct tombstone in the crypt above. Access to the second crypt was then hermetically sealed.[3] Visitors to the Cappella dei Principi can still see the tombstones, but they will look in vain for the grave of Caterina de’ Medici (1519-1589). This daughter of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, married the French King Henry II and became Queen of France. Three of her sons later became King of France. Caterina’s final resting place is not the basilica of San Lorenzo, but the famous basilica of Saint-Denis near Paris.

Dome frescoes by Pietro Benvenuti.

Further reading: The Churches of Florence – West – San Lorenzo en Basilica di San Lorenzo (Firenze) – Wikipedia. For more information about the De’ Medici family, see Franco Cesati, The Medici. Story of a European Dynasty.


[1] The dome of the basilica, not the dome of the Cappella dei Principi. The dome fresco in the Cappella was painted by Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844).

[2] Franco Cesati, The Medici. Story of a European Dynasty, p. 56.

[3] Franco Cesati, The Medici. Story of a European Dynasty, p. 135.

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