A marvelous and unique treasure
An exclusive tour in to the Medici Chapels
The Museum of the Medici Chapels, created in 1869, consists of the Chapel of the Princes, a mausoleum inlaid with Florentine mosaics, created to hold the mortal remains of the Medici princes and capped by the great dome designed by Ferdinando Ruggeri at the start of the 18th century; the treasury rooms of San Lorenzo; the New Sacristy built to the right of the San Lorenzo transept; the crypt where the family members and their relatives are buried; and the Lorraine crypt – closed to the public at this time – where the mortal remains of the Lorraine family are buried. We made an exclusive visit to the crypt with Monica Bietti. From her office just a few steps away from the bronze statue of the Palatine Electress, she explains the sense of the San Lorenzo complex as a single entity, an organic whole that can only be fully comprehended after seeing all of it. In addition to the Museum, the complex includes the Church of San Lorenzo, the Old Sacristy and the Laurentian Library. Through the years it has undergone many fragmentations. Today, the Library is protected by the Revenue Office; the Church and the Library are ecclesiastical properties; while the Museum of the Medici Chapels and the New Sacristy, together with the Martelli residence, are administered by the State. Conceiving of these parts as a unity is simply a mental exercise for visitors, not at all hindered by the administrative fragmentation.
The history of the Medici Chapels begins with Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany who, between 1561 and 1568, entrusted the commission to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), whose idea it was to adorn the chapels with marbles and mosaics. However, works began only during the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinando I, who had founded the Opificio Fiorentino delle Pietre Dure in 1588 for this specific purpose, calling many famous masters of stone inlay to Florence. Access is through the underground crypt built in 1608, consisting of a octagon covered by robust cross-vaults springing from pilasters of pietra forte, in which the rectangular chapels are inserted. Here, in 1791, Ferdinando III of Lorraine, realized the burial chamber, bringing the mortal remains of the Medici family here from the Old and New Sacristies and from tombs beneath the Church. The burial chambers of the Medici family members are situated in the four lateral chapels, in an underground crypt facing the modern entrance and beside the great pilasters of the octagon, generally grouped by family nuclei. The Lorraine crypt is situated behind the altar in the crypt under the chorus of the basilica, halfway between the Medici burial chamber and the tomb of Cosimo, Pater Patrie. Two stairways of pietra forte lead to the Chapel of the Princes, an octagon conceived as a church with a central plan that rests on the presbytery and chorus of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and on those connected to it. Started under Ferdinando I in 1604, it was Anna Maria Luisa, the last heir to a dynasty that would be extinguished at her death, who implemented a decisive acceleration almost a century later. During her life, in fact, the dome vaults were built, while the mosaic decoration originally programmed was substituted by a fresco, realized only later in the Lorraine era (1828-1837) by the neoclassic painter Pietro Benvenuti, with four episodes drawn from the stories of Genesis (Creation of Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Death of Abel and the Universal Flood) opposite four episodes from the New Testament (Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection and the Universal Judgement). In the final ring, divided into octagons, there are the images of the four Evangelists (John, Luke, Mark and Matthew) and the four figures of the Precursors (Moses, Aaron, David and St John Precursor. A hallway leads from the mausoleum to the chapel built by Papa Leo X to unite the mortal remains of his family, the New Sacristy built to balance the one by Brunelleschi, with internal architectural and sculptural furnishings by Michelangelo on a structure previously designed by Giuliano da Sangallo.
The works lasted fourteen years and suffered many interruptions attributable to important historical events – including the escape and return of the Medici family to power – and remained unfinished in 1534 when Michelangelo moved permanently to Rome. Commissioned by Cosimo I, Giorgio Vasari and Bernardo Buontalenti gave the New Sacristy the arrangement it still has today, between 1554 and 1555.
An extraordinary discovery was made in 1978 regarding a small underground chamber right below the chapel designed by Michelangelo. It seems that Buonarroti had hidden there during the days of the collapse of the Republic and the return of the Medici family to power. The drawings on the walls, some of which are of superb quality, confirm the presence of the artist in these places.
Our visit is coming to an end, but to achieve that sense of unity mentioned at the start by the director, we crossed the Church, not without turning our glance to Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation, recently restored and sublimely luminous, to enter the Old Sacristy. Commissioned by Giovanni de’ Medici from Brunelleschi, it has a different allure than the chapel by Michelangelo but is just as fascinating. It is a more rough-hewn casket if compared to the marbles of the New Sacristy and has its apex in the apse where the representation of the celestial hemisphere, of a deep intense blue, lightens the severe atmosphere of meditation created by Brunelleschi and Donatello.