The Medici Chapels form part of a monumental complex developed over almost two centuries in close connection with the adjoining church of S. Lorenzo, considered the "official" church of the Medici family who lived in the neighbouring palace on Via Larga (it is now known as the Medici-Riccardi Palace; see the related section below). The decision to build their family mausoleum in this church dates to the 14th century (Giovanni di Bicci and his wife Piccarda were buried in the Old Sacristy, on a project designed by Brunelleschi). The project of building a proper family mausoleum was conceived in 1520, when Michelangelo began work on the New Sacristy upon the request of Cardinal Giulio de Medici, the future Pope Clemens VII, who expressed a desire to erect the mausoleum for some members of his family: Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano; Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino; and Giuliano, Duke of Nemours. After completing the architectural works in 1524, Michelangelo worked until 1533 on the sculptures and the sarcophagi that were to be featured on the chapel walls. The only ones actually completed were the statues of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano; the Duke of Urbino; the Duke of Nemours; the statues four statues of the allegories of Day and Night, and Dawn and Dusk; and the group representing the Madonna and Child; they are flanked by statues of Saints Cosma and Damian (protectors of the Medici), executed respectively by Montorsoli and Baccio da Montelupo, both of whom were pupils of Michelangelo.
The articulation of the architecture structure and the strength of Michelangelo's sculptures reflect a complex symbolism of Human Life, where “active life” and “contemplative life” interact to free the soul after death, a philosophical concept closely linked to Michelangelo's own spirituality.
Numerous drawings by Michelangelo were found in a small space beneath the apse, and may be related to the statues and architecture of the Sacristy.
The Chapel of the Princes
This Chapel is yet another grand and striking mausoleum erected between 1604 and 1640 by the architect Matteo Nigetti following the designs of Giovanni de Medici, who practised architecture in a semi-professional manner. The Mausoleum, with its large dome and lavish interior ornamented with marble, was conceived to celebrate the power of the Medici dynasty which had successfully ruled Florence for several centuries. The octagonal room designed to contain the bodies of the Grand Dukes is in fact almost entirely covered with semi-precious stones and different-coloured marbles. The sarcophagi of the Grand Dukes are contained in niches and complemented by bronze statues . The inlay of the semi-precious stones, partially executed by highly skilled workers from the laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre dure (see the related section, below) took several centuries to complete due to the difficulty of obtaining such rare materials that were available only at very high cost.
The interior of the dome was planned originally to be entirely covered with lapis lazuli, but was left incomplete at the end of the Medici period; the frescoes we see today were painted by Pietro Benvenuti in 1828 and feature scenes of the Old and New Testaments; these frescoes were commissioned by the then-reigning Lorraine family.
Church of San Lorenzo
Of all the religious buildings in Florence, none is documented earlier than San Lorenzo. It was consecrated in 393 by St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and acted as the city’s cathedral, before either the Baptistery or Santa Reparata. It was rebuilt in the romanesque period, and re-consecrated in 1059. In 1418 the Medici decided to rebuild it entirely, and entrusted the project to Filippo Brunelleschi, who in 1421 designed the ‘old’ sacristy and the whole church, completed by Antonio Manetti in 1461. In the next century Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned to build the New Sacristy and the Laurentian Library, and to design the façade (which was never built). Inside, the church is planned as a Latin Cross, its aisles separated from the nave by Corinthian columns surmounted by high sculpted entablature blocks, supporting rounded arches. The nave is covered by a coffered ceiling with gilded rosettes on a white ground. The slender elegance of Brunelleschi’s architectural forms, and the contrast of grey pietra serena and white plaster, make the interior of San Lorenzo one of the supreme architectural masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance. The history of the church’s construction is closely linked to the patronage of the Medici family, who paid for most of the works of art inside. The two bronze pulpits are great works of Donatello’s late manner (c. 1460; finished by his assistants Bertoldo and Bellano), achieving intense dramatic expressivity in the New Testament scenes executed by Donatello himself in ‘stiacciato’ low relief, particularly the Deposition. Extreme technical refinement is apparent in the beautiful marble Tabernacle of the Sacrament, now in the right aisle, by Desiderio da Settignano (c. 1460). Like the Medici, the Martelli also made their mark on San Lorenzo, and their chapel off the left transept has a panel of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi (c. 1450). Minor painting of the 15th century is represented by the altarpieces in the left transept such as Raffaellino del Garbo’s Nativity with St Julian and St Francis, and St Anthony Abbot enthroned between St Laurence and St Julian, from the workshop of Ghirlandaio. The altars in the side aisles mostly have 16th-century altarpieces, most notably Rosso Fiorentino’s mannerist Betrothal of the Virgin, painted in 1523. His contemporary Pontormo executed some lost frescoes in the choir. The enormous fresco of the Martyrdom of St Laurence in the left aisle (1565-69) is by Pontormo’s pupil Bronzino. The basilica was completed by the Old Sacristy, commissioned by the Medici as their family mausoleum. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici entrusted the project to Filippo Brunelleschi, who between 1421 and 1426 built one of the most complex masterpieces of renaissance architecture. Dedicated to St John the Evangelist, it is structured as a cube covered by a hemispherical umbrella dome divided by ribs. The chromatic interplay of grey stone and white plaster is heightened by the presence of painted stuccoes: the frieze with cherubim and seraphim, the roundels with the Evangelists on the walls and the ones in the spandrels of the dome with Scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist, by Donatello, who was also responsible for the bronze doors with Saints, Martyrs, Apostles and Doctors of the Church. The frescoes in the small dome in the apse show the Sun and constellations as they appeared over Florence on the night of 4 July 1442. It is thought that this celestial map was executed by the eclectic painter and decorator Giuliano d’Arrigo, known as Pesello. The funerary monument to Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici, sons of Cosimo il Vecchio, was commissioned from Verrocchio in 1472 by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano: one of the most sophisticated products of Laurentian artistic culture.