Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes)

The group of the so-called Medici Chapels is annexed to the basilica of San Lorenzo, the Medici family’s private church. Its vast collection of rooms is of enormous historical and artistic interest, and holds the tombs of 50 members of the famous family.

Celebrating the dynasty’s prestige was already an idea of one of the forefathers of the line, Cosimo the Elder, when he decided to make the basilica the family sepulcher and wanted himself buried in the underground crypt beneath the central altar. According to chronicles of the time, the ceremony was grandiose and profoundly felt by the Florentine community, tearfully following the coffin of the man unanimously considered the “Father of the Country”.

But it was only at the beginning of the 16th century that the decision was made to start the ambitious project of a true family mausoleum in memory of the prestige and power acquired by the house of Medicis. In 1520, the Medici Pope Leo X, called Michelangelo to design a funeral chapel worthy of the name to hold the remains of some of his more illustrious family members. Tombs were planned to hold Lorenzo the Magnificent, his brother Giuliano de’ Medici and two of their children.

Michelangelo worked on and off on the project due to events regarding both his private life and the tormented life and times of the city. In fact, the work was interrupted both when the Medicis were thrown out of Florence and because of the siege during the period of the Florentine Republic. And when the artist finally abandoned the work to return to Rome, he had only finished two of the four planned statues. The work was completed around ten years later by Giorgio Vasari.

The chapel, at the back of the transept on the right, is known as the “New Sacristy”; the name clearly shows its derivation from the model of the “Old Sacristy”, built by Brunelleschi at the beginning of the 15th century, on the opposite side of the transept. Michelangelo, however, created a much more complex work, extremely imaginative and original, that opens the way to a concept of art that is absolutely revolutionary: as a whole, it represents the prototype of Mannerism.

Inside, the architectural elements seem compressed, almost as though they’re squeezed into too small a space. The false columns on the walls seem to squash the crowns of the niches, almost crushing them, and the statues appear too large for the spaces into which they’re put. The whole thing perfectly integrates sculpture and architecture, transmitting great energy and a strong sense of dynamism. The sculptural compositions dedicated to the two dukes are among Michelangelo’s most intense and expressive work, besides being absolutely some of the greatest sculptures of all time. The two monuments are mirror images of each other, both comprised of a statue of the Duke in the wall niche, and of two allegorical figures on either side of the sarcophagus.

The monument to Giuliano, duke of Nemours, occupies the central part of the wall to the right of the entrance. The duke is dressed as a captain, baton of command in hand, in a fiery, energetic pose: the very essence of an active life. This work was the target of much criticism and contention regarding the fact that the Duke’s face in the statue wasn’t like the live original. Michelangelo responded with a certain irony that, ten centuries from then, nobody would know the difference.

On the opposite wall there is the monument dedicated to Lorenzo, duke of Urbino. He is dressed as a soldier of fortune and is in a meditative, melancholy pose. Vasari had, in fact, called him the “thoughtful one” and the statue is probably a symbol of a contemplative life.

The decorations, almost as if guarding the sarcophagi, are Day and Night on one side, Dusk and Dawn on the other. These are the most obviously Michelangelesque works in the chapel: massive bodies with powerful muscles are the most evident representation of the expressive force of Michelangelo’s work since he considered himself, above all, a sculptor. He used marble as though it were alive: in Day’s rough and unfinished face at the duke of Nemours’ feet, while the light seems to stop for an instant as it flows gently over the incredibly smooth lines of Night. The whole figure, in fact, seems to shine with moonlight. The diadem on its forehead has nocturnal symbols: poppy bulbs, an owl and the mask of dreams.

A little room to the left of the altar hides a small treasure: among the charcoal drawings on the walls, there are some of Michelangelo’s autographs. Thus it would seem that this was the place where the artist hid just after the siege of Florence, to avoid republican revenge.

The tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano has remained unfinished. On the simple base you can admire a statue of the Virgin Mary by Michelangelo. The sculpture represents the spiritual fulcrum of the chapel, to which all the other figures seem to turn. At her sides, there are statues of the saints Cosma and Damiano, protectors of the Medici family.

The sacristy is an extremely intense work, with strong religious significance: according to Michelangelo, life on Earth can have no meaning without the existence of God.

Much more imposing and opulent than Michelangelo’s sacristy is the Chapel of the Princes, much desired by Cosimo I de’ Medici but built by his son Ferdinando, in the first years of the 17th century. It’s a monument to blinding magnificence, a true emblem of triumph and self-celebration. The original design was even more opulent – the dome was supposed to be covered in lapis lazuli and gilded bronze – but the extinction of the dynasty blocked the works. Being a Baroque work of art, the intent was certainly to amaze beyond all measure. Apparently, the idea was to actually place the Holy Sepulcher in the center of the atrium. But the various attempts at either buying or stealing it from Jerusalem evidently didn’t work out.

The immense, octagonally-shaped building has record dimensions: the dome is second only to that of the city’s cathedral. Inside, there’s not a single surface that isn’t covered in marble or other precious stone. The total decorative work went on for centuries because of the difficulty in finding the rare material and its high prices. Porphyry, granite and rare stones came from all over the world and a special workshop was created for their preparation, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, even today one of the top centers in the field of restoration.

Among the decorations on the walls is a high band embellished with the crests of the Tuscan cities dominated by the Medicis. It is made completely of lapis lazuli, quartz, alabaster, coral, mother of pearl. Another of the Chapels’ marvels is held in the small spaces at the sides of the altar. About 100 reliquaries are on exhibit there, belonging to the Treasure of San Lorenzo. They were created by the most famous Florentine goldsmiths of the 16th and 17th century and some are absolute masterpieces of Baroque gold working.

In the crypt beneath the Chapel of the Princes lie the remains of the grand dukes of the Medici dynasty along with those of their relatives. Among others, there is Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, the famous Renaissance mercenary. The entire burial complex is the triumphal celebration of the prestige of one of the most important families in European history. Even so, in the opulence of the Chapel of the Princes, as in the profound human reflections of Michelangelo’s Sacristy, you have the impression of coming back from a voyage that goes beyond history, traveling through time, to a special place that’s halfway between this life - and the beyond.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 25 Jun 2023

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