Medici Chapels and Michelangelo

[Photo Credits: Kwong Yee Cheng]
[Photo Credits: Kwong Yee Cheng]

My colleagues are taking advantage of the free Tuesday night opening tonight in state museums to visit the Medici Chapels (Cappelle Medicee), part of the monumental complex of the Church of San Lorenzo. Unfortunately I can't be with them to show them the incredible sculpture and architecture by Michelangelo so I'm going to jot down a few points to help them with their visit - and I figure this can be of use to you, too. Am I right?

When you enter the Medici Chapels, you'll enter first a large crypt space and then a very gaudy marble-encrusted chapel known as the Chapel of the Princes. Make no mistake, this space has nothing to do with the comparatively austere work by Michelangelo that you'll meet next. Begun by Matteo Nigetti in 1604 under the rule of Ferdinando, this octagonal space is a masterpiece of marble inlay or pietre dure work of which Ferdinando was a major patron. It took a long time - work continued until 1737, with some decoration lasting into the early 19th century. Go up to the altar to see some more intricately designed panels (not all of them are marble because it wasn't finished, as you can read in this post about the recent exhibit "Ferdinando I de’ Medici 1549-1609 Maiestate Tantum"). Continue down a hallway to the New Sacristy, designed by Michelangelo to mirror the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo by his great predecessor Brunelleschi. If I've never blogged about this space before, it's because it's too complex - but I said the same of the Laurentian Library before too. So before we start talking about what's IN there, we need to cover...

A bit of history

[Photo Credits: Amy Dianna]
[Photo Credits: Amy Dianna]

As you know, the Medici family were very powerful in Florence, and they also produced a few Popes. Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) succeeded Julius II (the patron of the Sistine Chapel ceiling) in 1513. Leo X wanted to honour the Medici family with some great works by Michelangelo in Florence. He commissioned Michelangelo to work on the facade of the church of San Lorenzo, but if you've glanced at that recently you can see he didn't get very far. That's because of a series of deaths in the Medici family that changed the Pope's priorities:  in 1516 Giuliano (brother of the pope) died in 1516, and then the pope’s nephew, Lorenzo the younger, who was Duke of Urbino, died in 1519. And that was the last legitimate heir of the Medici Family.

Times like these call for a good tomb. Michelangelo began work on the design in November 1520 and probably started working on the sculptures in 1524; there were supposed to be at least 24 life-sized sculptures in this space, plus the architectural framework. But not much of this got done because of changing political tides. The Sack of Rome in 1527 weakened the pope, of course, and the Florentines took advantage of this moment to form their very last Republic (after that the Medici Dukes never let go again). In all this turmoil, art, as you can imagine, is not a priority. In 1534 the artist left Florence for good, and the Chapel remained unfinished. What you see now is how Vasari arranged it.

The Medici family members buried in this chapel

It's important to get straight which Medici family members are buried here. The pope wants to build a burial monument for two Dukes...

1)    Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, who was a cleric for the pope in florence

2)    Lorenzo the younger, Duke of Urbino and chief of the papal troops

… as well as members from the older generation of the family:

3)    Lorenzo il Magnifico (died 1492)

4)    Giuliano, Lorenzo’s the magnificent’s brother, who was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy.

Michelangelo's Sculptures

Michelangelo - Giuliano Duke of Nemours is the Active Life The best viewpoint in order to orient yourself to this space is from the altar. You can stand with your back to it or enter into the small apse which has a bench on the far wall. This is the viewpoint that is represented in the photograph above. On the wall directly in front of you, you see the Medici Madonna in the center (flanked by two saints). This was to be the double tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano de' Medici, but very little got done. On your right is the tomb of Giuliano Duke of Nemours, represented in a seated portrait, and below him - lying on his sarcophagus - are the infamous figures of Night and Day. This Giuliano represents the active life. Giuliano himself is depicted as very much alive and alert, as if he might get up from his chair
Michelangelo - Lorenzo Duke of Urbino is contemplative
Michelangelo - Lorenzo Duke of Urbino is contemplative
On your left hand side you have, as comparison, the tomb of Lorenzo the Younger, Duke of Urbino. He represents the contemplative life, and as thinkers move more slowly, he's accompanied by the figures of Dusk and Dawn. You can see that he is the more mysterious of the two figures because his face is shaded by his very strange animal-shaped helmet. Both Dukes have in common that they are shown alive, when the tradition was to show dead figures reclining and, well, dead... And also that they are highly idealized - they look nothing like other portraits of the Medici family members, but more like typical Michelangelo figures. Michelangelo was criticized for this and is reported to have said that "in 1000 years nobody would remember what they looked like anyway". Now take a look at the metaphorical figures of Night, Day, Dusk and Dawn. These figures don't have attributes that associate them with the times of day (except for a small exception on Night), because Michelangelo wants to use the human body to communicate meaning. Look at their body positions and types and I think you'll know right away what I mean. If you had to express the figure of night, would it be an old man or a teenager? Would day be your grandmother? Night and Day create the greatest contrast in this space - young woman, old man. See how she is twisted up in an energetic coil that is just ready to bounce out of bed as I'm sure you do every morning? By the way, in case you were wondering about the choice of male or female to represent the times of day, the decision was pretty easy for an Italian: they are gendered according to the nouns in italian: Day = il giorno (masculine), Night = la notte (feminine), Dusk = crepuscolo or tramonto (masculine), Dawn = alba (feminine). There is a lot more one could and should say about this chapel, but this should get you through the space. Take a moment now to look at the many strange details on the sculpture, and some of the tricks of architecture too. For example, look for humanoid or animal shapes in the architecture. And count the doors... then try to figure out where they lead. Watch your step on the way out - the doors are framed on the bottom too - just because Michelangelo's mannerist architecture is more than a little peculiar.