San Lorenzo, the Medici church
Located in the square of the same name, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is one of the main churches in Florence and one of the oldest, if not the oldest of all. Seeing its unfinished facade many may think that this church is not that important but this is absolutely not true. For some centuries this was the cathedral of Florence and inside there are numerous artistic masterpieces signed by some of the greatest artists who have worked in the city.
According to tradition, this church was founded by Sant’Ambrogio, bishop of Milan, in the year 393 in the presence of San Zanobi. Although today it may seem incredible, this area at the time was located outside the city walls and was crossed by the Mugnone stream that today we find in a completely different area since it was diverted in the past.
As it is easy to imagine, almost nothing remains of that primitive church today except very few traces found during some excavations carried out in the crypt. Over the centuries the structure of the church has been modified over and over again, up to the current configuration.
In 1059, the church of San Lorenzo was again consecrated after having been considerably enlarged. On that occasion other rooms were built, such as the cloister, which further expanded the ecclesiastical complex.
Another important renovation took place starting from the early 1400s. It was in this period that the Medici family joined the church which became for them a real family church as well as a place chosen for their sumptuous burials, especially through the famous Medici Chapels. In fact, it was the Medici who subsidized the imposing fifteenth-century works. The project was initially entrusted to Filippo Brunelleschi, former architect of the Sagrestia Vecchia, although it was later completed by Antonio Manetti.
As already mentioned, the facade was never finished but there are documents that attest to the existence of a project signed by Michelangelo Buonarroti. This project never came to light, but it was the inspiration for the construction of the basilica of San Bernardino in L’Aquila.
Two popes, Leo X and Clement VIII, both from the Medici family, commissioned the great Michelangelo to build the New Sacristy, the Laurentian Library and the balcony on the counter-façade. The construction of the Chapel of the Princes was started by Ferdinando I and Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last of her dynasty, commissioned the decoration of the dome to the painter Vincenzo Meucci (1742).
The external profile of the church of San Lorenzo is quite articulated. The façade is unfinished with exposed stones without any covering or decoration. On the right side you can see the small dome of Michelangelo’s Sagrestia Nuova and the bell tower which was erected in 1740. The large dome, second only to that of the Duomo, located on the back, belongs to the Chapel of the Princes. A third dome is located on the left side, similar to the one on the right, is located above the Sagrestia Vecchia.
Interior of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence
The basilica of San Lorenzo has a Latin cross plan with three naves. At the intersection between the arms of the cross we find another dome (the fourth!), While along the sides there are a series of side chapels. When Brunelleschi designed the church, he took inspiration from other medieval Florentine churches such as Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Trinita. Obviously, however, Brunelleschi put some of his own into it, creating a perfectly organized space, managing to define a very suggestive perspective.
To each of the large arches that allow the passage from the central nave to the side ones, there is another one that frames a chapel. The church was completed after Brunelleschi’s death and the chapels were probably completed later. This could be the explanation of the fact that the chapels do not perfectly respect the module used by the architect in the design phase. Another inconsistency with it can be found in the transept, but in this case it is likely that Brunelleschi had to adapt to the work already started earlier by the prior Matteo Dolfini. The project also included other chapels also in the counter-façade, at the ends of the transept and in the back wall. In this case, Brunelleschi was unable to fully implement this idea which was instead realized in the Basilica of Santo Spirito.
Visit to the church of San Lorenzo
Inside the church of San Lorenzo you can admire a large number of works of art, created by various Florentine artists: the works contained in the basilica represent an authentic and suggestive tour through centuries of art history.
The two bronze pulpits by Donatello, the Pulpit of the Resurrection and the Pulpit of the Passion, and the Annunciation Martelli by Filippo Lippi date back to the fifteenth century; all magnificent works that give us an idea of the level reached by Florentine art during the Renaissance.
In 1523, Rosso Fiorentino created the Marriage of the Virgin, a true masterpiece of Mannerism, while the Tribuna delle reliquie, located in the counter-façade, was built in 1531 and 1532 by Michelangelo. The large fresco, Martyrdom of San Lorenzo by Agnolo Bronzino, which we find in the left aisle, also dates back to the 16th century.
Other works were instead carried out during the eighteenth century. Among these are the Crucifixion by Francesco Conti and the Call of St. Matthew by Pietro Marchesini. In the church of San Lorenzo we also find a Madonna enthroned between Saints Lorenzo and Zanobi dated 1877 and an altarpiece with Christ and Saint Joseph in the workshop, made by Pietro Annigoni in 1964.
As you can see, this is a real journey into art that starts in the 15th century and goes up to the 20th century. Do not stop at appearances and do not be misled by the bare facade of this church, come and discover all its masterpieces!
The Sagrestia Vecchia is one of the most evocative environments of the whole church. Dedicated to San Giovanni Evangelista, this sacristy was born as a mausoleum of the Medici family. Much of the interior decoration is the work of the great Donatello, while the funeral monument to Giovanni and Piero de’ Medici was made by Verrocchio. A real gem is the presence of a fresco depicting an astronomical map, with the celestial bodies visible from Florence on the night of July 4, 1442.
Chiostro dei Canonici
The Chiostro dei Canonici was also designed by Brunelleschi but it was built only after his death. It is a very beautiful environment, an oasis of peace in the heart of the city, with a double loggia on two levels where some works of art of exquisite workmanship are kept. From the cloister you can access the crypt, where the tombs of Cosimo the Elder and Donatello are kept, and the Biblioteca Laurenziana.
Tesoro di San Lorenzo
The basement of the basilica of San Lorenzo houses the so-called Museum of the Tesoro di San Lorenzo. Here are exhibited various objects related to worship such as reliquaries and liturgical furnishings of various types. One room is dedicated to a series of drawings made by Jacopo da Pontormo. In addition to the museum, in the basement of the church you can visit the tomb of Giovanni di Bicci and those already mentioned by Cosimo the Elder and Donatello.
Information on timetables and tickets for the basilica of San Lorenzo
The San Lorenzo complex is divided into three parts: the basilica with the Old Sacristy and the crypt, the Medici Chapels (i.e. the Chapel of the Princes and the New Sacristy) and the Laurentian Library. Therefore, if you want to visit both the basilica and the other rooms you will have to buy more tickets.
The basilica of San Lorenzo is open from Monday to Saturday from 9.30 to 17.30.
It is closed to visitors on Sunday, January 1, January 6 and August 10, the day of San Lorenzo.
The entrance ticket for the church of San Lorenzo has a price of 9 euros.
Children up to 12 years, handicapped and accompanying persons, tourist guides and group leaders enter for free.