The Medici Chapels: the Crypt, the Cappella dei Principi and the Sacrestia Nuova
The Medici Chapels in Florence are the burial place of a large part of the Medici family and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Visiting them you can get a taste of how rich and powerful this family was which, in the wake of numerous other powerful characters in history (just think of pyramids and mausoleums), had a sumptuous sepulcher built that would leave the visitor speechless.
The Medici Chapels are located behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo to which they are part. This church was considered by the Medici to be a sort of family church, given that until the mid-seventeenth century they had had one of their main residences in the nearby Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
In 1429 in the Basilica of San Lorenzo took place the funeral of Giovanni dei Medici who was the first member of the family to be buried in the church (his tomb is located in the Old Sacristy). Then it was the turn of his son, Cosimo de’ Medici, who was buried in a crypt under the central altar.
The construction of what we know today as Medici Chapels dates back to a period between the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea of building the Medici tombs was born in 1520 when Michelangelo began to work on the construction of the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy) of San Lorenzo. In the following century, instead, the magnificent Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) was built.
From that moment on, with rare exceptions, the Medici Chapels hosted all the members of the Medici family and, after their extinction, also the Grand Dukes of the Lorraine family. Among the people buried in the Medici Chapels are some of the most illustrious and important characters in the history of Florence and Tuscany.
Museum of the Medici Chapels
The museum of the Medici Chapels Museum was established in 1869. It is composed of the Crypt, the Cappella dei Principi and the Nuova Sagrestia. The museum also preserves part of the Treasury of the Basilica of San Lorenzo consisting of precious relics and sacred vestments.
The Crypt is the first room to visit in the Medici Chapels museum. It is an austere environment, especially when compared with what awaits us later, characterized by low cross vaults. On the floor there are the tombstones of numerous Grand Dukes of Tuscany, their wives, their children and other members of the family, among which the famous condottiero (captain of mercenary company) Giovanni delle Bande Nere stands out.
Inside the crypt there is a series of display cases that contain an important collection of reliquaries and sacred objects made between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the rulers of Tuscany.
This is not the only crypt of the complex as there is another one located under the Basilica of San Lorenzo. In this second crypt there are the tombs of Donatello and Cosimo il Vecchio, who laid the foundations of the great wealth of the Medici.
Cappella dei Principi
From the crypt, a staircase leads up to the upper floor, where there is the Chapel of the Princes which we could define as the Medici Chapel par excellence. The chapel was designed by Cosimo I but it was his successor, the Grand Duke Ferdinando I, who started the construction work. The project was entrusted to the architect Matteo Nighetti who worked on the chapel from 1604 to 1640, following the original design by Don Giovanni de’ Medici.
The result is a large octagonal room, entirely covered with precious stones and surmounted by a large dome, made by Buontalenti, which with its 59 meters in height is second only to the dome of the Cathedral.
Surely it cannot be said that the Medici spared no expense when they built this chapel. The floor and walls are covered with inlays of white marble and semiprecious stones such as porphyry, lapis lazuli, granite, mother of pearl and quartz.
Here finds its maximum expression the art of the “commesso fiorentino” made by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure which was specially created for this project. Other precious materials such as mother of pearl and coral were used to reproduce the coats of arms of cities loyal to the Medici.
The dome also had to have the same type of decoration, but at the time of the end of the Medici family it had not yet been completed and the new grand dukes, the Lorraine, decided to have it frescoed by Pietro Benvenuti with scenes from the Old and New Testament (1828).
On the wainscot are the sarcophagi of the grand dukes Cosimo I, Francesco I, Ferdinando I, Cosimo II, Ferdinando II and Cosimo III. The sarcophagi do not actually contain the bodies of the grand dukes which are instead found in the crypt.
Behind the grand-ducal tombs there are niches that were intended to house the satutes of the sovereigns. Of these statues only two were made, that of Ferdinand I and that of Cosimo II, and both are the work of Pietro Tacca.
The visit to the Medici Chapels continues with the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. Here you can admire Michelangelo’s work and genius in all its splendor. In fact, it was he who built the sacristy between 1521 and 1534.
In the New Sacristy, Michelangelo was both an architect and a sculptor. In the project he took the plan of the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi and then created more complex architectures with triumphal arches and spaces similar to apses.
Michelangelo sculpted the statues for the tombs of Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours and Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino. In addition to the portraits of the dukes, Michelangelo created two wonderful sculptural groups representing the Allegories of Time. Giuliano de’ Medici, represented as a proud leader, rests under the statues representing the Day and the Night while. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is accompanied by depictions of Dawn and Twilight.
In the center is a statue of the Madonna with Jesus on her lap, also the work of Michelangelo. The other two statues, those of Saints Cosma and Damiano, were instead made by Montorsoli and Baccio da Montelupo.
Two other monumental burials were originally planned for Lorenzo the Magnificent and for Giuliano de’ Medici. Unfortunately in 1534 Michelangelo left Florence and the work remained unfinished and the remains of the two were placed in the sarcophagus under the statue of the Madonna and Child.
We close with a curiosity. In 1976, 56 drawings were discovered depicting heads, faces and other anatomical details, located in a small space between the sacristies and the apse. In all likelihood these sketches were made during the preparation of the works and it is half a mystery that they have been discovered after so long.
The entrance to the Medici Chapels is located in the square that opens behind the San Lorenzo complex, Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini. The visit to the Medici Chapels lasts about an hour and a half. The museum is almost always open but often only for half a day, either in the morning or in the afternoon. For this reason, I recommend that you always consult the official website before visiting the Medici tombs. If you are organizing more visits to various museums, you could consider the combined ticket which in addition to the Medici Chapels includes the Bargello Museum, Palazzo Davanzati, Orsanmichele and Casa Martelli.