A journey through the places of power of the Medici family in Florence
(by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
As mentioned earlier, the Medici family’s legacy to the city of Florence is not limited to their residences. For instance, Cosimo the Elder was responsible for renovating the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
Work on extending the ancient basilica began in the early 15th century. Among the financiers of the work was the banker Giovanni di Bicci De Medici, who lived in the neighbourhood and had a private chapel, today’s Old Sacristy, built nearby by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi at the time. This was completed in 1428, and in 1429, Giovanni De Medici’s solemn funeral was celebrated there.
From 1441, the burden of the work on the church was taken over by Cosimo De Medici, son of Giovanni. In this second phase, the direction of the job probably passed to Michelozzo, who had inherited several of Brunelleschi’s building sites. Finally, in 1457, Antonio Manetti Ciaccheri took over the direction of the building site, and the high altar was consecrated in 1461. Unfortunately, Cosimo De Medici died three years later and was buried in a pillar below the central altar in an underground crypt. From then on, this church, and its crypt, became the burial place of members of the Medici family, a custom that members of the Lorraine dynasty later took up.
In 1518, Pope Leo X Medici entrusted Michelangelo with designing a façade for the church, which had remained unfinished. However, the work was still incomplete due to technical and financial problems. A few years later, the design Michelangelo had made for the façade was reused to construct the façade of the basilica of San Bernardino in L’Aquila by Cola dell’Amatrice.
Also, in 1520, Leo X commissioned the great artist to build the New Sacristy, starting from Brunelleschi’s previous structure, with the purpose of housing the tombs of the two scions of the Medici family, Lorenzo Duke of Urbino and Giuliano Duke of Nemours. The work was carried out in several stages, including the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano. Finally, the structure was completed in 1524, characterised by white walls and pietra serena details. In it, the coffins are decorated with statues; only those of Dukes Lorenzo and Giuliano were completed by Michelangelo, and the others were made by Montorsoli and Baccio da Montelupo, disciples of Michelangelo.
Pope Clement VII Medici commissioned Michelangelo to create a balcony in the counter façade to display relics.
The Medici chapel complex also includes the Chapel of the Princes behind the high altar. This was a superb and costly undertaking begun in the time of Ferdinand I. It was built by the architect Matteo Nigetti between 1604-1640 to a design by Don Giovanni de’ Medici and is a rare example of Baroque style in Florence. It has a large dome, designed by Buontalenti, which was not finished until the 20th century, and six Medici Grand Dukes are buried in it.
The small bell tower dates back to 1740, the work of Ferdinando Ruggieri.
The last of the dynasty, Anna Maria Ludovica, commissioned the previous important work in the basilica: the decoration of the dome with the Glory of the Florentine Saints by the painter Vincenzo Meucci (1742), a meagre compensation. However, in comparison to the destruction of Pontormo’s frescoes in the choir, perpetrated in those same years.
The cloisters of the basilica of San Lorenzo lead to the Laurentian Medici Library.
The library was desired by Cardinal Giulio de Medici (Pope Clement VII) and was commissioned to Michelangelo, who directed its construction between 1524 – 1534. The building was resumed by Cosimo I de Medici in 1548 and completed in 1571. At that time, Michelangelo partially contributed to the project, and other artists were involved, such as Tribolo, Ammannati and Vasari.
According to the original plan, the structure should have included three parts: a vestibule, a reading room and a triangular room for rare books. Unfortunately, the latter was never realised.
This is a square, tall, narrow room, almost entirely occupied by the entrance staircase. Initially, the ceiling should have been lower, and there should have been windows in the roof to light the room from above, but the pope rejected this project, so the walls were raised to make classic, high windows that would still allow light to enter from above. However, the upper band remained incomplete until the beginning of the 20th century. The ceiling is the work of the Bolognese Giacomo Lolli (1857-1931), who created a canvas in imitation of the wooden decoration on the library ceiling.
The interior walls are designed like exterior architecture with two superimposed orders. The architectural elements do not have a practical purpose but are used for their plastic and aesthetic value. In fact, the twin columns, recessed in the wall, only rest on corbels, and the aedicule windows are blind niches. The recessed columns also have a structural function, as they lighten the wall mass allowing for more significant elevation.
The difference in height between the vestibule and the reading room required the creation of a grand staircase. Michelangelo’s design was provided to Ammannati in 1559. Originally the stairs were made of walnut wood, but they were later replaced by stone at the behest of Cosimo I. The style is Baroque, and, in particular, the monumental elliptical central steps, reminiscent of an imaginary stone casting, are an invention of Michelangelo. We also find them similar in the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy and in the arches of the Santa Trinita bridge.
The reading room consists of a long, wide corridor with wooden desks, probably all designed by Michelangelo, with ceiling and desks. Michelozzo’s library of San Marco inspires it. Still, it is not divided into naves because the rooms below would not have been able to support the weight of the columns. At the same time, buttresses were set up on the external walls, corresponding to the slender internal pillars, to ensure sufficient support for the walls, perforated by numerous windows. The walls thus appear punctuated by regular sections composed of sandstone pillars with Doric capitals and architraved windows. The effect is accentuated by the traditional design of the ceiling coffers and the terracotta and marble floor.
On the desks, the codices were stored horizontally on the lower shelves and were freely consultable, although secured to the counter by chains. In addition, the manuscripts were divided according to subjects (patristics, astronomy, rhetoric, philosophy, history, grammar, poetry, and geography). This arrangement was preserved until the early 20th century when the books were moved to their current storage rooms.
The stained glass windows were made by Flemish craftsmen to a design by Giorgio Vasari and have the Medici heraldry as their theme.
The ceiling, made of lime wood, was carved by Giovanni Battista del Tasso shortly before 1550; the panels feature the emblem of Cosimo I between pairs of dolphins, ovals with festoons and ibex skulls.
The floor has inlaid designs in red and white terracotta, made by Santi Buglioni from 1548 onwards, to a design by Tribolo that echoes the ceiling partition.
The Elci Tribune was added to the complex in the 19th century, a neo-classical rotunda with a small dome built to house the collection of the Florentine bibliophile and patrician Angelo Maria d’Elci, designed by architect Pasquale Poccianti. The latter also realised some plans to enlarge and renovate the reading room, but they were never completed. The addition of this structure also entailed some changes to the right wall of the Library. In fact, two windows were bricked in, and two were blinded (while a fifth became the entrance door), which resulted in a significant decrease in the room’s brightness compared to the original design. Initially, the dome was planned to be green but later preferred grey/white. It was inaugurated in 1841 and was used as a reading room until the 1970s. Now it is only used for special occasions.