The lively San Lorenzo quarter has been associated with the Medici ever since Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici commissioned Brunelleschi to rebuild the ancient church of San Lorenzo in 1420; subsequent members of the dynasty lavished bushels of florins on its decoration and Medici pantheon, and on several projects commissioned from Michelangelo.
The mixed result of all their efforts could be held up as an archetype of the Renaissance, and one which Walter Pater described as ‘great rather by what it designed or aspired to do, than by what it actually achieved’. One can begin with San Lorenzo’s façade of corrugated brick, the most nonfinito of all of Michelangelo’s unfinished projects; commissioned by Medici Pope Leo X in 1516, the project never got further than Michelangelo’s scale model, on display in the Casa Buonarroti.
To complete the church’s dingy aspect, the piazza in front contains a universally detested 19th-century statue of Cosimo I’s dashing father, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, who died at the age of 28 of wounds received fighting against Emperor Charles V.
The interior, although completed after Brunelleschi’s death, is true to his design, classically calm in good grey pietra serena.
The artistic treasures it contains are few but choice, beginning with the second chapel on the right housing The Marriage of the Virgin (1523) by the Mannerist Rosso Fiorentino. Rosso makes Joseph, usually portrayed as an old man, into a Greek god with golden curls in a flowing scene of hot reds and oranges – a powerful contrast to the chapel’s haunting, hollow-eyed tomb slab of the Ray Charles of the Renaissance, Francesco Landini (died 1397), the blind organist whose madrigals were immensely popular and influential.
At the end of the right aisle, there’s a lovely delicately worked tabernacle by Desiderio da Settignano. Most riveting of all, however, are Donatello’s pulpits, the sculptor’s last works, completed by his pupils after his death in 1466.
Cast in bronze, the pulpits were commissioned by Donatello’s friend Cosimo il Vecchio, perhaps to keep the sculptor busy in his old age.
Little in Donatello’s previous work, however, prepares the viewer for these scenes of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection with their rough, distorted, and impressionistic details, their unbalanced, highly emotional and overcrowded compositions, more reminiscent of Rodin than anything Florentine; one critic wrote that they represent ‘the first style of old age in the history of art’. Savonarola once used them to deliver his hell-fire sermons. Unfortunately they were set up on columns in the 17th century, just above eye level, like so many things in Florence, a fault somewhat redeemed by a new lighting system.
Nearby, directly beneath the dome, lies buried Donatello’s patron and Florence’s original godfather, Cosimo il Vecchio; the grille over his grave bears the Medici arms and the simple inscription, Pater Patriae, ‘the Father of his Country’.
It was the godfather’s father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who in 1420 commissioned Brunelleschi to build the Old Sacristy off the left transept. Often cited as one of the first and finest works of the early Renaissance, Brunelleschi designed this cube of a sacristy according to carefully calculated mathematical proportions, emphasized with a colour scheme of white walls, articulated in soft grey pietra serena pilasters and cornices; a dignified decoration that would become his trademark, something Florentine architects would borrow for centuries. Donatello contributed the terracotta tondi and lunettes, as well as the bronze doors, embellished with lively Apostles.
The Sacristy was built to hold the sarcophagi of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and his wife; in 1472 Lorenzo il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano had Verrocchio design the beautiful bronze and red porphyry wall tomb for their father Piero the Gouty and their uncle Giovanni. Unfortunately Verrocchio saw fit to place this in front of Brunelleschi’s original door, upsetting the careful balance.
The chapel across the transept from the entrance to the Old Sacristy houses a 19th-century monument to Donatello, who was buried here at his request near Cosimo il Vecchio. The lovely Annunciation is by Filippo Lippi; the large, colourful fresco of the Martyrdom of St Lawrence around the corner in the aisle is by Bronzino and has just beyond the Bronzino a door leads into the 15th-century cloister and library.
If Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy heralded the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s library is Mannerism’s prototype, or Brunelleschi gone haywire, no longer serene and mathematically perfect, but complicated and restless, the architectural elements stuck on with an eye for effect rather than for any structural purpose. The vestibule barely contains the remarkable stair, flowing down from the library like a stone cascade, built by Ammannati after a drawing by Michelangelo.
This grand entrance leads into a fabulous collection of books begun by Cosimo de’ Medici and includes a very rare 5th-century Virgil and other Greek and Latin codices, beautifully illuminated manuscripts, and the original manuscript of Cellini’s autobiography; ask for a look around.
Piazza San Lorenzo
Hours Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun (between Mar-Oct) 1.30-5.30pm; closed Sun from Nov-Apr
Adm €5, or €7.50 with the Biblioteca Laurenziana
+39 055 216634
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License