The entrance to the Medici chapels leads through the crypt, a dark and austere place where many of the Medici are actually buried, the Archdukes with their jewelled crowns on their heads and their sceptres at their side.
Their main monument to themselves, the family obsession, is just up the steps: the Chapel of the Princes, a stupefying, fabulously costly octagon of death that, as much as the Grand Dukes fussed over it, lends their memory an unpleasant aftertaste of cancerous bric-a-brac that grew and grew.
Perhaps only a genuine Medici could love its insane, trashy opulence; all of Grand Duke Cosimo’s descendants, down to the last, Anna Maria Ludovica, worked like beavers to finish it according to the plans left by Cosimo’s illegitimate son, dilettante architect Giovanni de’ Medici.
Yet even today it is only partially completed, the pietre dure extending only part of the way up the walls. The 19th-century frescoes in the enormous cupola (designed by Bernardo Buontalenti in 1604 and only completed in the 20th century) are a poor substitute for the originally planned Apotheosis of the Medici in lapis lazuli, and the two statues in gilded bronze in the niches over the sarcophagi (each niche large enough to hold a hippopotamus) are nothing like the intended figures to be carved in semi-precious stone.
Inlaid pietra dura arms of Tuscan towns subjected by the Medici provide the best of the interior decoration, topped by the family arms, with their familiar six red boluses blown up as big as beach balls. These balls probably derive from the family’s origins as pharmacists (medici), and opponents sneeringly called them ‘the pills’. Medici supporters, however, made them their battle cry in street fights: ‘Balls! Balls! Balls!’
Michelangelo’s first idea was to turn it into a new version of his unfinished, lamented overly ambitious Pope Julius tomb in Rome, a hope quickly quashed by his Medici patrons, who requested instead four wall tombs.
Michelangelo managed to finish two, as well as the New Sacristy itself, creating a silent and gloomy mausoleum, closed in and grey, a chilly introspective cocoon that can depress even the chattiest tour groups. Nor are the famous tombs guaranteed to cheer. Both honour nonentities: that of Night and Day belongs to Lorenzo il Magnifico’s son, Giuliano, the Duke of Nemours, and symbolizes the Active Life (Kenneth Clark called this Michelangelo's finest piece of 'muscle architecture') while the Dawn and Dusk is of Guiliano’s nephew, Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino (and dedicatee of The Prince), who symbolizes the Contemplative Life (true to life in one respect – Lorenzo was a disappointment to Machiavelli and everyone else, passively obeying the dictates of his uncle Pope Leo X).
Idealized statues of the two men, in Roman patrician gear, represent these states of mind, while draped on their sarcophagi are Michelangelo’s four allegorical figures, The Times of Day, so heavy with weariness and grief they seem ready to slide off onto the floor. The most finished figure, Night, has always impressed the critics; she is almost a personification of despair, the mouthpiece of Michelangelo’s most bitter verse:
Sweet to me is sleep, and even more to be like stone
While wrong and shame endure; Not to see, nor to feel, is my good fortune.
Therefore, do not wake me; speak softly here.
Both statues of the dukes look towards the back wall, where a large double tomb for Lorenzo il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano was originally planned, to be decorated with river gods. The only part of this tomb ever completed is the statue of the Madonna and Child now in place, accompanied by the Medici family patrons, the doctor saints Cosmas and Damian sculpted by Michelangelo's followers, Montorsoli and Baccio di Montelupo.
In 1975, 56 charcoal drawings were discovered on the walls of the little room off the altar. They were attributed to Michelangelo, who may have hidden here in 1530, when the Medici had regained Florence and would only forgive the artist for aiding the republicans if he finished their tombs. But Michelangelo had had enough of their ducal pretences and went to Rome, never to return to Florence. Ask at the cash desk for a permit to see the drawings, as only 12 people can enter at one time.
Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini (behind San Lorenzo church)
Hours 21 March-Nov daily 8.15am-5pm; winter 8.15am-2pm. Closed on the 2nd and 4th Sunday and 1st, 3rd and 5th Monday of each month.
Adm €8, €4 reduced, under 18 free. Purchase tickets online to avoid the queues for a €3 free.
+39 055 2388602
Images by: Rufus46, Creative Commons License