Michelangelo’s New Sacristy in the San Lorenzo

Where the construction of the San Lorenzo facade was making little progress, the cousin of pope Leo X, carindal Giulio de ‘Medici, commissioned Michelangelo to construct a new family. This church, as we have seen before, is a church belonging to the Medici family. The pope’s uncle and father, Lorenzo and the assassinated Giuliano, would be interned here alongside other family members.

Click here for a map of the San Lorenzo with the Old [A] and the New Sacristy [E]. Originally, construction of the New Sacristy was in accordance with how Brunelleschi handled the opposite Old Sacristy some hundred years ago. The foundations of the New Sacristy were already laid. After this, Michelangelo Buonarroti became involved. The circumference and map do not deviate from the sacristy of Brunelleschi in this church (Click here for the sculptures of the New Sacristy or Cappelle Medicee in San Lorenzo).

We stroll past the market and eventually reach the apse, which leads to the entrance of Michelangelo’s New Sacristy.

Mercato di San Lorenzo       Entrance New Sacristy and Cappella Medicee

Mercato di San Lorenzo  Florence
photos: Giuseppe Moscato and entrance: Brian Dooley

The new style of Michelangelo

‘There is no doubt that the architectonic elements represent human limbs, and that those who are unfamiliar with the human body make for poor architects.’Michelangelo in one of his many letters (undated). 

In reality, Michelangelo used a completely different approach. While Brunelleschi’s sacristy marks the beginning of the Renaissance, the sacristy by Michelangelo signals the end of this period with the start of Mannerism.

New Sacristy        Other Side

Michelangelo New Sacristy interior  Florence
Web Gallery of Art and side: Darren and Brad

Brunelleschi’s Old Secretary

It is not only the calculated proportions that go lost, but also Vitruvian canon. Vasari wrote about the differences between the Old Sacristy of Brunelleschi and the New one, as follows:
‘[…] but with another manner of ornamentation, he made in it an ornamentation in a composite order, in a more varied and more original manner than any other master at any time, whether ancient or modern, had been able to achieve, for in the novelty of the beautiful cornices, capitals, bases, doors, tabernacles, and tombs, he departed not a little from the work regulated by measure, order, and rule, which other men did according to a common use and after Vitruvius and the antiquities, to which he would not conform. That licence has done much to give courage to those who have seen his methods to set themselves to imitate him, and new fantasies have since been seen which have more of the grotesque than of reason or rule in their ornamentation. Wherefore the craftsmen owe him an infinite and everlasting obligation, he having broken the bonds and chains by reason of which they had always followed a beaten path in the execution of their works.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel II, blz. 231.

Brunelleschi's Old Secretary Florence

So how exactly does the architecture in the New Sacristy or Cappelle Medicee deviate from Vitruvian rules?

Michelangelo gives the pilasters seven flutes instead of six like Brunelleschi The arch motif used by Brunelleschi above the pilasters is copied by Buonarroti, but in an illogical way. After all, the arch has to be supported by the pilasters, but in the New Sacristy the arches are floating without any support.

Floating arch and windows

Michelangelo New Sacristy interior  Florence
photo: Steven Zucker

This applies also to the frame directly under the arches that continuous throughout all the walls. The pendentives zone has remarkable windows. These floating windows taper at the top. The tapered lines of these windows continue into the linework of the cassettes in the dome, creating a strong perspective effect. These cassettes were based on the ones in the Pantheon, albeit much smaller.

Dome        Exterior

Michelangelo New Sacristy interior  Dome  Florence
photos: Richard Mortel and exterior Tubantia
Michelangelo New Sacristy door and aedicula Florence

What stands out most are the doors with the aediculas above it. This shows a complete turnaround of Vitruvian principles. It is almost a provocation. A ‘light’ door carrying a heavy recess. Furthermore, the recess above the door is rather peculiar. The segment-shaped pediment has broken through at the bottom and it almost appears as if a second recess has slid into it. The doors, with the above-lying aediculas, are crammed between the two fluted pilasters. The capitals and the pediment seem to be laying siege to each other inside an almost claustrophobic room. In addition, the white beams above the arches are new, they bear no real function other than breaking the monotonous wall.

Long recesses

Michelangelo does not just deviate from the across sacristy by Donatello in terms of Vitruvian principles. While the Old Sacristy is static, the New Sacristy is exceptionally dynamic. You will notice this quickly as you stand in the space. Very soon, you will feel an urge to look up. This upward movement is caused by the nifty design of several elements, like the long recesses above the doors and the windows above it, or the tapering windows in the lunettes that continue into the linework of the cassettes.

Michelangelo New Sacristy interior  Florence
photos: Steven Zucker

Aside from using many elements of the Old Sacristy, including pietra serena for the load-bearing structures, white plaster and the arches, Michelangelo also uses his own system. This is clearly shown at the material used by Buonarroti for the tomb walls: white veined marble. This is an obvious choice for an artist who signed his letters with ‘Michelangiolo scultore’. The ground floor uses marble to create a unity between the architecture and the statues (for the statues of the New Sacristy, click here, or look at the sections sculpting or artist). Still, in part because of the architecture in this chapel, the unity does not seem fully coherent. This is mainly because two systems are being used at once: Brunelleschi’s system and that of Buonarroti. Furthermore, the tombs are rather isolated from the recesses. Ackerman, who has written a classic about Michelangelo’s architecture, goes so far as to call it a failure. Ackerman, J.S., The architecture of Michelangelo, Penguin Books, London 1961 (reprinted 1995) blz. 78

Michelangelo New Sacristy interior  Florence

The walls with the recesses are not an integral part of the architecture. It is no more than a ‘screen’ for the burial tomb. Buonarroti was clearly inspired by the burial tomb tradition. For instance, the aedicula was traditionally used as a recess for statues of the gods, emperors or the dead, as shown in places like the Pantheon. In Michelangelo’s first sketches, we see that figures, likely allegorical ones, are drawn into the two side-most recesses. Originally, the design included two burial tombs per wall, but in the end only one coffin remains. While the walls with the burial tombs are nothing more than a kind of decorative wall, Buonarroti does attempt to link them to the architecture. He attempts this by having the proportions between the three bays of the entire wall return in the tomb wall. This rhythm translates into ABA, in which the wide centre-most bay is B, flanked by the two smaller bays (doors with recesses). This proportion re-appears in the tomb wall, albeit in smaller dimensions like aba. This equally applies to the segment-shaped pediments above both doors, which re-appear in the two side-most recesses of the tomb wall. The doors, too, are reflected in the rectangular recesses beneath and next to the sarcophagus. The wall of the burial tomb has been constructed in full accordance with classic Vitruvian rules. So this is not the fantasy-architecture that we see in the sacristy itself.

In September 1534, Michelangelo left Florence, never to return again. The architecture had not yet been fully completed. The statues carved by Michelangelo for this sacristy and burial chapel, were jumbled together (for the story of the statues of this sacristy, please visit the sections: sculpting, artist or click here). The Madonna was only found in Michelangelo’s house years later. Followers of Michelangelo later placed the tomb and statues together. The public was not allowed to enter until 1545.

The freedom of which Vasari spoke in the aforesaid quote, took Buonarroti to unprecedented heights in designing the library for the San Lorenzo cloister.

Continuation Florence day 2: Laurenziana Library in the cloister of San Lorenzo