Michelangelo’s statues in the New Sacristy I

The statues of Michelangelo in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Mercato di San Lorenzo Florence
Wikipedia and Mercato San Lorenzo: Giuseppe Moscato

Before we go to the New Sacristy, we take a look at a work by Bandinelli, a contemporary of Michelangelo, whose work we will see later in the day. Bandinelli made a monument with Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, also sitting, just like the Lorenzo and Giuliano by Buonarroti, which we will see later. Bandinelli’s statue is on the right next to the facade of the San Lorenzo.

Chapel of the Princes entrance New Sacristy

We don’t walk into San Lorenzo now, but pass the market stalls to the west and arrive at the apse side of the church, where we see the entrance of the Cappelle Medicee. Here we look at the sculpture of Michelangelo, who else. (Click here for the architecture of the New Sacristy and click here for a map of the San Lorenzo with the Old [A] and the New Sacristy [E].

Before we enter the new sacristy, let’s take a look in the Cappella dei Principi.

Chapel of the Princes entrance New Sacristy Florence
photos: Dimitris Kamaras; Cappella: Yannick

After the failure of the facade project, Michelangelo is commissioned to design the New Sacristy. When the Medici, Giovanni, was elected Pope Leo X, it was decided to expand the tombs of the Medici in their church, the San Lorenzo. The parents of Cosimo the Elder lie in the Old Sacristy. He himself lies in the crypt near Donatello and in the left transept are his sons: Giovanni and Piero. Pope Leo X’s younger brother was Giuliano, Duke of Nemours. Leo X’s nephew was Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, who died in 1519. Both, Capitani, as they are often called, will be placed in the New Sacristy, along with two other Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico and Giuliano de Medici, who are often called Magnifici. Two Lorenzo’s and two Giulianos, Capitani and Magnifici.

New Sacristy        Other Side

New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo
Web Gallery of Art and side: Darren and Brad

 The genesis of the statues in the New Sacristy

In a papal bull, Clemens VII ensured that three masses a day were held in the New Sacristy by the monks of the San Lorenzo, alternating with reading psalms and prayers for the deceased. It was not until 1629 that Pope Urban VII released the monks from this obligation.

Michelangelo ‘Two tombs’ drawing 1521

As with the Laurenziana library, Michelangelo changed his ideas and designs while he was working. Originally there was to be a detached tomb in the middle of the sacristy; a sketch of this tomb has been preserved. Later this plan was abandoned: the space around such a tomb would become far too small to allow a good view of the statues, according to Michelangelo in a letter on 28 December 1520. At the same time Michelangelo played with the idea of four tombs, two on both side walls, as can be seen on Michelangelo’s drawings in the British museum.

Inscription content: Inscribed on the recto in Michelangelo’s hand in the same brown ink as the recto study: `la fama tiene gli epitafi a giacere no(n) ua ne ina(n)zi ne indieto / p(er)ch(e) so(n) morti e e loro op(er)are e fermo’ (`Fame holds the epitaphs in position; it goes neither forward nor backward for they are dead and their work is still’)

Michelangelo Study tomb Giuliano de’Medici c. 1524
The tomb with four figures

On this drawing, a lying river god is sketched on the left above the sarcophagus. The standing figures next to the recess are very similar to the figures that Michelangelo invented for the tomb of Julius II and that we previously saw as slaves in the Accademia. The standing figures will disappear, but the lying figure on the right of the sarcophagus will not. Later still, the idea comes up to make only one tomb per wall: two sarcophagi in total. There is another study drawing in black chalk and washed ink of the tomb of Giuliano de’Medici, currently in the Louvre. This design, which may still have been presented to Pope Clemens, probably betrays what Michelangelo eventually wanted.

The tombs on the side walls were originally meant to have other statues such as squatting figures and statues in the two smaller recesses that are now empty. First Michelangelo wanted to place river gods under both tombs. These figures were never carved, but life-sized clay models were made instead. We have seen such a model of a river god in the Casa Buonarroti.

Model God of the river        Preliminary study

Michelangelo Model God of the river Casa Buonarroti
Michelangelo clay model river god and a preliminary study pen and ink 137 x 209 mm, 1525  British Museum London

In April 1521 the work was completed up to the architrave. In the same year, Buonarroti went to Carrara to conclude contracts with stonemasons for the marble blocks intended for the figures in the chapel. To work faster, Michelangelo used a block of marble from his own studio on Via Mozza. This block was actually intended for the statues of the tomb of Julius II, on which Michelangelo also worked. In October 1525, Michelangelo started work on four figures.

Michelangelo in a letter To  Messer Giovan Francesco Fattucci, in Rome Florence April 1526
“I work as much as I can, and in fifteen days, I will let the other captain depart: then I will only have the four Rivers left with important things. The four figures on the boxes, the four figures on the ground representing the Rivers, and the two Captains and Our Lady who will go in the main tomb are the figures I would like to create with my own hands: and some of them have already been started six: and I simply have the courage to finish them at a suitable time and also to have the others done that are not so important.” Translated from: Brieven van Michelangelo Project Gutenberg

In 1527, work on the New Sacristy stopped: a new republican government came to Florence. Michelangelo was commissioned by this new government to carve a statue of Samson and the Philistine. The pope who knew all too well Buonarroti’s erratic behaviour and was afraid that the statues for the New Sacristy would never see the light of day. In 1533, he made sure that the sculptor Tribolo was sent to Florence to assist Michelangelo. Two other sculptors, Rafaello da Montelupo and Montorsoli were also directed to the New Sacristy. Not only Tribolo, Montorsoli and Montelupo, but Francesco da Sangallo has also contributed to the grave sculpture. Sangallo made a part of the frieze under the cordon frame after a model of the master himself, but unfortunately Michelangelo didn’t like it. Sangallo could not bear the sour looks and the way Buonarroti tried to avoid him.

While the statues of Lorenzo and Giuliano, the Capitani, were installed in the recesses, the four statues for the lids of the tombs were not yet in place. In the summer of 1534, Michelangelo left Florence and went to Rome where he would stay until his death. Eleven years later, Tribolo placed the four figures on the tombs and fourteen years later Vasari made the ugly floor. Cosimo made a request to Michelangelo in 1562 asking where exactly the statues should be placed, but Buonarroti did not answer. This refusal is not so strange according to Pope-Hennessy when you look at the statues separately.

The four statues on the two tombs in the New Sacristy

The marble block Michelangelo had taken from his studio is the block he used to carve Day. The Day was carved first, and from the altar’s point of view, to put it mildly, it is certainly not impressive. Michelangelo initially probably did not consider aligning the figures in such a way that they would look good on their own when viewed from the altar. This explains his refusal to respond to Cosimo’s question as to where the statues could best be placed. When you stand with your back to the altar, you see the wall on your left with the recess above the coffin: Giuliano and two figures lying on the sarcophagus: they are personifications of the Night (woman) and the Day (man). At the right wall you can see Lorenzo and two figures lying backwards under him: the man embodies the Twilight and the woman the Dawn.

Michelangelo New Sacristy: Lorenzo de Medici detail
photo: Steven Zucker
Michelangelo New Sacristy: Giuliano de Medici detail
photo: Steven Zucker

Continuation Florence day 4: Michelangelo’s statues in the New Sacristy II