The Basilica di San Lorenzo

By local tradition, the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a default spot for gathering friends, so much so that the words ‘see you at San Lorenzo!’ have become a standard phrase of the local dialect. This church is one of the oldest in Florence, standing in the historical heart of the city on a square of the same name, a stone’s throw from the Duomo. San Lorenzo, or St Lawrence in the English-speaking world, is the patron saint of many Italian towns and churches. According to his hagiography, St Lawrence was burnt alive. In many Italian towns on St Lawrence’s day the local congregation act out this scene. One of their number plays the role of the saint. He is laid on burning coals (not real ones, of course!), and pronounces the words he once said to his Roman executors: ‘I’m well done on this side: turn me over!’ The assembled usually then warmly applause.
Today the Basilica San Lorenzo has stood for over 16 centuries. The construction began in 393 on the orders of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. The walls we see today are, of course, significantly younger. Giovanni de’Medici, the founder of Florence’s ruling dynasty, paid for the church to be expanded and updated in 1419. This was a classic example of the tactics that led to the Medici’s rise; vast spending on popular projects and generous patronage of leading artists cemented the family’s legitimacy and popularity. Thankfully for us, Medici patronage was not only generous but discerning, and the choice of architect for the San Lorenzo restoration, the brilliant architect Filippo Brunelleschi, was no exception.
However, construction work was halted on the basilica when Giovanni Medici died in 1429. Only 12 years later the work was restarted, financed by Giovanni’s son Cosimo Medici, known as Cosimo the Elder to distinguish him from other Cosimos of the Medici line. Cosimo also ordered that a new sacristy be built for the church, and yet another ‘new’ sacristy was later designed and built, over 15 long years, by Michelangelo. The great artist was left with a terrible deformity from these years; during work on the Capella Medici the sculptor Torrigiano broke Michelangelo’s nose, terribly disfiguring this face. Torrigiano greatly envied the talent and success of his colleague Buonarotti. However, the blow which Michelangelo received by Torrigiano’s hand caused more moral than physical damage. The artist, who so worshiped beauty, and who created so many outstanding masterpieces of art history, was himself disfigured. The Czech writer Karel Schulz wrote movingly of Michelangelo’s spiritual suffering in the pages of his novel ‘stone and pain’: ‘No one will return my face to me. My features were smashed under the striking fist of that face-murderer Torrigiano like a broken mirror. Only fragments remain, defined in my scars. In an era when beauty is prized above all else, the beauty of the face above even this, in such an era am I condemned until my death to wander the earth as a nose-less freak with a monstrous physiognomy’.
The ‘Sagrestia Novia’ (the ‘new sacristy’) is one of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpieces, a perfect harmonisation of the arts of sculpture and architecture. The theme of man’s struggle to come to terms with his mortality is most aptly reflected in the four allegorical statues: ‘Day’ and ‘Night’; ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’. These sculptures stand in paired compositions on top of two tombs: ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ on the tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo, Duke of Nemours, who was youngest son to Lorenzo the Magnificent, and ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ on the tomb of his grandson, Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino. Each tomb is also complete with a statue of the Medici it holds. Michelangelo has imbued the image of Giuliano with courage and heroism; to Lorenzo he has attributed the philosopher’s pose. Despite their different paths in life, their aim, according to Michelangelo’s sculptural ensemble is the same; both these statues hold their gaze towards the nearby Madonna. Michelangelo’s nose was once broken in fight in his youth, so that the statue of day, with its deformed nose, is generally held to be a self-portrait. In the same way, the perfectly-straight nose of the figure of ‘Evening’ is often held to be the image that Michelangelo would have chosen for himself.
The most famous Lorenzo of the Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, is also buried in this chapel, together with his brother, who has murdered at the hands of a hired killer. Curiously, the grand sarcophagi planned for these Medici heavyweights were never begun. They are buried modestly beneath the altar; the location is marked by an ensemble of statues featuring the Madonna with Child flanked by the patron saints of the Medici family, Cosmas and Damian. The statues were carved by Angelo Montrosoli and Raffaello da Montelupo respectively.
Beyond the Sagrestia Novia is the more sumptuously embellished Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of Princes), whose walls are covered in marble and decorated with the heraldic symbols of the dukes of Tuscany. These dukes were buried here, in this octagonal hall, underneath a vast dome that is second in Florence only to that of the Duomo.
Underneath the church there is a mysterious crypt that for many years was kept a secret from visitors. The walls of the underground chamber are covered in concept sketches for some of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. The great artist took sanctuary here for three months, when he hid in the Basilica di San Lorenzo after the fall of the Florentine Republic.
Historians generally agree that the reason for the Basilica di San Lorenzo’s unfinished appearance lies in a disagreement between Michelangelo and Pope Clement VII concerning which material the building should be dressed in. Michelangelo insisted on a Tuscan speciality, white Carrara marble, but the Pope was equally determined that the choice should be stone from the region of Pietrasanta.
At times the Basilica di San Lorenzo, a massive edifice built from untreated stone arranged in sober proportion and strict lines without any embellishment, can appear brutal to visiting tourists.
Despite the fact that the Basilica di San Lorenzo was constantly added to and updated, the façade has remained untouched. The present mayor of Florence announced two years ago that the basilica should be covered in a layer of marble, as Michelangelo had intended. However, the work has never been started. The authorities say that this momentous decision should be undertaken only after a city-wide referendum. Yet there are rumours that this is really only an excuse; estimates of the cost of the project stand at two million euros, and sponsors are yet to be found.
Near the basilica, to the right hand side of the main entrance, stands the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. The library was founded in 1444 by Cosimo the Elder. The staircase in the book depository is yet another of Michelangelo’s outstanding works. On the opposite side of the Piazza di San Lorenzo from the church you can see the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.