New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence


New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence
(1519-1534)
   The New Sacristy of San Lorenzo was conceived as a funerary chapel for members of the Medici family, namely Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino (d. 1519), Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (d. 1516), and the brothers Lorenzo "the Magnificent" (d. 1492) and Giuliano, the latter murdered during the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478). Michelangelo received the commission from Cardinal Giuliano de' Medici who later became Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534). Work was interrupted in 1527 as the sack of Rome resulted in Medici exile from Florence, though they were reinstated in 1530 by papal and imperial forces. As Michelangelo had aided in the fortification of the city during their absence to prevent them from retaking power, the Medici ordered Michelangelo's assassination. Soon however, Clement VII, who understood the uniqueness of Michelangelo's artistic abilities, pardoned the master and work on the New Sacristy resumed. In the end, Michelangelo left the project unfinished as Clement died in 1534 and Alessandro de' Medici was murdered in 1537. In that year, Michelangelo was in Rome and, having heard of the event, decided that it would not be safe for him to return to Florence to complete the work.
   Michelangelo's monument to the Medici and Filippo Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy stand at opposite sides of the transept of San Lorenzo. Therefore, Michelangelo consciously harmonized his design with that of his predecessor. He usedpietra serena (a local stone) trims over whitewashed walls and echoed the arches and pediments of the earlier structure. Yet Michelangelo also added decorative elements that are unprecedented, such as blind niches that are too shallow to contain statues, niches that are deeper at the top than at the bottom to accommodate carved swags, and columns that do not belong to any identifiable order, these supported by scroll brackets. Drawings indicate that originally Michelangelo intended a freestanding monument for the tombs in the center of the room. In the end, however, he settled for wall tombs, completing only those of the Medici dukes. Their sarcophagi are shaped like segmented (semicircular) pediments and feature a reclining figure at either side. Night and Day are on Lorenzo's tomb and Dusk and Dawn on Giuliano's; these figures imply the passage of time. Above the central split in each sarcophagus is the sculpted portrait of the deceased. Giuliano, in an assertive stance, holds a baton of command, while Lorenzo is pensive, his left arm resting on a coffer to reference the family's banking activities. For this, the figures have been given a Neoplatonic reading, with Giuliano seen as a representation of the active life and Lorenzo as its contemplative counterpart. Had Michelangelo executed the other tombs, the dukes would have gazed at their forbearers — an assertion of dynastic continuity.
   Michelangelo's drawings indicate that he intended to include river gods at the lower level of each tomb, meant to represent the four rivers of paradise. Frescoes on the lunettes above the tombs of the Resurrection and the Brazen Serpent, an Old Testament episode that prefigures the Crucifixion, would have provided references to the Christian promise of salvation. With the New Sacristy, Michelangelo sought to unite concepts of time, memory, and spiritual transcendence through an expressive visual language that broke away from normative artistic conventions.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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