The San Lorenzo: construction history

This church, with its facade that was never completed, was largely funded by the Medici, i.e. Cosimo the Elder.101 He donated the princely sum of 40,000 florins. Brunelleschi designed the church and the Old Sacristy.

Santa Maria Novella large size       Facade of the San Lorenzo and  an aerial photo        Youtube Google Earth San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo facade Florence


San Lorenzo large size       San Lorenzo aerial     The market of San Lorenzo      Without market       Youtube Google Earth San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo facade and side Florence

Later, Michelangelo Buonarroti built the New Sacristy on the east side of the transept. Buonarroti also designed the library in the adjoining inner courtyard. Michelozzo probably designed the first cloister (B on the floorplan below) We will visit Michelangelo’s library on the third day.

Video Google Earth San Lorenzo
Floor plan:
A. Old Sacristy (Brunelleschi)
B. Cloister (attributed to Michelozzo after 1457)
C. Laurentian Library (Michelangelo 1523-1529)
D. Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes by Buontalenti and others 1605-1737)
E. New Sacristy (Michelangelo)

The construction history of the San Lorenzo

One of the reasons behind the large number of churches that were built in the 15th century was the felt need of many rich families to be buried in a church. Each family wanted to have their own funerary chapel, and as close to the main altar as possible. The old San Lorenzo was considered ‘the ‘Duomo outside the walls’, and was even older than the Santa Reparata. According to the chronicles, the church was consecrated by St Ambrose in 393.

The district where the old San Lorenzo was located, the district of the Santissima Annunziata, was home to a large number of rich families including members of the Medici clan, such as Giovanni di’Averardo, a.k.a. Bicci, and his son Cosimo (the Elder). These rich families not only had much money, but also extensive influence in the city government, more specifically in the Signoria. The San Lorenzo chapter submitted a request to the Signoria for permission to build a new church. There was, however, a problem; a large number of houses had to demolished because the new basilica obviously had to be substantially larger. What would eventually prove impossible with the Santo Spirito, i.e. to turn the church around and build a beautiful square in front of the church (and the Arno), did succeed here. A large number of houses were demolished, creating room for a new square and a large church. The positive decision on the chapter’s request has been preserved and reads as follows:

‘As the church with its components of chapels, sacristy and other required elements is to be extended westward by a length of 65 braccia and a width of 110 braccia in line with the chapels, and because in this space [Teg: of the extension] is located the street named Via de’Preti, of which it is known that the houses there are in a poor state of repair, inhabited by people who have a bad reputation due to their lifestyle, most of whom are not from Florence; as well as a small public space behind the church’s campanile and other land that is the property of the Commune of Florence; and further, because a few small houses belonging to private citizens would delay the project due to their location, while all else belongs to the chapter, it has been decided that …’

Quoted and loosely translated from Howard Saalman, ‘Filippo Brunelleschi The Buildings’, Zwemmer, London, 1993 page 109.

It would appear that the chapter in its request to the Signoria had suggested that the people living in the houses that were to be demolished were of ill repute or from outside Florence.  After the Signoria granted its permission, the foundations for the main chapel was already laid in 1419. We know for a fact that Brunelleschi did not become involved in the construction of the church until a later stage of the project.

G. Vasari Marco da Faenza ‘Brunelleschi presents a model of the San Lorenzo to Cosimo the Elder’ large
G. Vasari Marco da Faenza Brunelleschi presents a model of the San Lorenzo to Cosimo the Elder Palazzo Vecchio Sala di Cosimo il Vecchio

G. Vasari Marco da Faenza ‘Brunelleschi presents a model of the San Lorenzo to Cosimo the Elder’ Palazzo Vecchio Sala di Cosimo il Vecchio 

Manetti writes that the “prior of the church – who was considered a person who was just as knowledgeable as other architects from his period – was appointed master builder. He started with the stone columns’ 102 As we have already seen in the case of the Santa Maria Novella, churches were often built by clergy of the order that already had the requisite architectural experience. Filippo Brunelleschi obtained the commission to build the San Lorenzo via the ‘backdoor’: the construction of ‘his’ Old Sacristy. He had to take the columns into account that had already been built in the crossing. It was the Old Sacristy, an assignment from Bicci de Medici, that had made a great impression. This was the reason Filippo was commissioned to build the church as well. The Old Sacristy, which today appears to be an integral part of this church, was originally designed as a separate space. We will examine and discuss this sacristy when we enter the church.

Despite an auspicious start to the construction, financial problems soon arose. In the years 1420- 1435, most construction activities in Florence came to a halt. This was mainly due to the wars against Visconti of Milan and Lucca. Also, Cosimo the Elder was driven from Florence and did not return from his place of exile, Venice, until 1434.

Around 1430, the San Lorenzo looked like an old mediaeval basilica with a portico and a campanile. Near the Via Preti, construction of the new church was still ongoing.

San Lorenzo Codice Rustici 1430
Codice Rustici San Lorenzo 1430

Filippo’s Old Sacristy had been completed, but the walls of the transept’s chapels had only been erected to a height of 60 centimetres. When Cosimo and his money returned to the city, the building activities started making headway, albeit not immediately. The project was rather controversial, which explains why Cosimo, the sly fox, initially focused his attention on a new palace for his family and on the San Marco. Michelozzo built, among others, a monastery and a library for this church.

Pontormo ‘Cosimo il Vecchio’ large       Cosimo’s Tomb
Pontormo 'Cosimo il Vecchio' painting

In 1440, the prior, Benedetto Schiattesi, convenes the council, the Gonfalone, to take a decision on the further construction of the San Lorenzo. There was no more money and the canons were all too eager to sell their rights to the chapels. Cosimo did not show up at this meeting. He did, however, make sure that everybody knew that he was willing to pay 40,000 florins for the construction, albeit on certain conditions. Two years later, on 13 August 1442, the Gonfalone reconvenes. This time to actually take a decision. And this time Cosimo did attend. The list of participants, including the prior, the cannons and the Medici supporters Piero de’Pazzi and Ugolino Martelli can still be found in the ricordi (minutes). Cosimo emerged victorious. In addition to the rights to some chapels, he also acquired the right to a tomb, directly below the crossing. The tomb had already been completed when Cosimo died in 1464. The rights to all the chapels have been meticulously recorded. Many opponents of the Medici lost their rights to the chapels in the transept. After all, these chapels were far too beautifully and prominently located. Clearly, they could not be granted to opponents of the Medici. There is one exception, the Rondinelli family (the chapel on the left that adjoins the main chapel. The Medici failed to acquire the rights to this chapel.

nave and transept
San Lorenzo nave and transept Florence

The transept and dome were completed even before Cosimo’s death. The remaining elements of the old San Lorenzo were demolished when the main altar had been completed in 1461. From then on, mass could be celebrated in the new section. In 1462, Pagno di Lapo is appointed the new campomaestro (master builder) of the San Lorenzo. Lapo took over from Manetti, who, prior to 1461, had built the dome as well as other elements. The remainder of the church, the nave, was built between 1460 and 1480 according to a design by Brunelleschi. After all, if one bay of the nave is known, the rest can be built based on that design.

For Michelangelo’s design for the facade of the San Lorenzo, click here.

Day 2- continuation 3