The statues of Michelangelo in the Cappelle Medicee or New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo

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.

Bandinelli ‘Giovanni dalle Bande Nere’ large size
Bandinelli 'Giovanni dalle Bande Nere'

picture: Wikipedia

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 Chapel of the Princes and 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).

Chapel of the Princes entrance New Sacristy
Cappelle Medicee Chapel of the Princes entrance New Sacristy San Lorenzo

picture: manelzaera

New Sacristy and the San Lorenzo pictures:
Timetable, entrance and address
Museum’s plan

Entrance Monarch chapel New Sacristy Cappella Medicee
Entrance Monarch chapel New Sacristy Cappella Medicee San Lorenzo Florence

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 (click here for the current excavations of the Medici in the San Lorenzo). 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.

1. Video: lecture William E. Wallace Michelangelo and his studio in the new sacristy (starts at 8.14 tot 14.04 minutes)
2. Video Khan Academy (6.37 minutes)

 The genesis of the statues in the Cappelle Medicee (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 (click here for the story about the architecture of the New Sacristy)

New Sacristy large size

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 1520.222 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.

 Michelangelo  ‘Two tombs’ drawing, 1521 large size
Michelangelo  'Dubbele graftombe' tekening  1521, h. 207 en b. 161 millimeter, British Museum

Michelangelo  ‘Two tombs’ drawing, 1521,h. 21 x w. 16,2 cm., British Museum
Capion: ‘Fame holds the epitaphs in position; it goes neither forward nor backward for they are dead and their work is still’

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..

Michelangelo Study  tomb Giuliano de’Medici c. 1520
Large size        Detail: below       Top
Michelangelo Study  tomb Giuliano de'Medici c. 1520 23,1 x 20,3 cm  black chalk and brush in brown,  Louvre

Michelangelo Study  tomb Giuliano de’Medici c. 1520 23,1 x 20,3 cm  black chalk and brush in brown,  Louvre

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.

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. In a letter from Michelangelo to Fattucci from April 1526, one can read, among other things:

‘‘The four river gods for the underside of the tomb, the two Capitani and the Virgin and the Child, these are the figures I want to carve with my own hands, and I have started with six of them.’223

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.224

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.

Lorenzo de Medici large size        The wall   Giuliano de Medici large size      The wall
Lorezo Medici Cappelle Medicee or New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo   Michelangelo Giuliano Cappelle Medicee or New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo

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.225 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.

Interior large size              Interior
New Sacristy Cappelle Medicee San Lorenzo Michelangelo
Giuliano large size
Giuliano Cappelle Medicee or New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo
 Lorenzo large size
Lorenzo Cappelle Medicee or New Sacristy San Lorenzo Michelangelo

The Night is based on the classic sarcophagus of Leda, which later disappeared. Only a drawing from the sixteenth century remains. A new feature is that Michelangelo lets the right arm run diagonally to the front of the block where the elbow rests on her left upper leg. Moreover, Michelangelo’s left arm almost disappears completely. The latter was not done intentionally, but was an emergency solution.226 The rough piece of marble directly above the mask is all that remains of what was first a part of the left arm and perhaps resembled Leda’s arm in a painting by Michelangelo that was lost, but of which there is still a copy. The statue of Ammanati, Leda and the Swan, is also clearly inspired by the disappeared painting with the theme of the same name by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s Night Leda and the Swan copy after Michelangelo’s disappeared painting large size
Michelangelo's Night New Sacristy San Lorenzo

picture: Linda De Volder

Of the four statues that are lying down, the Night is the only statue that has been given attributes that leave no doubt about the meaning of this woman. A moon and a star are depicted on her headgear. Her hip shows an owl and her left foot rests on a bag of poppies. The mask as attribute is less clear. The biographers and contemporaries of Michelangelo, Condivi and Vasari, endorse the meaning of the Night and the Day. Condivi writes as follows:

‘[…] two great figures, more than life-size, a man and a woman representing Day and Night and, for both characters, Time that destroys everything. And to make it clearer what he meant, he added to the Night, embodied by a beautiful woman with the owl and other appropriate symbols, the Day with its attributes, and to depict Time he wanted to make a little mouse and for that purpose he had put a piece of marble aside (but he was prevented from making it). All because that little creature gnaws at everything and consumes everything, like Time does.’

Ascanio Condivi, ‘The life of Michelangelo,’ (edited by Hellmut Wohl), The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1999 p. 67

It is no big secret that Michelangelo could quote large parts of Dante’s ‘La Divina Commedia’ or work by Petrarca by heart and he used this knowledge for his art as shown in the following lines by Petrarca.

‘‘Death makes way for celebrity, but celebrity in turn makes way for death.’227 Man is overtaken by the gnawing of time. Condivi – who wrote a biography about the life of Buonarroti, approved by Michelangelo – describes how Michelangelo carved a mouse out of a piece of marble. In his Lives, Vasari cites a poem about the Night and Buonarroti’s answer to it: ‘The Night, which you so sweetly see sleeping, was hewn out of this stone by an Angel; and there where she sleeps, she lives. Wake her up, if you don’t believe it, and she will speak to you’ To this, as a personification of the Night, Michelangelo replied accordingly: ‘Sleep is dear to me, even more dear to be made of stone, as long as adversity and shame last. Not to see, not to hear is my great happiness; Therefore, do not awaken me: Oh well, speak softly.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part 1I 1992, pp. 233-234 (original edition 1568).

The Night is carved out of a slightly larger marble block than the other three personifications made out of blocks of the same size.

The four personifications spiral around the centre axis. Although they are rather muscular, they make a powerless impression. Only the Night sleeps. The body of the Day is based on the famous torso of Belvedère. This torso also had a great influence on Michelangelo’s painted Ignudi (see Rome: Sistine chapel ceiling). Lorenzo’s introvert attitude can be found in the two figures on the sarcophagus below him: Dawn and Twilight.

Michelangelo Day preliminary study large        Day      Video BBC met name over de Dag (3.52 – 7.53 minuten
the back of the Day Michelangelo new sacristy

The body of the Dawn is much more feminine than that of the Night. The female personification of the Night in particular has a body that is more reminiscent of a man than of a woman. Her breasts look like attributes that have only been added to make it clear that the Night really must represent a woman. Besides, according to oncologist James Stark, there is something strange about the breasts that Michelangelo often uses for his women. An explanation for the way Buonarroti emasculates his women, something that you can also see in his frescoes in the Sistine chapel, for example, is found in the artist’s alleged homosexual orientation. However, literature writes and thinks differently about this subject.

Whatever the case, a muscular male body is considerably more difficult for a sculptor to carve than a female nude. After all, a considerable knowledge of tendons, muscles and veins directly under the skin is required, of which the young Michelangelo had already made a study when he dissected corpses in the morgue of the Santo Spirito. Did Michelangelo use the difficultà of a male body for the Night to show how well he could sculpt?

Dawn (woman) and Twilight (man) Night (woman) and Day (man) and Night disassembled
Dawn (woman) and Twilight (man) Night (woman)

The figures on the tomb seem to slide off the lid. This is very clear to see at the Night and the Day, where the legs have no support from the lid. Moreover, the posture of the Day is very strange, imagine lying on a tomb in that way. At the back of the Day (bottom left) and the Twilight you can clearly see that one figure is straight at the bottom and the other has a round shape parallel to the round lid of the sarcophagus.

Michelangelo Rear side Day large format       Backside Twilight      Night disassembled
Michelangelo Rear side Day disassembled new sacristy

A possible explanation for this is Pope-Hennessy’s view that the shape of the lid of the tomb was later changed: the bottom and the size of the Day and Twilight are not the same.228 It is striking that Michelangelo’s statues ignore the commandment of every Renaissance artist, namely to depict naturalistically. The proportions of the body parts to each other and to the whole body are no longer accurate. Art historian Forcellino notes the following in his biography of Michelangelo:

‘For example, in the most admired figure of the Night, the upper body is disproportionately longer than one might expect, but thereby achieves the expression of perfect concentration that only an artist capable of breaking through realistic boundaries can achieve. The Dawn’s arm is also given the same unnatural extension. She opens her veil with a sweet gesture, creating a line that continues in the spread legs. The same variation in anatomy can be seen in all the other sculptures. This process of change and deformation of the body, intended to achieve that perfect posture with which the physical and psychological movement coincide, only becomes credible in the perfect details. For Michelangelo, anatomical studies were not the goal of the representation, but the starting point for achieving an ideal in which everything was left out of the body that did not contribute to the representation of the essence.’

Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo A restless life’, New Amsterdam/Manteau 2005 p. 215

The recesses with Lorenzo and Giuliano Capitani

The two statues in the recesses are not of the Magnifici, but of the dukes or Capitani. Duke Lorenzo was commander of the papal army. Giuliano holds a staff and Lorenzo wears a strange helmet in the shape of something that resembles a sea creature. This kind of headgear comes from the Etruscans. Although the two statues do look towards the same side: towards Mary, they are in many ways an opposite of each other. Giuliano looks powerful, a seated variant of the David, and his body has a spiral-like contrappostoo.229 The left foot is withdrawn, giving the impression that he wants to get up. His whole posture shows that Giuliano is focused on something outside him. Very different is the attitude of Lorenzo. The hand at his chin and the slightly bent forward body show Lorenzo as someone who is turned in himself. Given the position of his feet, he would not even be able to take immediate action. Giuliano is a kind of compromise between a sitting and standing figure. A shadow falls on both figures in the New Sacristy. The figure Lorenzo was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Thinker: the Pensieroso, there is much romantic literature about the deeper thought of this figure.

Both figures are certainly not portraits: neither physically nor psychologically. Often the two figures are interpreted as Active and Contemplative life. Michelangelo writes about Duke Giuliano:

‘The Heavens and the Earth … The Day and the Night talk to each other and say: “We have led Duke Giuliano to his death, swiftly. That is why he is right to take revenge. His vengeance is that now that we have killed him, he robbed us of the light and with his eyes closed, closed ours, so that our eyes no longer shine across the earth. What could he have made us if he had continued to live.

Lorenzo de Medici large size              Lorenzo


Giuliano de Medici large size           Giuliano

Both figures are certainly not portraits: neither physically nor psychologically. Often the two figures are interpreted as Active and Contemplative life. Michelangelo writes about Duke Giuliano:

‘‘The Heavens and the Earth … The Day and the Night talk to each other and say: “We have led Duke Giuliano to his death, swiftly. That is why he is right to take revenge. His vengeance is that now that we have killed him, he robbed us of the light and with his eyes closed, closed ours, so that our eyes no longer shine across the earth. What could he have made us if he had continued to live??’230

Michelangelo has not provided any of the eyes of the statues in this sacristy with anything reminiscent of pupils. This makes it look like the ‘closed eyes’ he writes about. At the time, this was unique in the history of sculpture. A contemporary heard Michelangelo say about the portraits of Giuliano and Lorenzo: ‘but it  gave them a greatness, a proportion, a dignity … . which, according to him, brought more honour to them, in a thousand years’ time nobody will know that they looked different.’231 The dukes are thus clearly idealised and they are in fact immortalised by these statues. According to art historian Forcellino, who wrote a biography about Michelangelo, the true nature of Lorenzo and Giuliano was quite different from the way Michelangelo had portrayed them.

‘Lorenzo, the first Duke of Urbino, was best known for his lack of military courage and his leniency towards his very ambitious mother. Here, he is presented as a young Caesar, unsurpassed in his physical beauty and noble appearance, referring to ideas that the superficial, vague young man had never had in reality. Giuliano, who had always been sickly and had a very weak physical constitution, was depicted here as a fiery army commander who had just stepped off his horse.’

Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo A restless life’, Nieuw Amsterdam/Manteau 2005 pp. 196-197

The Madonna with the Child opposite the altar in the New Sacristy

The least completed and most deviant statue in this sacristy is: Mary and her child. Through the glances of both dukes in the recesses, attention is quickly directed to Mary. The statue is based on a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Penelope. Originally there was to be a free-standing tomb in the middle of the sacristy. The Mary was planned as part of a group of statues. At first the child was standing between her legs and she looked down on her son. Michelangelo had already done something like this with his so-called: ‘Bruges Madonna‘. Three statues can now be seen on the south wall opposite the altar: Mary with child in the middle, flanked by Cosmas and Damian. These two saints are the patron saints of the Medici, which is why they are placed in the sacristy. Cosmas (left) and Damian (right) were not carved by Michelangelo, but by Montorsoli and Montelupo, but according to a design by the master.

Cosmas Mary Damian large size
Michelangelo New Sacristy Cosmas Mary Damian

Aan de zuidelijke wand tegenover het altaar zijn nu drie beelden te zien: Maria met kind in het midden, geflankeerd door Cosmas en Damianus. Deze twee heiligen zijn de patroonheiligen van de Medici, vandaar dat ze in de sacristie geplaatst zijn. Cosmas (links) en Damianus (rechts) zijn niet door Michelangelo gehakt, maar door Montorsoli en Montelupo, maar wel naar een ontwerp van de meester.

Cosmas Mary with child preliminary study

The Madonna looks rather sad: is she aware of the fate that awaits her son in the end? Jesus no longer has the stature and length of a baby like with the ‘Bruges Madonna’. The child turns away from the viewer and clearly wants to drink. This was quite a bold move, such a Mary Lactans, right in front of the altar where the priest commands mass for the deceased. Buonarroti made a bozzetto for this Madonna and Child (Casa Buonarroti). While in the preliminary study the child’s posture does look natural, this is not the case with the statue: the position of the child’s left arm is impossible.

According to Pope-Hennessy, this statue was probably carved around 1519 for the tomb of Pope Julius II.232 While working on the New Sacristy, Michelangelo also worked on his statues for the tomb. And so,the Virgin and child was actually supposed to look down on the tomb of the Pope and not look down at the middle of the floor as they do now.

Frederico Zuccari ‘Artists draw after Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel’ Musée du Louvre large size
Frederico Zuccari 'Artists draw after Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel' Musée du Louvre


Frederico Zuccari ‘Artists draw after Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel’ Musée du Louvre large size
Frederico Zuccari 'Artists draw after Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel' Musée du Louvre

The great discovery in the New Sacristy

In 1976, more than one hundred and eighty drawings were discovered, at least ninety-seven of which were made by Michelangelo himself. These drawings were found in a long corridor under the altar, in the altar room itself and in the small room to the right of the choir room.

The corridor under the New Sacristy large size
Michelangelo The corridor under the New Sacristy San


Drawings in the corridor under the New Sacristy  large size
Drawings in the corridor under the New Sacristy


Michelangelo  drawing on the wall 
Drawings of faces in the corridor under the New Sacristy

One of these drawings is the Resurrection of Christ. Michelangelo had planned a fresco with this theme.

The motif of the four statues that lie down, as described earlier, is how time ultimately destroys all that is earthly. Of course, the theme of the Resurrection of Christ fits in perfectly with this. Moreover, such a subject makes sense in a chapel where the dead lie buried. The deeper meaning of the Resurrection is of course that there is hope for man. In addition, a preliminary study was made in which the position of the feet and legs of Giuliano d’Medici are studied.

We now leave the New Sacristy and walk east to the Santa Croce where we go to see Michelangelo’s tomb ourselves.

Piazza Santa Croce large size
Piazza Santa Croce Florence

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