Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Medici Chapels are a Memorial to Wealth and Power

Main altar in the Capella Dei Pincipi

Being really rich can make a family do some strange things. Being really powerful can give that family the ability to carry out those things without anyone saying “maybe this is not a great idea.” Being rich and powerful allows a family to create something that lasts over 400 years and still attracts crowds. The Medici family of renaissance Florence were rich and powerful, and the Medici Chapels are strange and beautiful, and they make me wonder “what were they thinking?”

Carrying on my theme of visiting smaller museums, I decided to spend some time at the Medici Chapels. The chapels were built during the 16th century as the mausoleums for Medici family. They were additions to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which was the Medici family’s parish. While the basilica was built  between 1415 and 1450, it wasn’t until the mid-1500’s that the Medicis decided to create this memorial to themselves. And it is one of the most beautiful and self-aggrandizing memorials I know of.

photo by Amada44 via Wiki Commons

When you visit the Medici Chapels you enter on the ground floor, through the crypt. This is where most of the family members have been interred. Today, the crypt is also a display area for pieces of artwork from the Medici family collections.

Painting of Pope Pius V crowns Cosimo I

Some of the Medici tombs

The real attractions are upstairs, in the two chapels. The smaller chapel is the Sagrestia Nuova or New Sacristy. It was designed by Michelangelo in 1519. When he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the chapel was still unfinished, although he had completed statues to be placed there. It was finished under the direction of Bartomeo Ammannati, a Florentine architect. Today, it is the final resting place of two members of the Medici family, Lorenzo di Piero and Giuliano di Lorenzo. While they were not high up on the Medici chain of command, they are the beneficiaries of Michelangelo’s work, with his wonderful statues sitting above their sarcophagi.

Dawn and Dusk by Michelangelo over the Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero

Day and Night by Michelangelo over the tomb of Guiliano di Lorenzo

The roof of the Sagrestia Nuova is styled after the Panthnon in Rome

Madonna and Child  by Michelangelo with St. Cosmas by Montorsoli and St. Damian by  Rafaello 

The Capella dei Principi, Chapel of the Princes, is the main chapel. Its dome rises 59 m (185 ft) high, forming the main architectural feature of the basilica. The chapel is a large octagonal room with six large and opulent sarcophagi. The walls are covered in marble and decorated in semi-precious stones. While the sarcophagi are empty, the remains of these scions of the family Medici are buried in the crypt below, the intent is clear. The Medici family controlled much Italy’s economy and included several Popes, so they were definitely important. The chapel had been designed to impart the importance of the family. 

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A visit to the Medici Chapels is a fascinating look at the ways in which those in power represented themselves during the renaissance. They used their riches to produce beautiful grand and even ostentatious memorials to themselves and their families. While the reason might have been venial, the results were often magnificent, and are still worth visiting.

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