The Medici Chapels with Michelangelo sculptures in the San Lorenzo church complex form the mausoleum for the most powerful and best-known family in Renaissance Florence.
The mausoleum of the Medici family in Florence is not surprisingly a grand affair. The huge Chapel of the Princes (Capella Dei Principi) is covered by the second largest cupola in Florence while the walls are marble-clad and adorned by precious stones in high Renaissance opulence. For many, the main reason to visit is to see the sculptures by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy. Although Michelangelo abandoned the project only half done, the Medici Chapels still have the largest number of sculptures by Michelangelo in Florence. Time-slot reservation tickets are sensible during the high season. Guided tours are available.
→ Some top museums in Florence re-opened on 21 January 2021 for a few weeks but have closed again by late February 2021. Most churches remain closed. See 2021 Florence New Opening Hours of Top Sights, Museums, and Churches for the latest information and reduced opening hours.
Mausoleum of the Medici Family in Florence
San Lorenzo was the local parish church of the Medici family — for centuries the most powerful and richest family in the city. A visit to the Cappelle Medicee includes three main sights: the crypt, the chapel of the princes, and the new sacristy.
Further Medici tombs are in the old sacristy and in the crypt under the crossing — these are seen as part of a visit to the San Lorenzo basilica.
Admission to the Medici Chapels, which in contrast to the main church is a national museum, is from the Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini at the northeast side of the San Lorenzo basilica. Opening hours and admission tickets are completely separate from the rest of the San Lorenzo complex.
Old Crypt of the Medici Mausoleum in Florence
Tourists enter directly into the old crypt (Crypte del Buontalendti) where most of the remains of the Medicis actually are buried — the monumental sarcophagi elsewhere in the complex are usually empty. Many of the memorial slabs here are only from the 19th century when the crypt was somewhat tidied up — minor Medicis often did not receive any special funeral monuments.
The dusty displays here are mostly unimportant — the highlights of the visit are the two chapels that follows.
Chapel of the Princes in San Lorenzo
The monumental Capella Dei Principi Chapel is the main mausoleum for the Medici family. It was commissioned by Cosimo I in 1568 but construction only started in 1602 after a design by Matteo Nigetti’s was selected.
Construction dragged on and the chapel was only completed in the 20th century long after the final member of the once illustrious family died. Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743), the last Medici, decreed that the chapel should remain open to the public in eternity. (She also left much of the Uffizi gallery, other art, and palaces to the state.)
The octagonal chapel is 28 m wide but an impressive 59 m high. It is this cupola, rather than the crossing of the nave and transept of the basilica that is the most recognizable feature of the church when viewed from a distance.
The walls of the chapel are clad with polychrome marbles and precious stones to leave no area unadorned. Material used in the decorations include marble, multicolored granite, jasper, alabaster, and lapis lazuli, and even coral and mother-of-pearl. The six monumental sarcophagi are empty and only two of the planned six portrait sculptures were ever completed.
The effect is in stark contrast to the elegance of the early Renaissance bare walls Brunelleschi preferred for the nave and old sacristy of San Lorenzo. The High Renaissance chapel of the princes reflected the taste of the period and the Medicis liked the effect enough to use the chapel as a reception room for dignitaries and for wedding celebrations.
The cupola painting is by Pietro Benvenuti (1828) —the original plans called for a simpler but lavish lapis lazuli cover. Note the smaller details in some of the panels, such as the parading peacock and leopard in the garden of Eden.
Among the items in the odd display cases are a papal tiara and staff used by Pope Leo X, a Medici. Also on display is a very impressive “Bandinella” — a processional banner adorned with the Medici coat of arms and a gift from Pope Leo to San Lorenzo. It is 500 years old.
Michelangelo’s New Sacristy in San Lorenzo
A narrow passage leads to the new sacristy (Sagrestia Nuova) that was designed by Michelangelo as his first architectural project in 1519 on commission from Pope Clement VII, the second Medici pope. It is at the opposite end of the transept to the old sacristy by Brunelleschi, which has tombs of even earlier Medicis but is accessible for visitors from inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
The new sacristy was supposed to have four monumental grave monuments but as Michelangelo left for Rome in 1534, the project was left incomplete. As a result, the two completed monumental tombs are for two relatively unimportant members of the Medici family:
Lorenzo (1492-1519), Duke of Urbino and nephew of Pope Leo X, is portrayed by Michelangelo in deep thought, as Machiavelli’s Prince. The allegories on the sarcophagus is a rather muscular female Dawn waking from sleep and a tired Dusk about to fall asleep. The face of the male Dusk is rather rough to emphasis tiredness.
Guiliano (1478-1516), Duke of Nemours and brother of Pope Leo X, is portrayed by Michelangelo as a military captain. He is flanked by the reclining statue of Day — a powerful male with an unfinished face — and Night, a young sleeping woman with a head inspired by classic Greek sculptures.
The sepulcher for Lorenzo the Magnificent (died 1492) and his brother Giuliano (killed during the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478) is adorned by a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. The intended more elaborate tombs were never created. Vasari placed statues of the Medici patron saints on either side in 1554: on the left Saint Cosmas by Giovan Angelo da Montorsoli and on the right Saint Damian by Rafaello da Montelupo. Both were pupils of Michelangelo.
In the passage leading to the new sacristy are two military trophies by Silvio Cosini, a further pupil of Michelangelo. These were intended as part of the decorations for the New Sacristy but were never installed as Michelangelo abandoned the project when moving to Rome in 1534.
Visitor’s Information for the Medici Chapels in Florence
The Medici Chapel is a state museum meaning opening hours and tickets are completely independent from the other sights in the San Lorenzo complex.
Opening hours of the Medici Chapel are 8:15 to 13:50 (closing at 16:50 from April to September). The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday. It is also open on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sunday and 2nd and 4th Monday of the month. (Sometimes it is open more frequent too!)
The Medici Chapel is part of the Bargello Museum and it is sensible to double-check opening times for specific days.
Admission to the Medici Chapels is fairly pricy at €9 (free for under 18s, €2 for EU nationals 18 to 25). It is possible to see more sculptures for less in the Bargello but the Medici Chapel has the largest number of Michelangelo sculptures in Florence. Time-slot reservations are possible and worth the extra charge during the high season. Guided tours are also available and often include further Medici sights in Florence.
The Medici Chapel is usually open for free on the first Sunday of the month between November and March, as well as on some local holidays.
The Firenze Card is valid at the Medici Chapel as a skip-the-line ticket — go straight to the entrance after the security check.
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The high season in Florence is increasingly long: Easter, May, July, August and the Christmas holidays are especially busy. November and January to March are the only quiet months. Plan and book time-slot reservation tickets and tours when available in advance. Top sights are quieter directly at opening time or in the late afternoon.
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