Florence (Part 1)- Medici Chapel and Church of San Lorenzo

The more time I spend in Florence, the more I realize how much power the Medici Family enjoyed over not just Florence, but Europe and within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  The power of the Medici Family originates with Giovanni de’ Medici, who was the banker for the Papal Court.  Forgive me for sounding trite, but the rest was history.  Giovanni and his successors played a large part in the Renaissance as patrons of the arts, encouraging cultural growth and because of their close relationship to the Church, they produced four popes.  As I walked through the Medici Chapel and Church of San Lorenzo, I am sure the Medici’s would have been proud in response to my reaction of pure amazement.  The Medici Chapel was not just a burial place and San Lorenzo was not just a place of worship.  Both of these venues were carefully calculated methods used by the Medici Family to bolster their reputation.

chapel of the princes

The first location we visited, the Medici Chapel, made the biggest impression on me, particularly the Chapel of the Princes.  The Chapel of the Prince included an over-the-top affair of expensive marble, semi-precious stones and monuments of six different dukes of the Medici Family.  I was immediately taken aback by all the different colors of marble.  The dark green color that dominates much of the marble is found in a close vicinity to Florence, making is less expensive than the yellow and red marble that was brought in from further distances.  Therefore, incorporating marble that is not often seen in Florence was a way to show their wealth and impress the masses that would see the Medici Chapel.

Attached to the Medici Chapel is the New Sacristy by Michelangelo where several members of the Medici are buried, more notably Lorenzo the Magnificent.  Ironically, the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent was never completed and it appears plain compared to the tombs of Guiliano de’ Medici and Lorenzo di Piero Medici.  The Medici Family was very involved in Michelangelo’s rise to fame as an artist.  At a young age, the Medici’s recognized the talent of Michelangelo and brought him into the home and taught him alongside some of the great artists and mentors at the time.  By the time Michelangelo began the New Sacristy, he had already made a name for himself.  With their background with Michelangelo, Guilio de’ Medici commissioned the sacristy to be built by the famous Michelangelo.  The move to commission Michelangelo was much more a move to endorse the Medici’s prestige than it was an admiration of his work (although I am sure they appreciated the masterful work of Michelangelo).  The Medici Family as patrons of art made a massive impact on the art during the Renaissance.  I don’t want to give them too much credit, but without the Medici’s, many of the godfathers of the Renaissance, such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, may have never reached their high level of fame.

It is important to remember that both the Medici Chapel and the Church of San Lorenzo were religious sites.  One of the reasons the Medici Family held so much power was because they did not stop in the political sphere.  They worked their way in the religious sphere and even commissioned religious art and paid for the renovation of the Church of San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medici Family.

The Church of San Lorenzo was essentially funded by the Medici Family, but at the start of the renovation other families did contribute to build other chapels along the transept of the church.  Because the Medici’s made the largest contribution to the Church, they got the largest chapel, what is now known as the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi.  Sometimes I forget that there were other important families in Florence that also had a decent amount of money.  They may not have been as prominent, but the competition was still there.  The Medici Family’s reputation was at stake and they wanted to make sure they had the bigger chapel created by a master architect like Brunelleschi.  Drawing from the Machiavelli readings, a leader has to give the people the perception that they have more prestige, which also maintains their reputation as well.  If the Medici Family let other families put more money into San Lorenzo, citizens might have questions their leader’s ability.

Dr. McCollough pointed out a great point while we were walking through San Lorenzo that really stuck with me.  The core layout of a church is made up of a transept and a nave.  The transept is the shorter hall and the nave is the longer hall that starts when you walk into the front door and goes all the way to the altar.  These two halls overlap and form a cross.  Interestingly enough, one of the members of the Medici Family was buried right at the intersection of the cross.  Being placed in the center of the cross, the same place where Jesus was on the cross was intended to send the message of leadership and show the undeniable power of the Medici Family.  Machiavelli does not necessarily support Christianity as a religion, but he does realize the power of consolidation.  By inserting their faces in religious art and likening themselves to religious figures, like Jesus and a number of different saints, the Medici’s are reaching the people on a much deeper level.  I have mentioned this quote before, but Machiavelli says in The Discourses “how useful religion was in controlling the armies, in giving courage to the plebeians, in keeping men good, and in shaming the wicked.”  There is an element of spirituality that cannot be reached through laws and governance of the state.  People answer to God above and just a mere association with anything holy can persuade people to perceive the Medici’s in a better light.

The methods used by the Medici Family to show their scope of power and influence are still used today in the 21st century.  Every few steps that were taken in San Lorenzo, you were reminded that the Medici Family paid for it.  The same type of “branding” can be seen on every college campus across the United States.  Donors contribute money to the school and that money can go towards the building or renovation of a hall, for example.  Columbus State University’s Spencer House, which is used by study abroad students in Oxford, England, is named after the very generous Mr. and Mrs. J. Kyle Spencer.  While this is on a much smaller level, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer are showing the influence they have in a small town like Columbus and creating a reputation of good will to the community.


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