Medici Chapels ★★

Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of "Day" and "Night" (1524–34), Medici Chapels, Florence, Italy (Photo by Avia)
Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of 'Day' and 'Night' (1524–34)

The Michelangelo-adorned tombs of the Medici in the Sagrestia Nuova and the ornate Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) of San Lorenzo

Imagine if you had all the money in the world, none of the renowned artistic taste of your famous ancestors, and a firm belief that, the bigger you made your tomb and the more you festooned it with precious marbles and decorative frippery, the greater your chances of getting into Heaven (or at least being remembered here on Earth).

That's the Medici Chapels.

And then there is also the relatively bare basement room with amazing tomb statues by Michelangelo—possibly the best compare/contrast object lesson in how less can be more... and more is sometimes much, much less.

Technically, this complex comprises both the Cappella dei Principi and the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy) of San Lorenzo church, but you can no longer get into it from the church itself. You have to thread your way through the stalls of the surrounding leather market to get around to the back side of the church and the separate entrance.

The Cappella dei Principi (the gaudy bit)

The Medici have been buried here since the 15th century, but the current "Chapel of the Princes" was started in the late 17th century and not finished until 1869.

Its main vault is inlaid with a decorative mosaic of polychrome marbles and pietre dure (inlay of semiprecious stones) serving as a gaudy backdrop for the grandiose tombs of the later Medici Grand Dukes, and therefore commonly referred to as the Cappella dei Principi, or Chapel of the Princes (even though, technically, the Medici were never princes of anything, merely Grand Dukes).

Odds are, the more ostentatious the tomb, the lesser the Medici. Honestly, save for a few standouts, after Cosimo I—the first to become Duke, then later Grand Duke—it was pretty much downhill for quality in the Medici lineage.

The greatest members of the clan—Cosimo Il Vecchio and his grandson Lorenzo The Magnificent—came several generations earlier (before the family even had official titles and were merely the most respected bankers in town), and aren't even entombed here. The Cosimo generation is back in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo itself; Lorenzo is in the New Sacristy (below).

Feel free to hustle through this phantasmagoria of conspicuous wealth, because the best part of the tombs are downstairs.

That's where the keep the Michelangelos.

The Sagrestia Nuova (the bit with the Michelangelos)

A corridor leads down to the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy), a cramped inner chamber that is the real draw of the Medici Chapels, a smorgasbord of Michelangelo: sculpture, architecture, and drawings.

Sangallo probably started the chapel, but Michelangelo took over in 1520 to turn it into a final resting place for the Medici, the architecture drawn along cold, hard lines of dark gray pietra serena stone and white plaster and using tricks of perspective in the upper reaches to make the chapel seem airier.

There are basically three groupings of Michelangelo statues here.

To the left is the tomb of Lorenzo II, Duke or Urbino (grandson to Lorenzo the Magnificent), looking pensive under his helmet, with his finger to his lips.

To the right is the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent), with a serpentine neck and a nude-style breastplate modeled on ancient Roman statues.

Much more famous (and compelling) than the figures of these undistinguished Medici are the allegorical figures just below them, reclining along the slow curves of the tomb architecture: Day (the male) and Night (female) beneath Giuliano, twisting their nude bodies across from Dawn and Dusk under Lorenzo.

If nothing else, these four sculptures strengthen the widely-held theory that Michelangelo was gay. The two male figures are sturdy, muscular, and crafted with a meticulous eye for detail, but the man who carved Night and Dusk clearly never bothered getting a proper look at a woman. The two "female" figures are basically men with their muscles shaved down and smoothed a bit, hips widened, and a couple of breasts tacked on at anatomically suspect angles.

Against the entrance wall there was supposed to be the most grandiose tomb of all, for Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici and his brother Giuliano, who was slain in the Cathedral during the Pazzi Conspiracy.

Sadly, Michelangelo never got around to finishing anything more than a sweet Madonna and Child statue, and Lorenzo—perhaps the most famous patron of the arts in all the Renaissance—rests under a simple stone slab. (Flanking Michelangelo's Madonnna are statues of St. Cosmas by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli on the left, and St. Damian by Raffaello da Montelupo on the right.)

The chapel holds one last surprise Michelangelo. Duck under the low door to the left of the altar into a tiny chamber holding reliquaries of saints—and a few wall doodles under Plexiglas. Discovered in 1975 these charcoal drawings were apparently sketched by Michelangelo around 1530, when he was hiding out here under the protection of San Lorenzo's prior.

Why did the greatest artist of his age—perhaps of all time—need to hide? Well, Michelangelo had eventually thrown his lot in with the Republican crowd after they ousted (temporarily, as it would turn out) the Medici from power and drove the family from the city.

After the Medici returned, they rashly placed their erstwhile former family artist on the list of traitors to be executed. Within a year, though, Pope Clement VII (born Giulio de' Medici, illegitimate son of the slain Giuliano and hence nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent) issued an edict to go easy on Michelangelo, and the artist was able to show his face again. Michelangelo promptly left for greener pastures in Rome, never to return to his beloved Florence until his body was returned here after his death.

Photo gallery
  • Michelangelo
  • The Basilica of San Lorenzo (right), Medici Chapels (big dome) and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (left), as seen from Giotto
  • Inside the Sagrestia Nuova, or New Sacristy, with Medici tombs by Michelangelo, Medici Chapels, Italy (Photo by Darren & Brad)
  • Michelangelo
  • Michelangelo
  • Tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Michelangelo
  • Tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Michelangelo
  • Michelangelo used pietra serena to outline his intricate architecture for the Sagrestia Nuova, or New Sacristy, Medici Chapels, Italy (Photo by Stéphanie)
  • The Cappella dei Principi, or Chapel of the Princes, as seen from outside, Medici Chapels, Italy (Photo by Allan Parsons)
  • Inside the Cappella dei Principi, or Chapel of the Princes, Medici Chapels, Italy (Photo by Elias Rovielo)
  • The dome inside the Cappella dei Principi, or Chapel of the Princes, Medici Chapels, Italy (Photo by ctj71081)
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into Medici Chapels for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

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How long do the Medici Chapels take?

Give it 1 hour, though it might take less.

The ticket closes 40 minutes early.

Do not bother booking this one

The website will offer you the chance to do so for a €3 fee. This is ridiculous. There is never a line.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).