San Lorenzo is one of the oldest religious foundations in the city; consecrated in the late Roman era, the church served for some centuries as the city’s cathedral. By the early fifteenth century it was in very poor repair and the canons officiating the church sought permission to rebuild, with initial funding provided by Cosimo de’ Medici’s father, Giovanni di Bicci.
As he tells us, Cosimo’s attentions were first focused on a free-standing sacristy building extending from the South transept (now known as the Old Sacristy); here Filippo Brunelleschi produced a masterfully compact centralised building, gracefully topped by a dome divided into twelve segments. The clear geometry and classical language of Brunelleschi’s design founded a new architectural style, distinctive for the use of grey pietra serena set off against white plaster. Decorated by Donatello’s low relief sculptures of the four Evangelists, that accentuate the arches over the square plan, and the Medici coat of arms and patron saints, the space served as a mausoleum for Cosimo’s parents, in a sarcophagus-like tomb with a classical inscription.
Brunelleschi oversaw the reconstruction of the rest of the church too, adopting a design that evoked the Roman basilica type with its use of free-standing classicizing columns, while creating many more chapels than were previously accommodated in church interiors. It seems this was also done as a means of providing additional spaces for the families of the San Lorenzo neighbourhood to participate in the church construction costs through their patronage of individual chapels. Local residents such as the Ginori, Neroni, Rondinelli and della Stufa all commissioned chapels, although it was eventually Cosimo de’ Medici that provided the necessary funds for the completion of the project. The Medici were patrons of many chapels, including that behind the high altar, and as he tells us, Cosimo took the unprecedented decision of securing the space in front of that altar for his own tomb, a site usually reserved for rulers or saints.
You will have to visit the interior to see all this, but from your vantage point on the corner of the piazza and via Ginori, behind the palazzo Medici, the degree to which this is a neighbourhood church is apparent. The Medici residence is only one of many that face towards the piazza or line the streets in the immediate environs, a residential district made up of a network of allies and friends. As Cosimo says, these neighbourhood friends were politically crucial; they needed to be cultivated but they couldn’t always be trusted. On via Ginori on the way to our next stop, you pass the palace of his troublesome lieutenant Dietisalvi Neroni (no. 9), who ultimately did break with the regime in 1466, as well as the palace of the more dependable Ginori family (no. 4-8).
So, the relationships between families that were played out in the streets of the city were folded into the design of the church interior, as those same families took up their places in the ribbon of chapels that defines the perimeter of the church. Inevitably, however, it was the Medici family that took centre stage at San Lorenzo, very much the first among equals.
You can visit San Lorenzo and the Old Sacristy.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Microcosm of community’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/3-microcosm-of-community/
Caroline Elam, ‘Cosimo de’Medici at San Lorenzo’, in Cosimo il Vecchio de’Medici, 1389-1464, ed. F. Ames-Lewis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 157-180
Robert Gaston and Louis Waldman, eds., San Lorenzo: A Florentine church (Villa I Tatti), (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2017)
Dale Kent, Friendship, Love and Trust in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009)