Bust of Lorenzo De’ Medici
In 1519, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Leo X and his cousin, Cardinal Giulio de Medici (later Pope Clement VII), to create the marble portraits of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici for the family’s Chapel San Lorenzo in Florence. This New Sacristy was the symmetrical counterpart to the Old Sacristy, constructed by Brunelleschi a hundred years earlier. It has been assumed that construction had begun prior to Michelangelo’s involvement, so that when he took over supervision the building was already fixed in its proportions.
Michelangelo’s perched his full-size seated figures of the dukes, Lorenzo and Giuliano, in niches over their respective tombs, across the chapel from each other. He avoided giving either duke their actual features. In fact, according to a 1544 letter from Niccolo Martelli, he deliberately refused to produce their portrait likenesses, commenting that in a thousand years no one would know what the dukes actually looked like. Instead, he chose to depict them in classical armor, and he directed their gaze towards the Medici Madonna. The stature and expressions of these busts are different. The seated pose of Giuliano is filled with movement. His herculean stature only adds to the impression of the heroic ideal, which is made especially apparent in his muscular neck and the armor, which fits his torso like a skin. In contrast to the extroverted Giuliano, Lorenzo appears contemplative and introverted. Michelangelo further emphasized the feeling of introspection and melancholy by partially obscuring his face with his left hand and with the shadow cast by his helmet. This figure is deserving of its nickname, Il Pensieroso, “The Thoughtful One.”
Provenance of The Bust of Lorenzo De Medici by Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Bust of Lorenzo De Medici
Selected Reference Literature:
Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti…1553; Giorgio Vasari, Lives of
The Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550; Georgia
Illetschko, I Michelangelo, 2004; Nathaniel Harris, The Art of
Michelangelo, 1983; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor,
Painter, Architect, 1975; Robert Coughlan, The World of Michelangelo
1475-1564, 1972; Brandes, Georg. Michelangelo: His Life, His Times, His Era, 1963; Bull, George. Michelangelo: A Biography, 1995; Murray, Linda. Michelangelo, 1980; Beck, James. Michelangelo: The Medici Chapel. “Michelangelo and the Medici Tombs,” 1993; Santi, Bruno. Michelangelo: The Medici Chapels. “Michelangelo Architect and Sculptor in the New Sacristy,” 1993.
Michelangelo would start on the work for the Medici Tombs in 1521, and would be commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, with support from his brother Pope Leo X. According to Giorgio Vasari:
“Michelangelo wanted everything about the new building- the structural appearance, supporting elements, conception of space, architectural decoration and ornament- to be totally original and unexpected.”
This would be something that Michelangelo would struggle with though, as he felt that he was severely restricted by the need to echo Brunelleschi’s scheme for the Old Sacristy as close as possible.
The history of the tomb project goes back to Cosimo de Medici, as he was the grandfather of the Medici family. The Medici commissioned several works from Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine architect, for the construction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which would be the Medici church, exclusively. Cosimo had his own intentions for the church of San Lorenzo as a family mausoleum and may have made plans known to Brunelleschi for those plans in the 15th century. It is widely believed that long before Michelangelo was called into the Medici tombs project, the Basilica of San Lorenzo had a decisive funerary function for the Medici family.
The death of Giuliano de Medici in 1516 was the impetuous for the project of the tomb project. Leo and his brother Cardinal Giulio had future hope for the posterity of the family legacy. Michelangelo’s selection to create the tombs was due to his long-standing relationship with the Medici family, especially with most of the individuals either being celebrated or sponsoring the work.
“We must assume that Michelangelo had been hired to execute the final or third plank in Cosimo’s overall plan: to build the New Sacristy and to provide the appropriate monument for the generations that followed him, that of Lorenzo and of Giuliano, Cosimo’s grandson’s, and those of their sons and grandsons. Six generations, which by usual count constitute two hundred years.”
Michelangelo had provided for a tomb for four persons to be erected in the middle of the chapel space, and was to be a freestanding monument. Cardinal Giulio de Medici gave Michelangelo a large amount of creative freedom for the project, saying:
“We will agree with whatever you think appropriate.” But there would be concerns that the centralized tomb conceived by Michelangelo did lend itself to concern over whether or not it would fit in the space available. But “Evidently the idea of a centralized multiple tomb gave way to the placement of the tombs on the walls of the chapel, two sets of double tombs, located on facing lateral walls of the chapel.”
“There were many unavoidable interruptions caused by the political situation and the dramatic events affecting Florence and the whole of Italy at the time, which directly involved his patrons’ family.” The major events were the Sack of Rome, the second banishment of the Medici from Florence, and the siege of Florence, by the Imperial Army. One of the more important interruptions was the death of Pope Leo X 1523, where work was canceled until the new Pope, Clement VII, also a Medici, took power in Rome. Clement would again authorize Michelangelo to work on the tomb project but would add the additional project of creating the Laurentian Library staircase and internal structures.
Lorenzo is wearing armor of a victorious roman general and is seated on a ceremonial chair in a similar fashion as Giuliano de Medici. When asked to why Michelangelo did not sculpt the statues in the likeness of the Medici depicted he said:
“Who will know what they looked like in a thousand years time?” This was a characteristic retort of Michelangelo, which might have meant he had done the Medici a favor by giving posterity such an ideal vision of them, but behind it lay the simple fact that Michelangelo disliked portraiture.”
The figures that accompany the tombs in the New Sacristy are:
“Symbolic figures that have a universal significance. They represent the times of day and time itself, which dominates all human activity.”
The underlying concept was that Time dominates human life, and the figures symbolize the relationship between man and time. The figures that symbolize these concepts of time are Dawn and Dusk and Night and Day and where created between the years of 1524 and 1531.
The Medici Chapels are homage to one of the most influential families in the patronage of the arts and the Italian Renaissance. The New Sacristy is a celebration of the Dynasty that will always be remembered as Florence’s ruling family during one of the most fruitful artistic time periods in history. Whatever had been personally executed for the project by Michelangelo himself, the conceptual notions he may have contemplated were essentially frozen after September 1534 when he left Florence for Rome, never to return.