Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo: A Study in Magnificence

Fig. 1
The Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, stamped everywhere with the power and authority of the Medici, constitutes one of the family’s great co-optings of their city’s public sphere. Before it was rebuilt in the 15th century, the institution and place of the Church of San Lorenzo had been one of some importance to the city of Florence; it was the earliest church consecrated in the city, blessed by one of the church fathers, Ambrose, in 393. Its reconstruction, however, opened the venerable church to a new set of meanings, and families clamored to institute their legacy on this spot, with ultimately the Medici prevailing over them all. The Old Sacristy (fig. 1, 2, 3), adjoining the Church at its transept, was the site from which the family began to stake their own claim. Functioning as a dynastic mausoleum and personal chapel for the Medici, while intersecting with a locus of such public significance, the Old Sacristy reveals something about the nature of the intercourse between one family’s magnificence and the pride of the larger Florentine republic. In its forms and decorative programme, the Old Sacristy situated the magnificent ethic in a wider framework of civic pride, and ultimately proselytizing on behalf of the Medici’s assumption of political preeminence within their city. 

Fig. 3
Fig. 2
First there is a matter of architectural form. Built between 1422 and 1428, The Old Sacristy represented the most comprehensive summation of designer Brunelleschi’s vision up until then, the harmony, logic, and forms he found poring over the classical architecture distilled into an idiosyncratic take on the sacristy that, as Manetti, his biographer remarks, was “of such character that it amazed everyone due to its new style,” [1] and that moreover, ultimately proved conducive to the pretensions of his Medici patrons, housing two generations of their dead. The exquisite balance achieved within the Old Sacristy is of note itself, but more meaningful, and as likely a cause for the awe registered by Manetti, is Brunelleschi’s deployment of the dome and its emulation of the all’antica mausoleum. This is all in accord with the Medici’s deep humanism, especially Cosimo Medici’s, steeped as he was in ancient texts.[2] But did Brunelleschi intend just a generic all’antica form, or did his dome not signify something more specific and localized? On the question of an ultimate prototype for Brunelleschi’s Sacristy, and whether reference to a certain prototype was intended as evident to all or just the keen and learned, there are a number of conjectures; here I think might be warranted some degree of potential compatibilism – that motivating the Sacristy’s form was possibly more than one source, with two in particular that correspond to the civic/private magnificence thematic, and accounts for the rare tholos (fig.4) lantern atop the dome.

Fig. 4
Howard Saalman has proposed two inspirations for the Old Sacristy, the tomb of Constantine and the Florentine Baptistry, each embodying a set of connotations that would have been in keeping with the Medici’s aspirations, and would both account for the tholos lantern, a detail otherwise found on no extant ancient mausoleum.[3] Likewise corresponding to the Sacristy in its domical plan, inclusion of the apostles in its decorative scheme, and raised, catalfaque platform of Giovanni di Bicci de Medici’s tomb at the center of the mausoleum, is Constantine’s original tomb in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. Available to Cosimo Medici and Brunelleschi only through Eusebius’ description of it, the text describing the lost sepulcher admits of an interpretive ambiguity that could have very well suggested to them that a lantern had sat atop its dome. Then, closer to home, there was the tholos lantern atop the Florentine Baptistry (fig. 5, 6), which had already provided bestowed on Brunelleschi a wellspring of ideas and formal principles, many of them applied to the Old Sacristy.  
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
These two possible inspirations, the Tomb of Constantine and the Florentine Baptistery, roughly correspond to poles of private and public association. The linkage to the tomb of Constantine on the one hand suggests that the Medici at this point already (and perhaps audaciously) conceived of themselves, the oligopolists turned oligarchs they were quickly becoming, on the model of the famous Christian Emperor, occupying a position of political leadership integrally tied to, indeed bulwarking, the authority of the Church. And whether or not the connection to the tomb of Constantine is to be believed, the all’antica classification remains valid, with all its attendant splendor. On the other hand, the correspondence with the Florentine Baptistery, connecting one family’s domicile for their dead to one of the Florence’s most potent emblems, suggests the dovetailing of one family’s private glories with the honor of the city. Whatever might be thought of the relatively esoteric connection to the tomb of Constantine, the emulation of the Florentine Baptistery, of a feature, the tholos lantern, unique to it, is all but undeniable.
The connection to the Florentine Baptistry is echoed in another of the Sacristy’s features, its bronze doors flanking the sacrasella and designed by Donatello (fig. 7, 8). This was a curious choice: an anomaly within a private chapel, the novelty was noted by contemporary Filarete in his account, who otherwise pays no mind to Donatello’s other work, the stucco reliefs over the aedicule and along the dome, for the Sacristy.[4] Where rich bronze doors like these, with figurated relief work, were typically situated in Quattrocento Florence were public spaces, not private chapels[5] – to name only the most poignant example, Ghiberti’s doors for the Florentine Baptistery.


Fig. 7
Fig. 8


The iconography of Donatello’s doors mirrors the marriage of private and public suggested by their very presence within the chapel. The door to the left of the sacresella is known simply as the Martyr’s Door due to its figures all holding palm branches, traditional symbols of martyrdom.[6] Only the identity of four amongst them is discernible: St. Stephen with stone in the crown of his head, St. Lawrence with gridiron, and Sts. Cosmas and Damian with their small medicine boxes.[7] Like the thematic cycle of the St. John along the tondi, the ranks of martyrs and elect would have been appropriate subjects for a funerary chapel,[8] and the Sts. Cosmas and Damian not only invoked the Medici family by way of patronymic (they were the medici, or doctor saints), but served as surrogate saints for Cosimo and Lorenzo Medici, who by this point had taken over the decoration of the Sacristy following their father, Giovanni’s death.
It is the other door, however, to the right of the sacrasella, the so-called “Apostle’s Door,” and its uppermost two panels that belies the contemporary circumstances motivating the Sacristy’s decorative program. To the left are St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist (fig. 9). This was an unusual pairing: John the Baptist had never made an appearance in any Medici imagery until now, but his introduction, and concurrently, the implications of Florence’s own patron saint, conjoined with the Medici’s patron saint is clear enough.[9] To the right of the two Johns, are Sts. Peter and Paul, traditional symbols of the papacy (fig. 9).[10]

Fig. 9
The contiguity of on the left side, an image that joins Medici and Florence through the representation of their respective saints, with, on the right, a symbol of the papacy, bears in turn on decoration of the Sacrasella ceiling, attributed to Pesello, situated behind the doors (fig. 10), the astronomic map memorializing then the perhaps most momentous achievement of the Medici within the annals of Florence. The date mapped out – according to one school of interpretation – is that of July 6, 1439, the Day of Union, when Florence was thronged with festivities following the conclusion of the Council of Ferrara-Florence when the Articles of Union were signed. These events had largely been made possible through the patronage of the Medici; Pope Eugenius IV, who presided over the attempt to renew union with the Greek Church, had fetched Cosimo from exile in 1434 when the Pope had fled his enemies in Rome for Florence. The Council, begun in 1438, dragged on to little effect over a year in Ferrera, and the provision of amenities for the representatives of the Greek Church had gone over budget; subsequently Cosimo negotiated the Council’s relocation to Florence, where he took on the task of bankrolling it. In doing so Cosimo was fulfilling the aspirations and hope apparently held by many for their city. A prophecy written by Fra Antonio de Rieti in 1422 reads “. . .The Florentine lily is seen putting out ever more beautiful branches, flwoers and leaves until it covered all of Italy . . . [and] the Pope would fly to the protection of the lily, that is, of Florence.”[11] Just below the sacrasella dome, vines and lilies threaten to overgrow their borders, likely a nod to Rieti’s then-famous words. Considered in conjunction with the scheme of the rest of the Old Sacritsty, the sacrasella dome thus completes the dialectic of magnificence espoused therein: private and public forms and functions intertwine the family's personal, dynastic glory with the honors that their power  bestowed upon the whole city, articulating that magnificence did not just consist in personal virtue, a keen and discerning eye for expenditures, but was a civic virtue as well, that would hoist Florence to a position of international significance. 

Fig. 10


[1] Howard Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993), 123.
[2] For another interpretation of the Old Sacristy, as it relates to Cosimo’s impressive body of Hermetic knowledge see Gabirel Blumenthanl, “Science of the Magi: The Old Sacristy of San Lorenz and The Medici,” Notes in the History of Art  6, no. 1 (Fall 1986): 1-11.
[3] Ibid., 128, 140.
[4] John T Paoletti,"Donatello's Bronze Doors for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo," Artibus Et Historiae 11, no. 21 (1990): 58.
[5] Ibid., 53, 58.
[6] Ibid., 44
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 61
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid..
[11] Patricia Fortini Brown, "Laetentur Caeli: The Council of Florence and the Astronomical Fresco in the Old Sacristy," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 44 (1981): 180.

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