A rough brick anti-facade and the undistinguished stony bulk of a building surrounded by the stalls of the leather market hide what is most likely the oldest church in Florence, founded in A.D. 393. San Lorenzo was the city's cathedral until the bishop's seat moved to Santa Reparata (later to become the Duomo) in the 7th century. More important, it was the Medici family's parish church, and as those famous bankers began to accumulate their vast fortune, they started a tradition of lavishing it on this church that lasted until the clan died out in the 18th century. Visiting the entire church complex at once is tricky: Though interconnected, the church proper, the Old Sacristy, and the Laurentian Library have different open hours. The Medici tombs, listed separately below, have a separate entrance around the back of the church and have still different hours.
The first thing Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, founder of the family fortune, did for the church was hire Brunelleschi to tune up the interior, rebuilding according to the architect's plans in 1426. At the end of the aisle is a Desiderio da Settignano marble tabernacle that's a mastery of schiacciato relief and carefully incised perspective. Across the aisle is one of the two bronze 1460 pulpits -- the other is across the nave -- that were Donatello's last works. His patron and the first great consolidator of Medici power, which at this early stage still showed great concern for protecting the interests of the people, was Cosimo il Vecchio, Lorenzo the Magnificent's grandfather. Cosimo, whose wise behind-the-scenes rule made him popular with the Florentines, died in 1464 and is buried in front of the high altar. The plaque marking the spot is simply inscribed PATER PATRIE -- father of his homeland.
Off the left transept is the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy), one of Brunelleschi's purest pieces of early Renaissance architecture. In the center of the chapel Cosimo il Vecchio's parents, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and his wife, Piccarda Bueri, rest in peace.
On the wall of the left aisle is Bronzino's huge fresco of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo. The 3rd-century namesake saint of this church, San Lorenzo was a flinty early Christian and the treasurer of the Roman church. When commanded by the Romans to hand over the church's wealth, Lorenzo appeared before Emperor Valerian's prefect with "thousands" of sick, poor, and crippled people saying "Here is all the church's treasure." The Romans weren't amused and decided to martyr him on a gridiron over hot coals. Feisty to the last, at one point while Lorenzo lay there roasting he called out to his tormentors through gritted teeth, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side."
Near this fresco is an entrance to the cloister and just inside it a stairwell to the right leading up to the Biblioteca Laurenziana (Laurentian Library), which can also be entered admission free without going through -- and paying for -- the church (the separate entrance is just to the left of the church's main doors). Michelangelo designed this library in 1524 to house the Medici's manuscript collection, and it stands as one of the most brilliant works of Mannerist architecture. The vestibule is a whacked-out riff on the Renaissance, all pietra serena and white plaster walls like a good Brunelleschi piece, but turned inside out. There are phony piers running into each other in the corners, pilaster strips that support nothing, and brackets that exist for no reason. On the whole, however, it manages to remain remarkably coherent. Its star feature is a pietra serena flight of curving stairs flowing out from the entrance to the reading room. This actual library part, however -- filled with intricately carved wood and handsomely illuminated manuscripts -- was closed indefinitely in 1999 until "urgent maintenance" is completed.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Recommended 2010
- visit website
- tel: 055-216-634
- piazza di San Lorenzo
- Piazza San Lorenzo
- Florence 50123
- Church Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Old Sacristy (usually) Sept-July Mon, Wed, Fri, and Sat 10-11:45am; Tues and Thurs 4-5:45pm. Laurentian Library Mon-Sat 9am-1pm