The site of two earlier churches from the 4th and 11th centuries. The
first church, built outside the old Roman city walls, was consecrated by
Saint Ambrose during Easter in 394, and is reputed to be the
earliest church in Florence. Tradition has it that a Jewish
widow by the name of Giuliana (who became Saint Giuliana) offered to finance this original church were
she to bear a son, who she would then call Lorenzo, after the Roman martyr after
whom the church was also to be named. Saint Zenobius is said to have been present at
this consecration and to have been buried in the church when he died in
429. Serving for several centuries as Florence's cathedral the church was
rebuilt from 1045 in Romanesque style (see
drawing from Codex Rustici of 1425, left) being reconsecrated on 20th January 1060 by
Pope Nicholas II, who had been Bishop of Florence. This church was destroyed by fire in the early
The current church was built by Filippo Brunelleschi
between 1419 and 1469, with financial help from eight parishioners,
including Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, who initially commissioned
Brunelleschi to build the sacristy chapel (now called the Old Sacristy) but to whom the entire church
was then entrusted in 1421. Brunelleschi's commitment to his work on the
Duomo, along with a period of financial and political unrest, halted work
in 1425, until in 1442 Cosimo de' Medici lent
the Commune 40,000 florins, the interest on which was to pay for the
construction of the nave. In return the Medici were allowed to put their
arms here and in the crossing, the church thus became so Medici-financed
as to become virtually
Medici-owned, their mausoleum, with some minor chapels in the nave and
transept granted by them to other families. The degree of
Brunelleschi's involvement is much argued over, with Cosimo de' Medici's
favoured architect Michelozzo often suggested as responsible for the work
after 1442. When he died in 1446
responsibility passed to his pupil, and biographer, Antonio di Manetto
Ciaccheri, whose work has been much criticised, most notably by Vasari.
Between 1515 and 1517 Giuliano da Sangallo, Jacopo Sansovino, Baccio
d'Agnolo and Michelangelo all submitted designs for the fašade.
The idea was to recreate in marble the more ephemeral grandeur of the
decorations erected for the Medici Pope Leo X's triumphant entry into
Florence in November 1515. Michelangelo's was commissioned, but never constructed, although his
designs for the inner fašade, library and the new sacristy (now known as
the Medici Chapel) were. He wasted three years on the fašade project - he
made almost thirty trips, to the marble quarries and elsewhere, and masses
of marble was bought for a project of a hugeness not seen since the
building of the Duomo cupola - before the Pope cancelled the project.
The church was restored, with the campanile added, by Ferdinando Ruggieri in 1740.
The characteristic Brunelleschi calm
inside is even more striking after the bustle of the
piazza outside - one truly needs the pietra to be as serena
as it can. Basilical in form and Romanesque in style but gothic in its loftiness - the arches rest not on
the capitals but on blocks placed on each capital, called pulvins.
Circular windows above the side chapels and tall windows at clerestory
level fill the interior with light. The white coffered ceiling is not
over-gilt, but the painted dome (the Apotheosis of the Saints of
Florence) by Vincenzo Meucci, dating to 1742, just after the Ruggieri restoration,
does rather spoil the austere effect with it's fluffy rococo exuberance.
It is also the final piece of Medici patronage, commissioned by Anna Maria
Luisa de' Medici, who died in 1743, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany then
passed to Francis III of Lorraine. So this is not the least spoiled of Brunelleschi's interiors, but
Michelangelo's inner fašade blends pretty well, especially his reliquary
balcony of 1530, and other later
embellishments, in the 15th and 19th centuries, don't do too much damage
to Brunelleschi's original concept.
Another highlight is the cool cube of Brunelleschi's sacristy,
now called the Old Sacristy, said to be the first centralised structure of the
Renaissance and something of a dry run for Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel in
Santa Croce. It's an early work of his
and so was actually
finished while he was alive, with it's tomb of Giovanni di Bicci de'
Medici, who founded the family bank and who
financed the work here, and later decorative panels by Donatello. It has a pleasing
umbrella dome and Donatello roundels in the pendentives depicting the Four
desks for their attribute creatures to sit on. His rather relentless
frieze of cherubs is less pleasing. Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and his
wife Piccarda Bueri, the parents of Cosimo il Vecchio, have their sarcophagus under the
marble vesting table in the centre. Verrocchio's monument to Piero and Giovanni de' Medici,
Cosimo's sons, set into the wall here, dates from 1472.
Donatello's Passion pulpit in the nave was recently restored and had a
scaffolding viewing platform allowing you to walk around three of the
crowded panels and admire them up close. The other one (the Pulpit of
the Resurrection) was then restored and both have now
been finished. They were his last works.
In front of the choir
is the tomb slab of Cosimo il Vecchio, buried in the crypt below. It was
Verrocchio's first documented commission, from 1465.
There are six shallow chapels in each aisle, and the altarpieces are
mostly late 16th century and unimpressive. A document from 1434, relating
to the creation of chapels, issued by
the prior and chapter here instructs that, chapels be decorated with 'a
square panel without a canopy' known at the time as a quadro. This lead, it is said,
to the unified-space scenes, mostly sacra conversazioni, that we find
here. The decree was not entirely successful, however, as some families brought
their gold-ground polyptychs from the old church (see Lost art
below). It worked better in the 1480s and 1490s in Brunelleschi's
Santo Spirito, where the results still speak for themselves.
There's a 1523 painting by Rosso Fiorentino of the
Marriage of the Virgin in the second chapel on the right
(the Ginori chapel) in
which Joseph is a uniquely curly-haired, beardless and youthful, not the
safely infertile widower that he's
usually portrayed as. Anachronistic
figures not part of the narrative (a friar, for example) have excited comment
even as early as Raffaello Borghini's book Il riposo in 1584, which takes
the form of a dialogue between Michelozzo and Vechietto.
The fourth chapel on the right has an Assumption
by Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (aka Michele Tosini) which is really
not very good.
This is not a church that's big on frescoes, but Bronzino's squirmy
fresco of The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence from the late 1560s is, well, very
big. Very few of the mass of figures are clothed, but amongst the few
that are you'll find a self-portrait of Bronzino, with his teacher
Pontormo and colleague Allori. This was almost his last work, there was to be a matching one opposite
but Bronzino died before he could start it.
Behind the Saint
Lawrence in the chapel in the left transept (the Martelli chapel) is
Filippo Lippo's Annunciation from c.1437-40, which is one of his best early works
and something of a breath of fresh air (see far right). It's an
early example of the unified field altarpiece. It's darker
tones and (especially) the bravura representation of the water-filled
glass flask in the cunningly-created niche in the foreground show
the influence of Netherlandish art and techniques. The clarity of the
glass in the trompe l'oeil flask, through which light can pass unhindered,
symbolises the Virgin's purity. Donatello's
gilded but tasteful tomb, erected in 1896, is in here too.
The chapel next to the sacristy contains a likeable Saint Anthony Abbot
Enthroned Between Saints Lawrence and Julian by the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Or it could be by an anonymous master called the 'Maestro del Tondo
Borghese', which seems to be the current thinking. It was returned after a
year's restoration in February 2019 - there had been 'a very aggressive
infestation of insects'.
I like the tomb in here too (detail above).
By Ferdinando Ruggieri in 1740-41, commissioned by the last of the
Medici, Electress Palatine Anna Maria Lodovica.
A triptych depicting The Virgin and Child
with Saints Anthony Abbot, Concordia, Andrew and Pope Mark (see right)
was painted by Jacopo di Cione in 1391 for the Rondinelli chapel, to
the left of the main chapel. It was transferred to the new family altar in
the new church after rebuilding, but is now in Honolulu.
Frescoes by Bronzino and Pontormo painted in the choir just before the
latter's death were
criticised by Vasari and later destroyed during 18th-century renovations. The
left wall depicted the Deluge, the right wall the Resurrection,
with the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence on the back wall. It seems
that the painted Saint Lawrence would have appeared to have been resting
on the altar, within which a relic of the saint was kept.
The church in art
One of painter and etcher Robert Charles Goff's many scenes of Florence
and Tuscany is a rather impressive and unusual view of San Lorenzo (see
right). He was a follower of Whistler, an Irish Army colonel who
travelled much and retired to Brighton, where the Brighton Museum staged a
major exhibition of his work in
cloister and crypt
Entry to the left of the church, beyond the ticket office. The canon's
cloister was designed by Manetti (1457-62) (see right) and
gives access to the crypt and treasury. Donatello is buried in the crypt,
as is his friend Cosimo il Vecchio, under their respective monuments in
the church above. The treasury is a room full of reliquaries in glass
The church on film and TV
A spectacular road chase in the 1954 film Cronache di Poveri
Amanti based on a novel by Vasco Pratolini (translated into English as
Tale of Poor Lovers) ends with fatality and a flaming motorcycle
in front of the fašade of San Lorenzo.
An episode in the second season of the American TV series Da
Vinci's Demons had a scene where Leonardo and Verrochio are sitting on
the roof of San Lorenzo (see below). Behind them is the dome of the
Medici chapel not built until 1604.
Daily 10.00 - 5.00
Sunday 1.30 to 5.30 March to October (closed Sundays rest of the year)
closed 1st, 3rd and 5th Mondays and 2nd and 4th Sundays in each month
How San Lorenzo would have looked with
fašade, created by studioDIM,