In proceeding to offer a few observations on the churches of this city, I am induced to select San Lorenzo for my first subject, not so much as the most conspicuous in architecture, as from the peculiar interest it derives from its connection with the tomb of the Medici, which forms one of its chapels.
In the earlier periods of the republic, San Lorenzo was considered the Metropolitan Church of Florence. Its existence is traced as far back as the year 393, when it was consecrated by St Ambrose; at the distance of nearly three hundred years, on its receiving some repairs and embellishments, this ceremony was again performed by Pope Nicholas the Second in person.
Towards the year 1417, during a grand festival held in commemoration of an union between the Guelphs of Arezzo and the Guelphs of Florence, the church was accidentally set on fire, and nearly consumed. A. few years afterwards it was again rebuilt from a design of Brunelleschi.
The whole structure is considered as fine, an opinion sanctioned by Michael Angelo himself; but, according to my idea, its general aspect possesses none of that beauty arising from just proportions, so essential to simplicity and grandeur in architecture. It measures nearly 400 feet in length, and only 100 in width, (not including the chapels,) the body of the church is therefore ungracefully long, while the cross is proportionably too short.
These defects are rendered more conspicuous by the unusual height of the pillars that divide the parts of the church, and which greatly contribute to make the inter-mediate spaces appear still more narrow. The church itself may be said to possess few claims to admiration; but its chapels are highly interesting. One of these was planned by Cosmo, first Grand Duke of Florence, after a design of Vasari’s, being intended as a Mausoleum for the Medicean family. At a later period, the original intention having been partly changed, and the whole enlarged, it was finished under the auspices of his successor, Ferdinand the First. The form of the chapel is octagon, and the effect produced by its general appearance is striking and beautiful. At the first view, the eye rests with surprise and delight on its magnificence, and its exquisite and noble proportions. The marbles and precious stones, with which it is adorned, are finely varied, giving a rich and glowing harmony of colour, brilliant, yet chaste and simple.
The second chapel, the Tomb of the Medici, grand in its exterior architecture, as seen from every distant quarter of the city, is an object of yet a more peculiar interest, being the repository of those superb monuments of modern art, the celebrated statues of Michael Angelo. The plan of this edifice was conceived by Pope Leo the Tenth, and it was begun in the year 1520; the whole design and execution being committed to the above-mentioned artist. I shall, however, touch but slightly on the architecture of the interior of the chapel, which greatly disappointed me. It is a large square room, formal and unadorned, having regular Corinthian pilasters, and corresponding doors and windows, arranged in that tame flat style of mixed architecture, so unpropitious to the solemn and imposing gloom of a mausoleum. The pilasters are painted of a cold grey colour, while the walls are left entirely of a pure white, the whole being gay, light, and showy, but most unimpressive.
It should have been vaulted, furnished with deep dark-coloured marbles, and superb brazen gates, while a dim and chastened light, only rendering the monuments of the Medici visible, would have heightened the effect produced by their magnificence.
But from the architecture and ornaments of the chapel, we turn with the deepest interest to the statues of Michael Angelo; till I beheld them, I had formed no conception of the splendour of genius and taste possessed by this artist; they are works which evince a grandeur and originality of thought, a boldness and freedom of design and execution, unparalleled.
Two sarcophagi, those of Lorenzo and Julian, are each supported by two figures. The personification of the Twilight and Aurora guards the remains of Lorenzo, and the Night and the Day those of his brother.
The Crepuscule, or Twilight, is represented by a superb manly figure, reclining and looking down; the wonderful breadth of chest, and fine balance of the sunk shoulder, are masterly, and the right limb, which is finished, is incomparable.
The Aurora is a female form of the most exquisite proportions; the head of a grand and heroic cast, and the drapery, which falls in thin transparent folds from the turban, is full of grace, while, in her noble countenance, a spring of thought, an awakening principle, seems to breathe, as if the rising day awaited the opening of her eyes.
Day is much unfinished; little more than blocked, yet most magnificent. To have done more would have diminished the noble effect of the whole, which is only heightened by what is left to the imagination. Perhaps none but a mind so gifted as that of this great master could have conceived this, or succeeded in so bold an attempt. Genius is creative; this great artist did not imitate; he meditated, and in his moments of inspiration dashed out the most superb inventions, often imperfect, but always grandly conceived. Doubtless, the unfinished state in which many of his splendid works were left, must have been occasioned by that impatience, so often the concomitant of genius, which, having attained its grand object in striking out splendour of effect, becomes weary, and forsakes the details.
The personification of Night, in sleep and silence, is finely imagined the attitude is beautiful, mournful, and full of the most touching expression; the drooping head, the supporting hand, and the rich head-dress, are unrivalled in the arts.
There are in this chapel, forming a part of the group, or at least of the subject, two statues of the brothers Lorenzo and Julian di Medici, by the same master. They are both in armour.
The figure of Lorenzo is simple and impressive. The whole character of this piece is marked by a cast of gloomy melancholy, which awakens the idea of his brooding over the fate of his murdered brother; their mutual affection being represented by the writers of the day as having been of almost a romantic character.
The figure of Julian is a noble heroic statue. He is seated, the left hand gloved and raised; the bent fore-finger touches the upper lip, which is admirably expressed, seeming literally to yield to the pressure. The helmet, fine in form and proportion, throws a deep shade on the countenance.