Medici Tombs – Michelangelo

Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours, with allegorical figures of Night and Day
Seated figure approx. 5’10” (1.8 m)
Cappelle Medicee, San Lorenzo, Florence

Michelangelo executed the marble figures for the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo during a period of great upheaval. Hostilities between the Medici Pope Clement VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, led to the Sack of Rome in 1527. Meanwhile Florence ousted the latest Medici and reestablished the republic. In 1529, Charles V laid siege to Florence on the instigation of Clement VII and the city fell after a 10 month-long resistance. The new Medici governor ordered Michelangelo’s assassination for aiding the republic against the invasion. The canon of San Lorenzo hid Michelangelo until he was pardoned by the Pope. The Pope then installed Duke Alessandro de’ Medici who was not known for kindness. Michelangelo fled his home of Florence for Rome upon the death of the Pope in 1534 and did not return after the Duke’s assassination three years later. Michelangelo’s pupils finally installed the figures on the tombs in 1545. (Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance art, 546-547)

While the Chapel also hosts the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his murdered brother Giuliano, the two more striking are those of two lesser Medici Dukes, which have the figures of the Times of Day. Owing to Michelangelo’s flight, the tombs were never fully completed, leaving the four dramatic and remarkable figures of Night and Day, and Dawn and Dusk with passages of rough marble. The four muscular figures appear to be outgrowing their enclosures, writhing in frustration or drooping in melancholy. Michelangelo wrote his own words for Night:

Grato m’e’ l’sonno e piu’ l’esser di sasso
mentre che ‘l danno e la vergogna dura;
non veder, non sentir m’e’ gran ventura;
pero’ non mi destar, deh!
parla basso.

It is my pleasure to sleep and even more to be stone:
As long as shames and dishonor may last,
My sole desire is to see and feel no more.
Speak softly, I beg you, do not awaken me.

These imposing, tormented statues, like their imposing, tormented creator, had to flee Florence in a time of great threat and uncertainty. At the beginning of World War II, the superintendency of galleries and monuments had shielded the statues with sandbags and scaffolding. With the threat of air raids over Florence, it was decided that that the statues would have to be moved, which was no mean feat. This task was one of the most complicated of all the removals. The figures representing the dukes had to removed and lowered from their niches above the their respective tombs, and the Times of Day had to be lifted from the tombs from which they appeared to be sliding off. (Brey, 263)

At the deposit of Torre a Cona, Lt. Hartt, an MFAA officer, came upon the statues while climbing over wooden crates. Even through their cages, they were breathtaking. An overwhelmed Hartt, looked down at one of one crates to meet the “agonized face of Michelangelo’s Dawn.” (Hartt, Florentine art under fire, 30) The statues, unlike Michelangelo, would return to Florence. They were reinstalled in their original places.

Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, with allegorical figures of Dusk and Dawn
Seated figure approx. 5’8″ (1.7 m)
Cappelle Medicee, San Lorenzo, Florence

Works Cited

• Hartt, F. (1949). Florentine art under fire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

• Hartt, F, & Wilkins, D.G. (2009). History of Italian Renaissance art: painting, sculpture, architecture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


One thought on “Medici Tombs – Michelangelo

  1. Pingback: Art History #2 -- Artist In Transition: Michelangelo « EDUCATION MYTHBUSTERS EDUCATION MYTHBUSTERS

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