Basilica di San Lorenzo ☆☆

"Presentation to Pontius Pilate" (1460s) on the Pulpito della Passione by Donatello, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
'Presentation to Pontius Pilate' (1460s) on the Pulpito della Passione by Donatello

The Medici family church, with Donatello sculptures and architecture by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo

The Medici's home church was designed by stellar Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (same guy who did the famous dome on the cathedral), and is decorated with works by the Medici family sculptor, the great Donatello.

The facade of San Lorenzo

Don't let the lack-of-facade fool you; there are riches within. Actually, this faceless entrance brings up a fun point.

One of the ironies of art-bedazzled Florence is that, since they always wanted the most spectacular facades for their churches, the endless series of contests pitting great artists and architects against one another to submit designs (then, oftentimes, none was picked) and a chronic lack of funds to pull off the facade they truly wanted, left most of the major churches of Florence faceless for centuries.

Both Santa Croce and the Cathedral itself only got their facades in the 19th century. Even the famously felicitous facade of Santa Maria Novella was a two-parter: the bottom half finished in the Gothic style of the 1300s; the top half not added until the early Renaissance (it is a testament to that second architect Alberti's mastery that you can barely tell the top half came more than 100 years after the fact). But the facades of Santo Spirito and, as you can see, San Lorenzo have to this day not been covered by a pretty assemblage of marbles.

Santo Spirito has since been plastered over, presenting a pale yellow blank slate to its piazza (and providing a neighboring cafe with an entertainment theme, its walls covered with dozens upon dozens of framed sketches of modern suggestions for a facade).

San Lorenzo's front languishes as it has for centuries, rough brick without a public face. The original facade contest pitted Raphael against Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo, Sansovino, and Baccio d'Agnolo. None was picked, and instead Michelangelo got the commission. He designed a lovely facade—you can still see the model he made for it in Casa Buonarotti—but it, too, never got built.

No, San Lorenzo's face has remained bare bricks since 1480. Perhaps this is why Florence hides it behind the outdoor stalls of the famed San Lorenzo leather market surrounding the church.

Inside San Lorenzo

Everything changes on the inside, an orderly interplay of columns and arches in pale plaster outlined by dark pietra serena stone—the trademark look of its designer, the great Brunelleschi. It is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, and to decorate it the Medici put their famed favorite sculptor Donatello to work.

The Donatello pulpits

The two pulpits flanking the end of the nave, just before it opens into the transept, were the last works Donatello ever made, cast in the early 1460s (he was probably assisted by his star pupil, Bertoldo—who would go on to teach a teenaged Michelangelo how to carve marble).

These scenes are crowded and complex, with a marvelous usage of foreshortening and schiacciatorelief—the lines oftentimes barely scratched into the bronze, yet their design able to simulate the illusion of great depth.

(Donatello pioneered this technique, which was borrowed by painters like Paolo Uccello and Masaccio—see Santa Maria Novella—to create linear perspective on totally flat surfaces in their frescoes, revolutionizing art forever.)

The panels on each pulpit bear closer scrutiny. Shame they're usually so poorly lit. Bring binoculars.

Bronzino's Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Against the end of the left aisle wall is a large fresco by Bronzino of The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. San Lorenzo's titular saint was a deacon of the church in the 3rd century—and, as it turns out, cooler than James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Cool Hand Luke put together.

Just after Pope Sixtus II was arrested and executed during the wave persecution by the emperor Valerian (ushering in the year without a pope in AD 258/259), Lawrence was brought before the authorities. They demanded that he return in three days to hand over all the wealth of his church.

Lawrence spent his borrowed time distributing as much of the church's treasures as possible among the Christians of Rome (though he secretly sent his most prized possession back to his parents in Aragon, Spain, to hide it: the cup used by Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper—the cup known to history as the Holy Grail).

When Lawrence appeared back before the Roman authorities, rather than a treasure train he was accompanied by a vast crowd of the poor, beggars, and cripples of the city.

"Here is my church's treasure," he said. "And it is far richer than that of your emperor."

Valerian was not amused.

For his act of defiance, Lawrence was swiftly sentenced to death—a death by roasting. They threw him onto a vast gridiron over a hot fire, where he slowly burned to death. But Lawrence never screamed, and he never cried out. Legend has that a Roman soldier, trying to taunt him into tears, mockingly asked the martyree how he was doing. Through gritted teeth, Lawrence spat out, "Turn my over. I'm done on this side."

OK, I try not to use curse words on this site, but I don't care who you are: that's just badass.

It also helped make St. Lawrence the patron saint of chefs and roasters—and, naturally, of comedians.

The Old Sacristy

Just around the corner, in a chapel off the left transept, is a Annunciation by Filippo Lippi and a monument to Donatello, who is buried in the crypt below (alongside his lifelong patron, Cosimo Il Vecchio de' Medici).

But the real draw in this corner of the church is through a doorway on the far side of the left transept leading into the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy).

This is pure Brunelleschi architecture at its finest, rivaled only perhaps by the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce. Donatello chipped in with the decorative elements, including the tondi (round panels) in the corners and above the arches, crafted of terracotta and plaster and remarkably preserved. The terracotta bust of San Lorenzo is by either Donatello or Desiderio da Settignano; the bronze panels on the doors are likely by Michelozzo.

The Old Sacristy was commissioned by Giovanni de' Bicci di Medici—the founder of the Medici bank and, hence, the family's subsequent fortunes—and he is buried here along with his grandsons, Giovanni and Piero de' Medici (son of the great civic leader Cosimo Il Vecchio and father of Lorenzo "the Magnificent"), in a tomb by Verrocchio.

(Incidentally; it's only called the "Old Sacristy" because a generation later Michelangelo designed a "New Sacristy" off the right transept to serve as a tomb for the next generation of Medici, Lorenzo Il Magnifico and his heirs and cousins. Unfortunately, this room—adorned by Michelangelo statues—is only accessible via the Chapel of the Princes, which may be physically located right behind San Lorenzo's main altar, but the entrance to which is outside and around the back of the church—with, of course, a separate admission fee.)

The Laurentian Library

Off the cloisters adjacent to the church is the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (the Laurentian Library), a wonderful example of Michelangelo's felicitous and playful architecture.

The sweeping, dignified staircase he designed—leading up to the cozy, low-ceiling reading room and wedged into a tight vestibule the looks like a small building turned inside-out—would influence the concept of grand interior staircases for centuries to come in palaces across Europe.

Photo gallery
  • The (non) facade, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Rodrigo Pereira da S)
  • The nave, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Peter K Burian)
  • The spectacular staircase by Michelangelo in the vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Pulpito della Passione, or Pulpit of The Passion, (1460s) by Donatello, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The nave, looking toward the entrance and the Tribuna delle Reliquie (1531-32) by Michelangelo, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Tomb of Cosimo de
  • The Sagrestia Vecchia, or Old Sacristy, (1420–28) designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and decorated largely by Donatello (1428–43), Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The back of the altar (1433) of Sagrestia Vecchia by Donatello, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The umbrella dome of the Sagrestia Vecchia, or Old Sacristy, (1420–28) designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The cloisters, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Michelangelo
  • The Reading Room of the the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The rotunda of the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • De reliquis animalibus exanguibus libri quator... by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Moon rabbit 365)
  • Basilica di San Lorenzo, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Italy (Photo by Txllxt TxllxT)
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How long does San Lorenzo take?

Give the church itself about half an hour, plus another 20 minutes for the library. Plan to be here in the morning so you don't miss the library, which is closed in the afternoons. (Plus, the shopping in the surrounding market is better in the morning.)

The Medici Chapels

Again, the Medici are actually buried in three places in the church complex; the crypt below the church (open rarely) where Cosimo il Vecchio, founder of the Medici dynasty's fortunes, rests in peace (alongside his favorite sculptor, Donatello); the Old Sacristy we talked about above, with Cosimo's parents and sons; and the totally separate "Chapel of the Princes and New Sacristy (ornate tombs of the later Medici, plus some nifty Michelangelo sculptures decorating the tombs of Cosimo's famous grandson Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici and his heirs and cousins).

Even though this last part is technically a party of the church fabric—the Chapel of the Princes rotunda is directly behind the altar, and the "New Sacristy" with those Michelangelo-designed tombs is actually in the same spot off the right transept as the Old Sacristy is off the left transept, balancing things out nicely—entry to all of this sector is blocked off from inside the church.

You have to exit San Lorenzo, turn left to walk outside along its flank through the market stalls around to the back of the church—and then, of course, pay a separate admission fee. » more

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).