London, Henry S. King & Co., 1877; Transcribed and Photographed, Carolyn Carpenter




Chapter VII:  The Piazza and Church of San Lorenzo

North of the Baptistery and the Cathedral is the Via Borgo San Lorenzo, so called because when the city wall skirted the piazza of the Baptistery, this street was included in the borough or suburbs of Florence.
An inscription over a shop commemorates the residence of the baker Giuseppe Dolfi, a remarkable man, who only died a year ago.  Dolfi was an ardent politician of the liberal school; his education was superior to that ordinarily found in men of his class, and he was respected and beloved as a just, able, and good man, a philanthropist, and patriot.  His sense and courage obtained for him immense influence with his fellow-citizens, who chose him "Capo del Popolo" - Tribune of the people.  Though simple and unpretending, he was sent for by the government, on more than one occasion, when a disturbance was expected and requested to use his power to restrain any attempts at violence; and he always directed his efforts to prevent bloodshed and maintain order, whilst trusted by his fellow-citizens and the honest champion of their just rights and liberty.

The Borgo San Lorenzo leads directly to the Piazza of the same name, the eastern side of which is lined with small shops or cellars, chiefly occupied by dealers in hempen and linen cloths.  The most conspicuous goods are yards of narrow linen bandages for swaddling infants, hung in festoons before the entrances to many of these shops.

The upper parts of the houses facing the Church are irregular and picturesque, and present a confused assemblage of windows, loggias, terraces, and gardens.

The northern and southern sides consist of private dwelling houses, which once belonged to wealthy merchants; but the Stufa Palace alone continues to bear the name of its owner.59  In the corner of the piazza is a marble statue of Giovanni delle Bande Nere, by Baccio Bandinelli.  Giovanni de' Medici, lineally descended from Lorenzo, the younger brother of Cosimo, the father of his country, was a captain of free companies, celebrated for his daring feats in arms:  the black armour worn by his troops obtained for them the cognomen of "Le Bande Nere."  Giovanni died at the early age of twenty-eight from the effects of amputation, after he had been severely wounded in the leg at the battle of Mantua, in 1526.  He left an infant son, who afterwards became the Grand-Duke Cosimo I.  This statue was originally in the great saloon of the Palazzo Vecchio, but in 1850 it was removed to its present position.  Bandinelli, the unworthy rival of Michael Angelo, was engaged upon the tombs of Leo X. and Clement VII. at Rome when, in 1541, Duke Cosimo summoned him to Florence to execute this monument to his father.  It is not even a favourable specimen of the master, and is justly designated by Perkins, "a half-finished, heavy, unmeaning, ill-proportioned figure."60  The pedestal is adorned with fluted columns, and with a frieze forming the frame to a pretentious relief, where the hero is represented pronouncing sentence upon a group of prisoners.

The Church of San Lorenzo stands on the site of an ancient basilica, the history of whose foundation is related in a well-known work of the fourth century, written by St. Ambrose and his Deacon Paulinus,61  as follows:  - "There once lived in Florence a pious matron named Giuliana, who had three daughters, but no son.  Desirous of obtaining male offspring, she made a solemn vow that if her prayers for this blessing were granted, she would build a church and dedicate it to St. Lawrence, the favourite saint of those days, who had suffered martyrdom in the preceding century.62  When at length her son was born, she called him Lorenzo, and prepared to fulfil her vow.  The foundations of the basilica were laid, and in A.D. 393 St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, was requested to consecrate the new church.  He arrived in Florence during Lent to perform the ceremony; and Lorenzo, the son of Giuliana, then twelve years of age, was allowed to read the lessons of the day, whilst the relics of Saints Agricola and Vitale, recently discovered in Bologna, were deposited by St. Ambrose beneath the high altar.  The sacred edifice was thenceforward called the Basilica Ambrosiana, and the first even recorded in its history is, that Bishop Zanobius was buried there between A.D. 429 and A.D. 440; his remains were transferred to the church of San Salvador in A.D. 490.63

Early in the eleventh century, Gherardo, Bishop of Florence, suggested various improvements on the exterior and interior of the Basilica of San Lorenzo.  In 1058, the German Hildebrand, afterwards Pope Gregory VII., came to Florence in the hope of persuading Godfrey of Lorraine, Marquis of Tuscany, to resist the election of any pope without the imperial sanction; and Gherardo, who was a Burgundian and countryman of Godfrey, was chosen by Hildebrand and the marquis to fill the pontifical chair.  After his rival Benedict had been forced to resign, Gherardo was conducted to Rome, and assumed the name of Nicholas II.  The following year he visited Florence and re-consecrated San Lorenzo, promising plenary indulgence to all who should attend the services of this church on the anniversary of the ceremony.  He likewise bestowed estates on the foundation, and endowed an ecclesiastical college, with a prior at the head, who was enjoined to eat at a common table with the collegiates, and within the precincts of the canon's residence.  In 1060, an appeal was made to Nicholas by the canons of San Lorenzo, that he might sanction their right to a tract of land called Il Campo del Re, or Campo Regio, probably the site of the Villa Careggi, which afterwards became the residence of Cosimo de' Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent.64  This estate was disputed by the canons of the Cathedral, in whose favour Nicholas pronounced judgment.  But the canons of San Lorenzo did not submit quietly to their defeat, and in the year 1061, on the death of this pope, they laid their claim before Beatrice, the widow of Boniface Marquis of Tuscany, and the mother of the celebrated Countess Matilda, for whom she then governed as regent.  Beatrice had been the friend and staunch supporter of Nicholas, and, to the disappointment of the canons, she refused to reverse his decree.

In 1078 San Lorenzo was included within the gates of Florence.  Pope Paschal II. issued a bull in 1115, by which he took this Basilica under the special protection of the Holy See, and confirmed the canons in all their rights, while prohibiting the bishops of Florence from levying rates upon them, or molesting them in any other way.

Towards the commencement of the fifteenth century, the building required repair to prevent its falling into ruins,65 and the canons of San Lorenzo requested permission of the Signory to demolish some adjacent houses, that they might "increase the length and width of their church, and add chapels and a sacristy."  The prior was reputed skilful in architecture, and he undertook to be Capo Maestro, or president of the Board of Works, whilst Giovanni de' Bicci dei Medici66  promised to contribute money for the sacristy and one chapel.  The building was already in progress, when it happened that Filippo Brunelleschi, dining with Giovanni de' Medici, was asked his opinion of the new works at San Lorenzo.  He replied by pointing out several defects, which he attributed to the architect possessing more theoretical than practical knowledge; and at the same time he expressed his astonishment that Giovanni had not contributed more towards the improvement of the church beyond building a sacristy and a single chapel.  This suggestion was taken in good part.  The wealthy Medici consented to loosen his purse-strings again, as well as to obtain contributions from others towards the pious work.  He could only, however, persuade six of his fellow-citizens to subscribe - Rondinelli, Ginori, Della Stufa, Cini Marignolli,67 Martelli, and Marco di Luca, most of whom have descendants still residing in Florence.  In 1435, Brunelleschi was appointed chief architect.  He lived to see the completion of what is now called the Old Sacristy, Sagrestia Vecchia; but his original design for the remainder of the church underwent considerable changes or modifications in the hands of another architect, Antonio Manetti.

The Basilica, as it now stands, with its front of rough masonry, is in the form of a Latin cross.  The nave has an aisle on either side, and square chapels the whole length.  The principal entrance is at the eastern extremity.  The grand simplicity of the interior, and the beautiful proportions of the colonnade and arches, have an imposing effect; but again, as in the Cathedral, the pietra-serena stone of which it is build has a cold effect, which is increased by the want of stained glass in the windows or of colour on the walls.  This sombre hue is hardly relieved by the gilt cassetones and white stucco on the ceiling, which were added by late restorers, and are out of harmony with the rest of the building.  The principal decorations of the interior are attributed to Michael Angelo, and, by order of Clement VII, a chapel after his design was constructed, which opens by three small doors into a gallery over the principal entrance, and was destined for the preservation of valuable reliquaries, containing the bones of saints.68

The side aisles are lofty, and divided from the nave by columns with Corinthian capitals.  None of the chapels in the aisles have paintings of any importance.  Between a side entrance, which opens on a little piazza, and the northern transept, is a monument in white marble by Thorwaldsen, to the memory of the artist Pietro Benvenuti, who painted the cupola of the Mausoleum, or burial-place, of the Medici princes.  Benvenuti was the most distinguished Italian painter of the present century, and the monument deserves notice as a work of Thorwaldsen, though not one of his best.  A young and graceful female, representing the genius of painting, sinks backward, her palette and brushes dropping from her hand, whilst her right arm is supported by a youth with a lighted torch.  The seated figure of Florence leans on the Marzocco, and behind her, Fame inscribes the artist's name on a scroll.  Above is the bust of Benvenuti.

The chapel at the extremity of the northern transept is dedicated to the Holy Sacrament, and contains a finely carved marble altar, remarkable for delicacy of design and finished execution.  It is the work of Desiderio di Settignano, a sculptor of the early half of the fifteenth century.  Above the altar, two lovely boy-angels bend in adoration on either side of a small marble statue of the infant Christ.  Some have ascribed this statue to Donatello, but the manner and treatment leave no doubt that it is by Desiderio di Settignano.   It is described by Francesco Bocchi, a friend of Giovanni Bologna and a writer upon art in the sixteenth century, as "peculiarly sweet in expression and action;" but at it s present height it is difficult to judge of its merits, and it is therefore best known by casts and copies.  The head is slightly bent, as, with a gentle smile and lips apart, the child Christ blesses his worshippers.  One hand is raised, the two fingers and thumb are in the act of benediction; the other hand holds a crown of thorns, and grasps the nails, recalling the classical representation of the thunderbolt in the hand of Jove.  The feet rest on a cloud which descends on the sacramental cup.  Every part of the little statue is wrought with care and exquisite finish, and its merits have attracted the notice of successive writers upon art.  Bocchi particularly mentions that this statue was considered by all artists in his day as without its equal in treatment as well as excellence of composition; and he adds, "It is impossible to find a more lovely or graceful head; the life-like tenderness of the flesh (morbidezza) is wonderfully produced, and it exhibits a profound knowledge of art; whether the attention be directed to the hands, the legs, the feet, or any part of this statue, it is pronounced a marvelous production."  Desiderio was a pupil of Donatello, and Raffaelle's father, Giovanni Santi of Urbino, called him "Il bravo Desider, sý dolce e bello."  He was born in 1418, and died at the age of thirty-five.  His style is delicate and captivating.

"The Ges¨ Bambini," as this statue is designated, has also an historical interest; for on the 7th of February, 1497, the last day of the carnival, it was borne through the streets of Florence, at the head of a procession of children, who, at the instigation of Savonarola, were seeking for every work of art which had an immoral tendency (the so-called vanities), that they might be burnt in a fire kindled in the midst of the Piazza di San Marco.69The chapel to the right of this altar contains a porphyry monument which is greatly admired - the work of Cavaliere Carlo SiriŔs, formerly director of the pietra-dura establishment in Florence.  It was placed here to the memory of the Grand-Duchess Maria Anna Carolina, a Saxon princess, the first wife of the Grand-Duke Leopold II., who died at Pisa in 1832.  The art of cutting and polishing so hard a material as porphyry had been long lost, when at the end of the sixteenth century, it was revived by one of the Ferucci family, Francesco di Giovanni, more usually known as Cecco del Tadda.

The two chapels to the right of the high altar contain nothing of importance, except a tablet in marble, with an inscription, recording the history of the foundation of the first basilica.

The interior of the cupola is painted by Meucci, a modern artist; and the high altar, inlaid with rich pietra-dura work, has ingenious representations of stories from the Old Testament - the sacrifice of Isaac, &c., &c.; it is surmounted by a crucifix attributed by some to Donatello, but more probably by Baccio da Montelupo.70  The proportions are correct, and it is well modeled, but wants character.

The Chapel Corbelli, in the southern transept, contains a monument by the living sculptor DuprŔ to the memory of a daughter of Count Moltke-Hwuitfeld, formerly Danish ambassador to the Court of Naples.  Though rather theatrical, there is merit and beauty in the composition.  The boy drinking from a bowl, presented to him by a female at one corner of the monument, recalls part of the statue of Charity by Bartolini, in the first room of the Pitti Gallery.  The infant genii supporting the curtains above are extremely graceful.

Over the altar of this chapel is a picture on panel, much injured, but evidently by a good master.  St. Anthony stands between St. Leonard and St. Julian Hospitator:  the predella is in three compartments, and represents scenes from the lives of these saints.  In the opposite chapel, degli Operai, also called Capella Martelli, is an altar-piece in tempera by Fra Filippo Lippi.  The subject is an Annunciation, which Vasari mentions as one of the finest works of the artist.  The picture has been entirely repainted, but, in spite of this, enough of the original drawing remains to trace the beauty of the angel.71  Lord Lindsay attributes the picture to Lorenzo Monaco, a Camaldolese friar of the Monastery of the Angeli, in Florence, who lived in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and belonged to the contemplative or subjective school of art.72  The predella below is extremely beautiful, and gives the legend of St. Nicholas and the merchant's three daughters.73  Above this painting is suspended a Crucifix in wood by Benvenuto Cellini, of extremely fine workmanship, though painfully realistic; the weight of the body hanging upon the arms causes the muscles to be stretched to their utmost length.

In the southern aisle of the nave there is a large fresco by Angelo Bronzino, representing the martyrdom of St. Laurence.  The drawing is skilful, but the composition defective, from the confusion of arms and legs in a variety of forced attitudes.  Bronzino delighted in the exhibition of his knowledge and power, and has here placed the human  body in every conceivable position; but he does not pay sufficient attention to perspective, and is as faulty in his relief as in colour.  Above the door leading to the cloister there is an exquisitely wrought singing gallery, of inlaid white and coloured marbles and rock crystal, the work of Andrea Verocchio.

The two oblong pulpits of bronze in the nave of the Basilica, are adorned with high reliefs by Donatello and his pupil Bertoldo.  They were finished by the latter, as Donatello's eyesight was enfeebled by age, and he was obliged to resign the task.  These pulpits are placed opposite one another, that they might be used by theological disputants, as well as for reading the epistle and gospel.  They at first occupied a different position in this church, but were removed to their present site in 1515, when Leo X. visited Florence.  On this occasion the wife of his brother Giuliano de' Medici, Alfonsina de' Orsini, who was likewise sister to the Archbishop of Florence, sent a message to the canons of San Lorenzo, acquainting them that the Pope intended to make use of their church for his chapel, and desiring them accordingly to prepare for his reception.  Among other alterations which San Lorenzo underwent, was the removal of the ambones to their present position.  The bronze reliefs on each of these pulpits are very unequal in merit, and most of them apparently the work of Bertoldo; but those on the southern side of the northern ambone are an exception; for these reliefs, as well as the Flagellation and the figure of St. John on the southern extremity, exhibit a character and life Donatello was alone capable of imparting.  The last, especially, is wonderfully wrought, and the minute decorative details, and the frieze of children around St. John, are very beautiful.  Vasari remarks that these works display originality in the design, and power and invention in the arrangement of the numerous figures and architecture; and Cicognara mentions them with high encomiums.74  The marble columns which support the ambones, raising them to a considerable height from the ground, are singularly beautiful, and various capitals.  They were added at the obsequies of Michael Angelo in 1558.

On the pavement immediately in front of the high altar, within a circle formed by inlaid marbles, are engraved the following words:  "Cosmus Medices - Hic situs est - Decreto Publico - Pater PatriŠ;" and opposite, "Vixit Annos LXXV. - Menses III. - Dies XV."  A clumsy tomb of black and white marble in the subterranean church corresponds with this inscription, and contains the earthly remains of the merchant-prince whose ambition, genius, and munificence raised his family to the height of human grandeur.  Happily for his reputation, his ambitious views were not opposed to the interests of his native city; and the sagacity which enabled him to make the fortune of his house was equally directed to strengthen the political power and importance of Florence; he thus earned from those among his fellow-citizens, who valued the greatness of their city beyond her freedom, the title of "Father of his country."  He died in 1464, at the age of seventy-five.  As patron of this church, Cosimo, following the example of his father, Giovanni, contributed largely to its magnificence, and a festival in honour of the Pater PatriŠ was annually celebrated for many generations in San Lorenzo, on the 27th of February, the day of San Cosimo and San Damiano, the saints of physicians, and accordingly of the Medici family.



Ambones raised to their present height 1558
Ambrose, St. 340-397
Baccio Bandinelli 1493-1560
Boniface, Marquis of Tuscany, died 1052
Bronzino, Angelo 1502-1572
Brunelleschi, Filippo 1379-1446
Cellini, Benvenuto 1500-1571
Cosimo Pater PatriŠ, died 1464
Cosimo I., Grand-Duke, died 1575
Desiderio da Settignano, Altar in San Lorenzo 1463
Donatello 1386-1466
Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici died 1428
Giovanni de' Medici, delle Bande Nere, died 1526
Gregory VII., Pope, died 1085
Michael Angelo died 1564
Nicholas II., Pope 1059-1061
Paschal II., Pope, took San Lorenzo under his protection 1115
San Lorenzo founded 393
Zanobius, St., buried in San Lorenzo between 429-440


59 Ugo della Stufa was Gonfalonier of Florence during the plague, 1417-1420.  The name appears to have been derived from the stoves for heating the Baths, which in Roman times were supplied with water from the Mugnone, whit its course lay in this direction.
60 See "Tuscan Sculptors," by Charles Perkins, vol. iii. p. 154.
61 "Esortazione alla VirginitÓ."
62 His history is beautifully related by Mrs. Jameson in her "Legendary Art," p. 320.
63 Not the church attached to the Archbishop's Palace in the Piazza dell' Olio, but that which formerly existed on the site of the present Cathedral, as mentioned in a preceding chapter.
64 Now Villa Sloane, lately the property of the deceased Cavaliere Francis Sloane, whose munificent contributions for the erection of the fašade of Santa Croce have entitled him to the gratitude of Florentine citizens.
65 The story of the destruction of San Lorenzo by fire in 1423 is not authentic.
66 Giovanni de' Bicci, son of Salvestro dei Medici, and descended from Giovanni di Bernardino dei Medici, who managed the purchase of Lucca from Mastino della Scala.  (See chapter on Piazza del Duomo.)
67 There is a monumental slab to the memory of Rustico Marignolli near the entrance to the cloister from the Piazza, with the date 1249.  Rustico belonged to the Guelphic party, and fell in battle with the Ghibellines, who were led by a natural son of the Emperor Frederic II.  (See Gino Capponi, "Storia della Republica di Firenze.")
68 These reliquaries are now in the gem-room of the Uffizi Gallery.
69 See "Savonarola and His Times," by Pasquale Villari, translated from the Italian by Leonard Horner, vol. ii. p. 132.
70 See Cicognara, "Stor. Del Scult.," lib. v. cap. iii.
71 See "Crowe and Cavalcaselle," vol. iii. p. 348.
72 "Christian Art," Lord Lindsay, vol. ii. p. 302.
73 See "Legendary Art," Mrs. Jameson.  "Legend of St. Nicholas."
74 The subjects on these ambones are as follows, commencing with the ambone on the southern side of the nave, and proceeding from left to right:  - Christ before Pilate; Christ before Caiaphas;  Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross; the Entombment; the Flagellation - St. John; the Agony in the Garden.  Northern ambone: - Descent of the Holy Spirit; A Combat; St. Luke - Christ mocked; the Marys at the Door of the Sepulchre; the Descent into Limbo; the Resurrection; the Appearance to Mary and the Apostles.

Chapter VIII:  San Lorenzo (Continuation)


ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: Embroidering of Pomegranates: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Courtship || Casa Guidi italiano/English || Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Aurora Leigh || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence: || Preface  italiano/English || Poetry  italiano/English || Laurel Garland: Women of the Risorgimento || Death and the Emperor in the Poetry of Dante, Browning, Dickinson and Stevens|| Enrico Nencioni on Elizabeth Barrett Browning italiano ||

THE ENGLISH CEMETERY IN FLORENCE: Tuoni di silenzio bianco/ Thunders of White Silence italiano/English || The English Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, Florence: || Il Cimitero degli Inglesi italiano || Cemetery I Tombs A-E || Cemetery II Tombs D-L || Cemetery III Tombs M-Z ||

FLORENCE IN SEPIA: Florence I. Santa Trinita to Santa Croce || Florence I Appendix. The Uffizi || Florence II. North-Eastern Quarter || Florence III. Oltr'Arno || Other Tuscan Cities in Sepia || Italy in Sepia || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence || Susan and Joanna Horner, Walks in Florence|| Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Notes in Florence|| Francesca Alexander || Augustus J.C. Hare, Florence || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Florence's Libraries and Museums || Museums Thoughts||

AGNES MASON, C.H.F.: Agnes Mason, C.H.F., Anglican Mother Foundress || Agnes Mason's Patron Saints || Saints Cecilia and Agnes || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Holmhurst St Mary ||  I fratelli Alinari: Florentine Photographers] ||

Portfolio|| Florin: Non-Profit Guide to Commerce in Florence || Maps of Florence


Chapter VIII:  San Lorenzo (Continuation)