Though connected to the San Lorenzo Basilica, the Medici Chapel has a separate entrance – and a separate entrance fee. Stepping inside, one finds simple entombments of some of the more minor members of one of the world’s more famous families, including that of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who bequeathed the family’s vast collection of art and palaces to the city of Florence after her death marked the end of the family dynastically in 1737. But walk up a set of stairs and enter the chapel itself, and the wealth of the Medici family really comes into view. Marble and stone spanning the color spectrum, embellishments in fine metals and gemstones, art and sculpture by some of the world’s most renowned artists… this is the legacy of a family who not only ruled here in Florence, but whose contributions would change the world.

The Medici Chapel

The word Renaissance literally means renewal or rebirth. It marked a return to a world reminiscent of Ancient Rome or Athens, one of public art, of major building projects, of scientific breakthroughs, and of philosophy more independent of religious influence. And it began here in Florence. From 1434 through the next two hundred years, the Renaissance would sweep from this relatively small city in northern Italy, and would envelop the world.

There is a reason that 1434 is said to be the official start of the Renaissance, while no definitive end date is ever given. In 1434, Cosimo Medici the Elder took the family from a wealthy banking family to de facto rulers of the Republic of Florence. While he held no official position, and the city-state was still run by a council, it was understood that he was the power behind the power. He, his son Piero the Gouty, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent would usher in a new era of Florentine greatness, using their wealth to accumulate personal power, but also to transform public life in their city.

Lorenzo the Magnificent, called such for his intellect and ability to conduct complex diplomacy on the Italian peninsula that would put an end to the constant state of war the various city-states were in (at least temporarily), took over the Medici Bank and family upon the death of his father in 1469. By this point, the Medici were effective rulers of Florence, and virtually nothing in the city was done without their fingerprints on it. Most importantly, perhaps, the Medici family were patrons of the arts, commissioning paintings and sculptures for their own private benefit, and for public consumption, both in the form of religious art in churches they would fund expansions for and in other public non-religious forums.

If Renaissance means renewal or a return to something, when it comes to the elite families of the day like the Medici, this is the return it speaks of. During medieval times, wealthy nobility used their money almost purely for their own political gain. If art was commissioned, it was either as a bribe for Church officials (I’ll pay to decorate your altar if you legitimize my rule over this new territory or bless my war with my neighbor) or a series of portraiture of the family itself. Art that could be enjoyed by the public was largely unheard of since the fall of Rome. Likewise, building projects were almost solely palaces and churches, nothing that would really benefit the average person. While the Medici can be said to use their patronage for enriching themselves and consolidating de facto power in their city, their funding of art and architecture would set a new model of the elite using their personal wealth to benefit society as a whole.

The San Lorenzo Basilica was not named for Lorenzo the Magnificent, but the Medici family funded it’s construction and expansion

Lorenzo the Magnificent would take patronage of the arts to a new level. He would personally develop relationships with artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo, as well as with leading architects and scientists of the day. It is only fitting, therefore, that his tomb, set in a small room just off the Medici Chapel, was designed by Michelangelo himself.

The tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The center sculpture is by Michelangelo

Following Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Medici power became a bit more formal. One son, Piero de Medici, would inherit his father’s title of Lord of Florence (for a few years, anyway, until a brief return to republicanism) while another, Giovanni, would become Pope Leo X, using his father’s relationships with the arts to truly expand the Renaissance to Rome, highlighted by bringing Michelangelo and his friends to the city to paint the Sistine Chapel (and numerous other projects).

Here in Florence, the Medici family would be officially returned to power for good in 1523. After the second Medici pope, Clement VII, was elected, his personal rule of Florence was handed over to other members of the family as Dukes of Florence, a title bestowed by Leo X during his papacy. In 1537, a relatively unknown distant Medici cousin assumed the role. Cosimo I and his descendants would rule the city, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, for the next nearly two hundred years, further expanding and funding the Renaissance in the process.

One of a lot of statues of Cosimo I. This one shows him in the style of a Roman emperor

The Medici Chapel is largely dedicated to these later family members, with the Grand Dukes all buried here, although only a couple of their statues survive. It is a show of wealth and of patronage that is meant to impress people, and it does.

More of the Medici Chapel. This is the tomb of Cosimo II

Cosimo I would make a number of changes to public-facing Florence. One of the best examples is the Palazzo Vecchio, or old palace. Built well before the Renaissance as the Palazzo della Signoria to house the city’s ruling council, with the Medici family assuming personal monarchic power, Cosimo I appropriated it to be his personal palace until a later move across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti, at which point this one became the old palace. Highlighted by its huge tower which can be climbed with a separate admission, the palace was richly decorated as befitted the archducal family.

The Palazzo Vecchio

Huge works of art were commissioned to celebrate Florence’s history, successful conquests of the nearby city-states of Pisa and Siena, and the Medici family. But other works were also added, more reminiscent of a return to ancient times, featuring scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, things that would seem sacrilege in the medieval religion-controlled era.

Mythological scenes, like this one from the Apartments of the Elements, are a mark of Renaissance art

Cosimo I would also endow his new palace with purely public art, and not only in his audience chambers or banquet halls. Large statues (highlighted by Michelangelo’s David) were commissioned, and were placed outside the palace, where the public of Florence could enjoy them. The nearby Loggia dei Lanzi holds some of the pieces the Medici family would either collect and display from Roman times or commission, and true to form, the Loggia is still open to the public for free today. (The David in front of the Palazzo entrance is a copy; the original is in a nearby museum.)

Loggia dei Lanzi

As the family consolidated power in the center of Florence, new offices, or uffizi, were needed, and a building was constructed adjacent to – and connected to via bridge – the Palazzo Vecchio. Today, the Uffizi Museum is the best in Florence, showcasing the personal collection of the Medici family, and other works added by the city since taking it over in 1737. Admission is not cheap, but the Uffizi is free on the first Sunday of each month. Just get in line early.

Free Sunday line for the Uffizi, stretching well around the block

Highlights of the collection are works by the Renaissance masters: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, and works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and more, in addition to countless collections of ancient art and sculpture. It is dizzying, truly befitting the Medici family and the city of Florence.

Caravaggio’s Medusa

Might the Renaissance have happened without the Medici? Maybe. But there is no question that this single family kickstarted a movement that would sweep the globe. From Cosimo the Elder to Lorenzo the Magnificent and to Cosimo I and his descendants, the Medici personally funded a new movement of public art and public works that would both showcase their own personal wealth and power and also benefit the people of their city. It marks a return to ancient times, where the wealthy elite would celebrate their own success by commissioning things for public consumption.

Here in Florence, through visits to the Uffizi, to the Palazzo Vecchio, and to the Medici Chapel, we can appreciate all the family did to bring the Renaissance about.

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