Constellations and Pietra Serena

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

Basilica di San Lorenzo

I still remember studying for my art history exams and learning about this church. Basilica di San Lorenzo, Filippo Brunelleschi, 1470. Commissioned by (of course) the Medici. What was most striking to me back then was its façade, which was left unfinished. Apparently there have been recent talks with the Commune of Florence to discuss completing its frontispiece, but at this point I feel like the unfinished look is so iconic that we’d be losing something by changing it. What do you think?


The church is one of the largest in Florence, and acts as the resting place for the most important members of the Medici family, from Cosimo (1434-1464), founder of the dynasty, to Cosimo III (1670-1723), the penultimate Grand Duke of Florence.

The site was once home to a church consecrated in 393, and thus believed to be the oldest in Florence, though at the time it sat outside the city walls. It served as the Cathedral of Florence for a few centuries before this honor was moved to Saint Reparata, a church that sat where the Duomo now stands.

As this was the parish church of the Medici family, in 1419 Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici financed a new building to replace the extant one, dating back to the 11th century. He commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi (responsible for the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Duomo) to design it, though the architect passed before he saw the building completed. His student Michelozzo (Palazzo Medici; Boboli Gardens) took over after his death.

The building makes extensive use of pietra serena (“serene stone”), the grey sandstone that you see on all columns and other architectural details. It was an extremely popular material during the Renaissance (it was also used in the Pazzi Chapel), no less because it became a symbol of local pride. Pietra serena was excavated from quarries in the outskirts of Florence and nearby provinces, so that for the Medici to use it was to both show pride in the city and its dominions and strengthen their roots there, naming themselves as purely Florentine as it was possible to be.

Sagrestia Vecchia

Now a part of the Basilica of San Lorenzo complex, the Old Sacristy is another structure completed by Brunelleschi and financed by the Medici. It holds the tombs of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and his wife, Piccarda Bueri, and those of Giovanni and Piero de’ Medici, designed by Andrea del Verrocchio.

The decorative details were designed by Donatello, and include the tondoes (the circular images), the reliefs above the doors, and the doors themselves.

The constellations that decorate this dome are depicted accurately enough that it is possible to estimate the date they represent. In 1911, the date was placed at July 9, 1422, which coincided with the consecration of the altar. A later calculation, however, placed it at July 6, 1439, the date of the closing session of the Council of Florence, when a papal bull uniting the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches was signed.

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