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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of the Medici Chapels in Florence

What are the Medici Chapels?

The Medici Chapels are two chapels dedicated to the Medici family: the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy) and the Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes).

Medici Chapels

Richardfabi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Medici Chapels History

The Medici were the most powerful and wealthy ruling family in Tuscany during the Renaissance, producing a long line of popes, politicians and bankers. They were also great patrons of the arts, responsible for funding a huge number of the works we now consider to be masterpieces of that period. Among these are the Cappelle Medicee (or Medici Chapels), here within the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Designed by the famously ‘divine’ artist Michelangelo, the Sagrestia Nuova (or New Sacristy) is well known for its beautiful sculptures, particularly the allegories of the pagan gods of Night, Day, Dusk and Dawn. The vast, octagonal Cappella dei Principi (or Chapel of the Princes), overseen by Matteo Nigetti, was added later, in the 17th century.

The New Sacristy was commissioned in 1519 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, soon to be Pope Clement VII, and his cousin Pope Leo X, Lorenzo de’ Medici, as a mausoleum for the dynasty. It was to be designed by the great artist Michelangelo, who until then had only worked in painting and sculpture, not yet as an architect. This ‘New’ Sacristy was intended to complement an earlier one in the basilica, Fillipo Brunelleschi’s Sagrestia Vecchia (or Old Sacristy), dating from the preceding century.

Michelangelo’s design for the space was characteristically ambitious. Inspired by, but not bound to, the classical harmony of Brunelleschi’s original sacristy, Michelangelo proposed an architectural design with slightly altered proportions, signifying his intention to subvert traditional ideas. For the associated statuary to add drama to his design, he set out to carve likenesses of both Lorenzo and Giulio de’ Medici, as well as four renditions of pagan gods, the Madonna and Child, and Saints Cosmas and Damian. Michelangelo’s imposing and monumental statue of the goddess Night is widely considered to be one of his finest works and had an enduring influence on later Romantic and 19th-century artists such as Henry Fuseli and Lord Leighton. Sadly, owing to the death of Pope Clement VII, Michelangelo’s personal involvement in the New Sacristy ended prematurely in 1534, which meant that a number of the statues were left unfinished by the master, to be completed by his pupils.

In terms of architecture, the second Medici Chapel, the Chapel of the Princes, offers a rare example of the audacious and sumptuous 17th-century Baroque style in Florence. Works of this type are more commonly found in Rome, since Florentine religious architecture tends to be earlier and therefore features more classically Renaissance ideas of balance, geometry and harmony. Overseen by architect Matteo Nigetti, the Chapel of the Princes was built after designs drawn up by a member of the Medici family, Don Giovanni de’ Medici (who won the competition for its construction, launched by his own half-brother!) Inside, the mausoleum possesses a fabulous gold dome inlaid with marble and semi-precious stones. Six sarcophagi line the surrounding walls, though these are purely ornamental as the bodies of the Medici were laid to rest in the crypt below.

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