When Michelangelo built the New Sacristy between 1520 and 1533 (finished by Vasari in 1556), it was to be a tasteful monument to Lorenzo the Magnificent and his generation of relatively pleasant Medici. When work got underway on the adjacent Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) in 1604, it was to become one of the world’s most god-awful and arrogant memorials, dedicated to the grand dukes, some of Florence’s most decrepit tyrants. The Cappella dei Principi is an exercise in bad taste, a mountain of cut marbles and semiprecious stones—jasper, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, agate, and the like—slathered onto the walls and ceiling with no regard for composition and still less for chromatic unity. The pouring of ducal funds into this monstrosity began in 1604 and lasted until the rarely conscious Gian Gastone de’ Medici drank himself to death in 1737, without an heir—but teams kept doggedly at the thing, and they were still finishing the floor in 1962.
Michelangelo’s Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy) ★★, built to jibe with Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo proper, is much calmer. (An architectural tidbit: The windows in the dome taper as they get near the top to fool you into thinking the dome is higher.) Michelangelo was supposed to produce three tombs here (perhaps four) but ironically got only the two less important ones done. So Lorenzo de’ Medici (“the Magnificent”)—wise ruler of his city, poet of note, grand patron of the arts, and moneybags behind much of the Renaissance—ended up with a mere inscription of his name next to his brother Giuliano’s on a plain marble slab against the entrance wall. Admittedly, they did get one genuine Michelangelo sculpture to decorate their slab, a not-quite-finished “Madonna and Child” ★.
On the left wall of the sacristy is Michelangelo’s “Tomb of Lorenzo” ★, duke of Urbino (and Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandson), whose seated statue symbolizes the contemplative life. Below him on the elongated curves of the tomb stretch “Dawn” (female) and “Dusk” (male), a pair of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures. This pair mirrors the similarly fashioned “Day” (male) and “Night” (female) across the way. One additional point “Dawn” and “Night” brings out is that Michelangelo perhaps hadn’t seen too many naked women.