The statue of Lorenzo de' Medici is the central figure on the tomb erected to the memory of this prince. He was the rather unworthy namesake of his illustrious grandfather, who was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici family was for many generations the richest and most powerful in Florence. They were originally merchants, and, as the name signifies, physicians, and, accumulating great wealth, they became powerful leaders, and really the rulers of the republic.

Some of them were munificent patrons of art and literature. There was one named Cosimo, who did so much to make his city famous that he was called Pater Patriae, the father of the country, as was, centuries afterwards, our own Washington. His grandson Lorenzo won the title of the Magnificent for his lavish generosity and superb plans for the advancement of art and learning. So much power could not safely be in the hands of a single family. The Medici, from being benefactors, finally became tyrants.

The Lorenzo of this statue was one of the more insignificant members of the family. It is said that "he inherited the vices without the genius of the family, and was ambitious, unscrupulous, and dissipated. His uncle, Pope Leo X., after depriving the Duke of Urbino of his hereditary domains, bestowed them, with the title of duke, on Lorenzo, whom he also made general of the pontifical forces."[29] In 1518 Leo united him in marriage to a French princess, and their daughter was the afterwards celebrated Catharine de' Medici, queen of the French king, Henry II. These are the main facts in the life of a man who is remembered only because he had illustrious ancestors, a famous daughter, and a superb tomb.

[29] Susan and Joanna Horner's Walks in Florence, vol. i. p. 125.

It mattered nothing to Michelangelo that he had so poor a subject for a statue. It is supposed that he made no attempt at correct portraiture in the figure. The insignificant Lorenzo was transformed by the magic of his genius into a hero.

He wears a suit of Roman armor, in accordance with his career as a general in the wars with the Duke of Urbino, whose title he took. His helmet is pulled well forward over the brow, the head is bent, the cheek rests upon the left hand, the elbow supported on a casket placed on the knee. With finger laid thoughtfully upon the lips, he is thinking intently. The right hand rests, palm out, against the knee in a characteristic position of inaction.

LORENZO DE' MEDICI. Church of S. Lorenzo, Florence.
LORENZO DE' MEDICI Church of S. Lorenzo, Florence

His mood is not that of a dreamer lost to his present surroundings. Rather he seems to be keenly aware of what is going on; his meditations have to do with the present. It is as if, having given an order, he awaits its execution, his mind still intent upon his purposes, satisfied with his decision, and calmly expectant of its success. His affair is one of serious importance; no trifling matter absorbs the thought of this grave man. "A king sits in this attitude when, in the midst of his army, he orders the execution of some judicial act, like the destruction of a city. Frederic Barbarossa must have appeared thus when he caused Milan to be ploughed up."[30]

[30] Taine, Travels in Italy.

The lack of resemblance in the statue to the original duke Lorenzo made it for a long time doubtful whether it was intended to be his tomb. The Florentines, in their poetic way, fell into the habit of calling it Il Pensiero, that is, Thought, or Meditation, sometimes Il Pensieroso, The Thinker. These are, after all, the best names for the statue, which is allegorical rather than historical in its intention. The great English poet Milton has written a poem, which is like a companion piece to the statue, fitting it as words sometimes fit music. It begins in this way, in words which Il Pensieroso himself might speak:—

"Hence, vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly, without father bred!
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixèd mind with all your toys!
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shape possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the sunbeams,
Or likest hovering dreams,
The fickle pensioners of Morpheus' train.
But hail! thou Goddess sage and holy,
Hail, divinest Melancholy!"

Lorenzo's statue stands in a niche above the sarcophagus, or stone coffin, in which his body was laid. On the top of the sarcophagus are two reclining figures called Dawn and Twilight. The tomb itself is in a chapel, or sacristy, called the New Sacristy (to distinguish it from one still older), in the Church of S. Lorenzo, Florence. The entire sacristy is devoted to the memory of the Medici family, who had for several generations been benefactors of this church.

Now Michelangelo had a great deal to do with this family first and last, and his work on the tomb has an additional interest on this account. It was to Lorenzo the Magnificent that he owed his first start as a sculptor in an academy founded by this prince. He so pleased his patron that he was received into the duke's own household, and treated almost like a son. Years passed; Lorenzo had long been dead, when, one after another, two members of the same family came to the papal throne, and they desired to honor their name by employing the greatest sculptor of Italy in this monumental work.

So Michelangelo began designs for the sacristy, the entire decoration of which was intrusted to him. The walls of the rooms were panelled with marble, set with niches, in the form of windows, in which the statues were to be placed.

As the work proceeded, it was interrupted by some strange incidents, of which we shall hear later. The whole plan was never fully carried out, but in spite of incompleteness the chapel is a grand and impressive place.