Artibus et Historiae no. 44 (XXII)2001, ISSN 0391-9064
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CHARLES BURROUGHS - Monuments of Marsyas: Flayed Wall and Echoing Space in the New Sacristy, Florence
The Medici Chapel in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, is an excellent testcase for a recent shift in the discipline of Art History to metonymic method, i.e., emphasizing spatial (and other) contiguity rather than text- based iconography. In the 1440s Cosimo de' Medici, effective ruler of Florence since 1434, built his great palace and assumed sole responsibility for the reconstruction of the nearby church of San Lorenzo. The palace faced away from the church, a symbolic disjunction that troubled successive generations of Medici.
In the early 1520s, Michelangelo produced various designs, none executed, for the entrance wall of the Medici Chapel with the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother. This article argues that the two latest known designs both suggest a connection between the chapel and spaces beyond, but with profoundly different ideological resonances. One recalls the triumphal, classical architecture of Michelangelo's abandoned facade project for the church and, further back, celebrations of Medici power in the city at large. The other refers to the high altar of the basilica itself, near Cosimo's tomb.
The dissected architectural forms of the second design evoke the myth of Marsyas, the flayed satyr, as do motifs in the chapel's executed decoration. Such allusions link the chapel with the garden of the Medici Palace, where ancient statues of Marsyas flanked the portal that led out toward the church.
Set up by Cosimo and Lorenzo, these statues entered into a complex set of echoes with other statues in the palace garden and courtyard. The reference to Marsyas is not just a matter of iconography, but also of a radically innovative conception of the possibilities of architectural signification, while inviting reflection on the historical roles and fortunes of the Medici themselves.