The unveiling of Giorgio Vasari’s (1511–74) newly restored Christ Carrying the Cross (1568–72) marks the conclusion of the campaign “In the Name of Michelangelo” to clean and conserve both Vasari’s painting and the monument to Michelangelo Buonarroti that stands next to it in Santa Croce’s right aisle. Together, the two works comprise the Buonarroti Chapel, whose patron was Michelangelo’s nephew and heir, Lionardo (1522–99).
It is likely that Lionardo was granted patronage rights to the altar due to its close proximity to his uncle’s monument, whose construction predates Vasari’s altarpiece. Along with members of the Asini, Pazzi, Biffoli, Zati, Medici, and Serristori families, who likewise sponsored sixteenth-century funerary altars at Santa Croce, Lionardo Buonarroti was a legacy patron whose ancestors had longstanding ties to the Franciscan basilica.
When they were in Florence, the Buonarroti had always resided near Santa Croce, and Michelangelo was particularly devoted to St. Francis.
Indeed, it was to a Franciscan church in Rome—Santi Apostoli—that his body was conveyed shortly after he died on 18 February 1564. The family had a tomb in Santa Croce’s first cloister, but Lionardo eschewed burial there in favor of interment at his new chapel inside the church.
A draft of Lionardo’s testament of 1599 in the archive at the Casa Buonarroti records his wish to be buried in Santa Croce in a tomb situated at the foot of his chapel, which held the remains of his father, uncle, and wife. The slab that marks the tomb dates from between 1570 and 1580 and spans the width of the lowest of the two pietra serena steps on which the Buonarroti altar stands. It bears no inscription and consists of three slabs of Carrara marble decorated with inlaid shields made of colorful stones that are surrounded by incised motifs such as garlands, fluttering, tasseled ribbons, and burning lamps.
Lionardo Buonarroti commissioned the Santa Croce Christ Carrying the Cross sometime before September 1568, when Vasari included it in a list of paintings he had yet to finish that he jotted down on the reverse of a letter from his cousin, the painter Stefano Veltroni. Several years passed, however, before Vasari began to work on the panel. His correspondence records that between June and October of 1572 its frame had been made and gilded and that Vasari was stealing time from his work on the Last Judgment for the cupola of Florence Cathedral to complete the altarpiece.
Letters exchanged between Vasari and his friend and iconographer, the Benedictine monk and prior of the Hospital of the Innocents, Vincenzo Borghini (1515–80), show that the panel was finished by the end of October 1572 and installed on the Buonarroti altar the following December.
Lionardo’s accounts document these payments to Vincenzo Borghini at the Ospedale as per Vasari’s instructions, as well as further costs related to the commission such as Vasari’s standard altarpiece fee of 200 scudi.
It was only three years later, however, on 6 February 1575, that Lionardo recorded a payment for a marble pietra sagrata, the stone on which the Eucharist was placed during mass that sealed into the altar table the relic and other sacred objects required for its consecration. The stone is still visible on the surface of the Buonarroti Altar.
Text by: Sally J. Cornelison, Professor & Director, Florence Graduate Program in Renaissance Art, Department of Art & Music Histories, Syracuse University, NY. This is a text from a forthcoming article entitled “Michelangelo’s Panel: Content, Context, & Vasari’s Buonarroti Altarpiece.”
*Photos © Archivio Opera di Santa Croce