“The Day and the Night speak thus: We, in our swift course, have brought Duke Giuliano to his death….. In revenge… he has taken the light from us. With his closed eyes, he has closed ours, and we shall no longer look upon the earth.” This is a poem composed by Michelangelo Buonarotti on the margins of an architectural study for the Medici tombs, the site of some of his most famous sculptures. Here, Michelangelo translated poetry into marble, sculpting his famed allegorical works denoting Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. At turns languid and grieving, contorted and distressed, these sculptures show an artist keenly aware of the passage of time and the destruction of human life that follows in its wake. Skillfully carved and wrought with emotion, they reflect a hope that in death, one may at last transcend the limitations of time.
Table of contents
The New Sacristy
The sculptures of Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk are located in the New Sacristy of Florence’s church of San Lorenzo. The New Sacristy (or Medici Chapel, as it is often called), is an appropriately solemn setting for the sculptures. Designed by Michelangelo, the New Sacristy is square in shape and capped with a dome. Its white washed walls are embellished with stately grey-green pietra serena columns and molding, giving it a heavily-worked classical feel.
Michelangelo’s times of day adorn the marble ducal tombs set against the eastern and western walls. Day and Night sit on the sarcophagus of Duke Giuliano to the east, while Dusk and Dawn adorn the tomb of Duke Lorenzo opposite it to the west. These tombs are the most elaborate structures in the New Sacristy and, ironically, are dedicated to two relatively obscure members of the Medici family.
Other important monuments in the New Sacristy are the altar, which sits on the northern side of the chapel, while across from it (against the southern wall) is a sculptural Sacra Conversazion, which here includes the Madonna and child together with Saints Cosmas and Damian. Interred beneath the Madonna and saints are the far more historically consequential elder Lorenzo de’Medici (known as the Magnificent) and his brother, another Giuliano de’Medici. Michelangelo had intended to craft an elaborate double tomb to hold their remains but was forced to flee Florence before he could start it.
The tombs upon which the times of day sit are often called the “ducal tombs,” as the younger two Medici both held the title of duke. Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother never required such a title.
Unpacking the history of Michelangelo’s Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk, as well as the Sacristy that houses them, is a bit of a challenge. Interrupted by wars, turns in Papal politics, and competing commissions, the project proceeded at an uneven pace throughout the almost 15 years Michelangelo worked on it. Like many other Michelangelo commissions, he was ultimately unable to finish it. Forced to flee Florence in 1534, Michelangelo was unable to complete four additional sculptures he had planned for the ducal tombs, as well as the double tomb for the elder Lorenzo and his brother.
He had, however, completed enough that later artists were able to bring the Sacristy to the semi-finished state we see today. Though not quite the grandiose tomb complex Michelangelo had envisioned, what he did complete was sufficient for the New Sacristy to be regarded as one of his most alluring and original masterpieces.
The Failed Façade
The New Sacristy was initially conceived almost as a consolation prize for Michelangelo. In late 1516, Michelangelo had been commissioned to build a façade for the church of San Lorenzo by the Medici Pope Leo X and his cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’Medici. Both had known Michelangelo since the early 1490’s when the artist lived with them in the household of Lorenzo de’Medici (better known as il Magnifico). San Lorenzo was the primary church of the Medici family and the Pope likely calculated that a grand façade would add to his family’s prestige.
As this was Michelangelo’s first foray into architecture, the façade project was always going to be a difficult undertaking. Michelangelo, however, made it still more challenging by proposing to make the entire structure out of marble. This was a monumental task, requiring Michelangelo to spend substantial amounts of time over the next few years at quarries deep in the mountains. The artist, however, was not deterred, writing at one point to the Cardinal’s secretary that the façade was sure to become the “the mirror of architecture and sculpture of all Italy.”
Unfortunately, the project would never be realized. Today, the façade of San Lorenzo appears just as it did in Michelangelo’s time – a protrusion of bare bricks. The project was largely the casualty of a turn in papal finances, which were increasingly under strain from wars with Rome’s neighbors. As money ran out, work on the façade began to be seen as an unaffordable luxury.
The final blow to the project came in 1519, with the death of Lorenzo de’Medici, the ruler of Florence and Duke of Urbino. Lorenzo’s death at the age of 26 came as a shock to many. His precise cause of death was not recorded, but is believed to have been from syphilis and an old battle wound. As Michelangelo biographer Martin Gayford notes, Lorenzo’s death brought a calamitous end to the hopes of many. Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo, seeing in him an opportunity to bring a lasting peace and stability to Florence and its holdings in Tuscany.
Even grander were the ambitions of Lorenzo’s uncle, Pope Leo X. Leo had used the full power of the papacy to enhance his family’s wealth and prestige. He had even fought a war to have Lorenzo named Duke of Urbino. While dynastic concerns were certainly important, the Pope may also have hoped that a united Central Italy under Medici rule (he in Rome and Lorenzo in Florence) could provide a bulwark against meddling by larger powers, most notably the Holy Roman Empire. With Lorenzo’s death, those plans suffered a serious setback.
The Medici Tombs
Cardinal Giulio de’Medici took charge of administering Florence after Lorenzo’s death. With the continuation of the Medici line in serious doubt, both the Cardinal and the Pope turned their attention away from a triumphal façade to a more modest memorial for the recently deceased members of their family.
In late 1519, Michelangelo was instructed to halt work on the façade and begin making designs for the tombs. The artist, of course, was furious. After three years of work (much of it spent at quarries high up in the mountains), construction was just about to begin. To have the plug pulled after so much effort was a major blow. Realizing, however, that the Pope had made up his mind, Michelangelo had no choice but to get to work.
As so often happened, however, once engaged in a new project, Michelangelo couldn’t help but to throw himself entirely into it. Michelangelo’s initial plans for the New Sacristy were extremely ambitious. He initially suggested the tomb be a freestanding structure within the sacristy – a massive undertaking which would have required decades to complete. He was gradually coaxed away from this idea by Cardinal Giulio, who convinced him that the space within the chapel was too small for such a structure. The artist then suggested more traditional wall tombs, which met with Giulio’s satisfaction.
Pope Adrian VI
By mid—1521, Michelangelo had decided on the primary design for the tomb and had marble blocks put on order. It was at this point that the project hit its first major obstacle – the death of Pope Leo X in December 1521. Though the quarrying continued (the Cardinal made sure of that), most of the work at San Lorenzo itself ground to a halt while Michelangelo waited to see if the Papal purse would remain open to him.
In January 1522, Adrian VI was elected Pope. Originally from Utrecht, it took Adrian eight months to arrive in Rome. Once there, however, it became immediately apparent that his papacy would differ substantially from that of his Italian predecessors. To Adrian, the type of art commissioned by the Vatican in the past was grievously lacking in decorum. Even Michelangelo’s work was put under scrutiny. According to Vasari, the Pope compared Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel to that of a bathhouse and planned to have them removed. With Adrian in charge, the future did not look bright for Michelangelo and his tombs.
Adrian’s reign, however, would prove but a brief scare. The Dutch Pope passed away in September 1523. A new conclave was convened and to Michelangelo’s good fortune, his old friend, Cardinal Giulio de’Medici became Pope Clement VII.
A Blossoming Bromance: The Pope and Michelangelo
Giulio, while a Cardinal and defacto ruler of Florence, had already proven himself an exceptional patron and collaborator to Michelangelo. As Pope, this relationship deepened still further.
In December 1523, Clement instructed Michelangelo to proceed with his work on the New Sacristy and also to begin a new commission at the San Lorenzo complex – the construction of a library to house the vast Medici book collection. Lest Michelangelo have any doubts about Clement’s determination to proceed, the newly installed pope instructed him to “think only of work” and not to worry about costs.
With the full power of the Papal purse again open, work once more went into full swing. Between early 1524 and mid-1527, Michelangelo worked flat out on the New Sacristy. These were the years in which Michelangelo did the bulk of his work on the chapel. According to Michelangelo scholar William Wallace, by 1525, there were over 100 craftsman working under Michelangelo’s direction at San Lorenzo.
With such a labor force, work on the chapel proceeded rapidly. During this period, Michelangelo exchanged frequent letters with the Pope. The Pope reportedly so loved Michelangelo’s letters that he would pour over them, even sometimes reading them aloud to members of his staff.
Some of their exchanges are particularly endearing. In one, the Pope asks Michelangelo to come up with designs for a colossal fifty foot marble statue to be placed in the piazza in front of San Lorenzo. Feeling annoyed by the diversion, Michelangelo replied with a bitingly sardonic counter proposal. He suggested that instead of fifty feet, the statue should be over ninety and include a set of bells in its head and a barber shop under its rump.
The Pope got the message. In a memorable rejoinder, the Pope eloquently extricated Michelangelo from designing the colossus and instructed him to continue with the work on the library and chapel. “You know that Popes do not live long,” he wrote. “We will bring ourselves to a decent patience, praying God give you the courage to carry everything forward. Never doubt that you will lack either work or reward while we live. (Wallace translation)” He signed the letter I, short for Iulius, or Giulio – the name Michelangelo had long known him by.
Pyramids of Marble: Michelangelo Plans the Ducal Tombs
This occassional tension aside, Michelangelo was working rapidly. By 1524, he had settled on the final design for the ducal tombs, including the statues of Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. That year, Michelangelo completed life-sized clay models of all of his planned sculptues, placing them around the tomb to check how the ensemble looked at scale. Once assured that the structure could support the weight of his planned statues, Michelangelo began sculpting in marble.
Though Michelangelo never completed the full statuary ensemble for the ducal wall tombs, we can see how he intended them to look from some of his drawings held at the British Museum. These drawings show that in addition to the times of day and the effigies of Dukes Lorenzo and Giuliano, Michelangelo also intended to sculpt four reclining river gods – one to sit under and support each time of day. Had he completed these, the position of the times of day atop the sloping lid of the sarcophigi would have appeared less precarious, giving the composition an entirely different feel.
Notably, the sarcophigi of the ducal tombs would have each been fully surrounded by marble figures (two river gods and two times of day), atop which the effigies of the dukes would preside like pharos atop a pyramid of marble figures.
That Michelangelo never got around to carving the river gods or the double tomb for the elder Medici largely came down to the tragic events of 1527. That year, the armies of the Holy Roman Empire again bore down on Italy, threatening both Florence and Rome. While Florence was spared, Rome was not so lucky.
In May 1527, Rome was sacked by a massive army of starving and unpaid soldiers. The primarily Protestant army plundered churches and palaces, held prominent Roman citizens for ransom, and subjected the citizenry to an exceptionally brutal occupation. Pope Clement barely managed to flee to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was stuck until December 1527 when he was able to escape to the nearby city of Orvieto. Pillaging, however, would continue until February 1528, at which point the city had been so picked over that there was nothing left to take.
Seeing the sack of Rome as a brutal blow to Medici power, Republicans in Florence initiated a coup against Ippolito de’Medici – an illegitimate son of Duke Giuliano – who Clement had left in power after becoming Pope. Michelangelo took a leadership position within the Republic and in 1529 was named Governor and Procurator General of Fortifications – the only military role he would ever hold. By supporting the Republic, Michelangelo was now on the other side of a war with his patron and old friend, Pope Clement.
Michelangelo likely quickly came to regret taking this decision. By June 1529, the Pope had reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire and by October, Florence was under siege. The defenses Michelangelo had designed held, but without allies and suffering from starvation, the city surrendered in August 1530.
Work on the Tombs Resumes
Michelangelo, being a leader of the Republic, understandably feared for his life. He went into hiding for several weeks in a secret room off the New Sacristy. When he did emerge, he was fortunate that no harm came to him. The Pope was forgiving of his old friend and by November of 1530, he and Michelangelo were again discussing the tombs.
While Michelangelo continued to work, as he would later tell Condivi, it was now more out of fear than of love. A record of a visit by an acquaintance to Michelangelo’s workshop in 1531 suggested that he had finished the figure of Night by this time and was almost done with another male figure, likely Dusk.
However, work on the Medici tombs increasingly took a back seat to other priorities. Between 1532 and 1534, Michelangelo spent more and more of his time in Rome. While this was initially to complete work on long overdue tomb for Pope Julius II, a growing infatuation with a young Roman nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, inspired Michelangelo to linger in the city.
The death knell in Michelangelo’s work on the New Sacristy came in September 1534 with the passing of Pope Clement. Without Clement’s protection, Michelangelo feared what Florence’s Medici rulers might do to him should he return. While his extended family mostly remained in Florence, Michelangelo never again returned.
After Michelangelo left, the New Sacristy remained far from what we see today. Michelangelo had brought seven statues to completion (or close enough to it). These included: Night, Day, Dawn, Dusk, a Madonna and child (now known as the Medici Madonna), and the two effigies of Dukes Giuliano and Lorenzo. Of these, the four times of day were still on the floor of the chapel (which was also unfinished) while the Madonna remained in Michelangelo’s workshop on the edge of town. Only the statues of the two dukes had been placed in their niches. The grand double tomb planned for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother, the elder Giuliano, was never even begun.
Michelangelo’s successors on the project made due with what they were left with. Over the next twenty five years, the tombs were gradually brought to their present state. To Michelangelo’s ensemble were added two further statues, that of Saint Damian by Raffaello da Montelupo (who would also help in completing the tomb of Pope Julius II) and Saint Cosmas by Giovan Agnolo Montorsoli. These were carved to Michelangelo’s designs and were finished by 1537. In 1546, the times of day were at last installed in their present position, above the sarcophagi of the two dukes.
In 1556, one of Michelangelo’s greatest admirers, Giorgio Vasari, took over the project, bringing the Sacristy to its current state in 1559.
Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk: Refining Theme and Form
As the history above suggests, Michelangelo’s times of day underwent an exceptionally long period of gestation – 15 years in total. The results, however, speak for themselves. Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk, are completely without precedent in Renaissance iconography. No other painting or sculpture during this time period includes similar figurative allegories.
The process by which Michelangelo arrived at the design for these statues is described in detail by art historian Gunther Neufeld. Neufeld suggests that as Michelangelo played with designs for the tomb architecture and statue ensemble, certain forms began to suggest themselves. These forms in turn suggested certain broad themes – freedom and restraint, dominance and submission.
An important step in the process came when Michelangelo decided to place the sarcophagi on the ground level and cap them with concave covers. In Michelangelo’s early designs, we see drawings of smaller figures sitting atop the sarcophogi, visibly struggling not to fall off the sloping lids. Not happy with his sculptures submitting to architecture (even if he had designed it), he shelved this idea, instead adopting the current much larger statues, which rest more easily. By increasing their size, however, Michelangelo enhanced the importance of the figures within the tombs’ overall composition, thus necessitating they carry a thematic power commensurate with their size and placement.
Time and Death
This theme, of course, was to be time itself. How Michelangelo decided on this theme is still a bit of a mystery. Neufeld suggests the answer may lie in part in a poem by Petrarch, which Michelangelo had copied in his youth. Petrarch writes, “…in dying, I won days that have no ending, and when you saw me shutting up my eyes I was opening them on the light that is eternal.” This is consistent with the theme of Michelangelo’s poem quoted above, which suggests that in death, Duke Giuliano has passed beyond the grasp of day and night.
One can see why such a theme would have resonated with Michelangelo. Death and the passage of time was a topic Michelangelo remained acutely conscious of throughout his life. His letters are littered with references to his age, speculation about approaching death, and expressions of regret that he would not have enough time to take on all the projects he would like.
While Michelangelo did live an extraordinary long life by standards of the time (he died at the age of 88), he moved in a world in which everyone lived under the constant threat of plague, war, crime, and even just accidents. In fact, over the time that he worked on the Medici tombs, both his favorite brother, Buonarotto, and his father, Lodovico, passed away. Such tragedies perhaps inspired Michelangelo to see time, above all else, as a source of suffering.
Composing in Marble
How to sculpt time, however, must have remained an intriguing problem for Michelangelo. Neufeld suggests that Michelangelo may have toyed with different representations of time before settling on the existing Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk ensemble (at one point, he seems to have considered the four seasons).
Oddly, other than Night, none of the figures are readily identifiable. Michelangelo may have intended to sculpt further objects onto each statue which would have provided additional clues as to their identity. We know from Condivi, for instance, that he had intended to add a carving of a mouse to the tombs, as like time, mice consume all.
Another possibility is that Michelangelo was more concerned that his times of day conform more to the broader feel of the tomb rather than be easily recognizable as allegories. If this were the case, then his works are certainly successful.
Duke Giuliano’s tomb, for instance, has a more energetic feel to it. Michelangelo’s effigy of Giuliano shows an attentive figure, perhaps on the verge of rising. This energy is echoed in the poses of the two times of day decorating the tomb, Day and Night, which appear contorted and uneasy.
Duke Lorenzo’s tomb, by contrast, is more contemplative. The effigy of Lorenzo shows the Duke with his hand to his chin, as if lost in thought. Likewise, the figures of Dusk and Dawn seem languid. While sorrowful, they do not recoil in the manner of Day and Night, seemingly resigned to their fate.
A closer look at each statue further clarifies how Michelangelo captured these sentiments in each work. His ability to imbue his works with such emotion is critical to why the tombs still largely appear whole despite containing only half the number of figures Michelangelo originally intended.
Of the four times of day, the statue of Night is perhaps the most famous. Night was likely the first statue Michelangelo tackled and appears to have been finished around 1531. She sits atop Duke Giuliano’s tomb, twisting outward toward the viewer. Resting her head against the side of her hand (which appears to be slipping), the quiet sorrow in her expression suggest an uneasy rest.
Many note the strange masculinity of the figure. Michelangelo is, of course, most associated with the male nude and as Night demonstrates, appears to have been less comfortable with female nudes (as evidenced by her muscular thighs and oddly positioned breasts).
The figure of Night is also notable for the array of objects around her. Night wears a headdress adorned with a crescent moon and star. Under her thigh is an owl and under her foot a pile of poppies. These are all symbols of night and sleep and make her identification much more straightforward than the other three.
Most enigmatic, perhaps, is the mask lying behind her. Wallace suggests that the mask may have been added simply to hide a flaw in the marble. Others think the mask may be modeled after Michelangelo’s first ever sculpture – that of faun (now lost) done while living in the household of Lorenzo de’Medici (the magnificent, not the Duke). As such, some speculate it may have been intended as a personal tribute to the artist’s long history with the Medici family.
Day was completed after Night, though exactly when is not known for certain. The rough state of the figures head and face suggest that Michelangelo may have been working on it right up to the point he left for Rome in 1534.
A male nude, Day is among the most muscular figures Michelangelo ever sculpted (a pretty high bar). His physical robustness is perhaps a reflection to the strivings and energetic nature associated with daytime activities.
Accentuating the sculpture’s musculature is its contorted, twisting pose – the legs twist back toward the tomb, the abdomen out; the arms and shoulders turn back to the tomb again, and the neck and head out. Nearly every turn allowed by the human anatomy is exploited.
The contortion sets up another tension in the piece. Day is a powerful figure, almost like a modern day body builder. Yet his pose suggests he is closing himself off. Despite his apparent strength, he seems to be turning away from the outside world. His face (which remains unfinished) peeks out over his shoulder, as if to confirm that Duke Giuliano has truly slipped from his grasp.
Dawn on the tomb of Duke Lorenzo, is a more convincing depiction of the female form than Night. Likely completed after Night and Dusk, there is much less tension in her pose. Her legs and hips rest easily against the curvature of the tomb. There is some strain in her shoulders as she holds her body upright (perhaps suggesting someone arising from sleep). The tension in her pose, however, is minor compared to the flexed form of Night.
While her body seems at ease, her facial expression suggests pure grief, almost as if it were modeled on a mask from an ancient Greek tragedy. This tells us that her languid pose is not due to an ignorance of death, but rather submission to its power – which has taken Duke Lorenzo from her.
Completing the ensemble is the figure of Dusk. Dusk, of course, is the time of day most associated with death. Thus, it is no surprise that his demeanor more closely matches the traits we typically associate with this time of day. Like Dawn, Dusk lies languidly against the tomb of Duke Lorenzo. His form is far less polished than Dawn. Like Day, visible chisel marks remain around his head and legs. This could either suggest the figure is worn out by a long day of activity or that Michelangelo did not have time to finish it before departing to Rome.
Dusk’s expression shows much less emotion than his female counterpart’s. He looks down at the tomb with a contemplative expression. Of all the figures, his pose and facial expression suggest that he is the most emotionally resigned to mortality.
The End of the Renaissance
Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk hold a special place in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Powerfully emotive, they are poetry in the form of marble – a reflection of the artist’s fervent belief in an afterlife in which the destructive effects of time are transcended. They are also, however, products of a unique moment in Renaissance history. Designed just before the traumatic sack of Rome, they appear to us now almost as a last burst of Renaissance energy. Thereafter, the optimism that inspired such works would dim, leading to an entirely new period in Italian art. It is thus fitting that they should have been done as a monument to the Medici. In this way, they function both as a bookend to the High Renaissance as well as the Medici line that had nurtured and sustained it.
Sources and Further Reading
- For information on another innovative work by Michelangelo, see this post on the artist’s Bacchus.
- Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. Penguin, 2013.
- Wallace, William. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Neufeld, Gunther. “Michelangelo’s Times of Day a Study of Their Genesis.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 48, no. 3/4, 1966, pp. 273–84.
- Joannides, Paul. “Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel: Some New Suggestions.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 114, no. 833, 1972, pp. 541–51.
- Even, Yael. “The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 1990, pp. 29–33.
- Paoletti, John T. “Michelangelo’s Masks.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 74, no. 3, 1992, pp. 423–40.