In the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, which Michelangelo began in 1520, stand the magnificent tombs, completed by 1534 of two members of the Medici family – Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, and Guiliano, Duke of Nemours.
On each of these tombs, Michelangelo places the dead men in a central niche: Lorenzo wears an extraordinary ornamental classical helmet and holds a hand to his face, while Giuliano wields a commander’s baton, is portrayed with an unnaturally long neck and a monstrous face glowers from his breastplate.
The nudes beneath the central figures are extraordinary in their physicality and all four appear in a contemplative mood. Each pair consist of a male and female. Below Lorenzo are incarnations of Crepuscolo (Evening) and Aurora (Dawn). Crepuscolo is a bearded man whose face inclines downward as if weary and contemplating the departed day, while Aurora seems to be stirring, awakening from the night sleep, her body fresh, her hair in a turban, ready for the new day.
Under the image of Giuliano, the gender roles are reversed. Notte (Night) is a female nude whose head falls forward, propped almost from further collapse by her raised arm. An owl is perched under her bent knee and she appears asleep, the mask beside her adding to that impression.
Opposite her is Giorno (Day) which can only be described as a hulking male, his back rippling with muscles as he raises himself up from his sleep, his legs crossed so that his pose mirrors that of Notte with a raised leg.
Why these nudes are significant is that it raises the question as to where Michelangelo got his inspiration – some have suggested ancient Etruscan tombs or even Egyptian afterlife representations – but whatever the inspiration, these wonderful pieces of sculpture really highlight the Renaissance portrayal of the body with enormous power, poetry and authority and really are very beautiful.