The Florentine church of Santa Croce holds many world records. It is the largest Franciscan church built in the Middle Ages – together with its important convent – and is one of the finest examples of Italian Gothic. At the beginning of the Renaissance, it was already a famous theological school – among its students was the young Dante Alighieri, during his formative literary years.
In the large convent, some of the most authoritative personalities of the political, artistic and literary worlds were offered hospitality; over time, Santa Croce has turned into a true Pantheon of national glory – over 15,000 people are buried there, among them Michelangelo, Niccolò Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei but also famous names from modern times such as Enrico Fermi and Guglielmo Marconi. And, of course, the basilica was an exceptional artistic workshop in which labored the most celebrated names in the world of art.
Over its seven centuries of history, the church became wealthy with the donations of rich families that obtained the privilege of being buried in its numerous chapels. Today, its artistic patrimony is truly amazing and attracts almost a million visitors a year.
Originally, the exterior look of the church was rather modest, with the brown stone facade almost devoid of decoration, in line with the model widely used in 12th century Florence. But the apparent simplicity hid a much more spectacular aspect as soon as one entered: the structure recalled the ancient Roman paleochristian basilicas but the dimensions were decidedly more monumental and overwhelming and represented a real challenge to the technical abilities of the time.
Its original design of 1294 is traditionally attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, the great architect and mind behind Florence’s makeover at the end of the 13th century. The Florentine republic footed the bill, according to the custom of the time, since great churches not only glorified saints but also celebrated the prestige of the city’s powerful middle class. The Franciscans decided to replace the original little church with a real cathedral, going against the principals of their own order that demanded humility and simplicity even in architectural forms.
Arnolfo more or less respected this Franciscan spirit and designed an edifice that was apparently sober and undecorated. Actually, the grandiose proportions and above all, the extraordinary wealth of art treasures housed inside are the real expression of its magnificence – more than its modesty.
Halfway through the 1500s, Giorgio Vasari, commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, began the work of transforming the church, heavily modifying the spatial perception: following the precepts of the Council of Trent, as was occurring at the same time at Santa Maria Novella, the nave was widened, the chancel was removed and many of the frescoes taken away. In their place were erected large monumental altars.
Inside, the number of chapels is truly surprising: there are twelve of them. In the largest, we find Gothic expression in its most authentic form: slim, high windows, sharp-profiled umbrella ceiling, the almost breathtaking vertical dynamic. The light from the stained glass windows spills into the space in a riot of colors, adding to those already magnificent and still brilliant colors of the paintings. The walls are totally frescoed with the Stories of the True Cross, Agnolo Gaddi’s masterpiece: it refers to the original church that, even in the 1200s, possessed a massively venerated relic of the Holy Cross.
A little further on, to the right of the apse, there are the two chapels of the Bardi and the Peruzzi families, rich Florentine bankers and merchants. The frescoes on the walls are the artistic legacy of the greatest innovator of 14th century art: Giotto. At the time, the artist was already well along in years, and his fame already huge.
Giotto dedicated himself first to the Peruzzi chapel, covering it with the stories of the saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. But it is in the second chapel, that of the Bardi, family, in which he painted seven episodes from the life of St. Francis, that his work rose to such lofty heights — in the intense expressivity of the figures, the realism of the bodies and architectonic spaces, combined into a perfect synthesis: it is the highest point of his pictorial work and generations of future artists were to come to Santa Croce to admire and to learn.
Among the numerous tombs in Santa Croce, that of Michelangelo is surely the most famous. It was designed by Vasari in the second half of the 16th century, after the great artist’s remains returned to Florence from Rome. It is a total work, a tribute to the genius and eclectic personality of the artist: in front of the tomb, the personifications of painting, sculpture and architecture appear to be saddened by his death.
The list of works still to be described would be a long one: everywhere, the church houses examples of exceptional worth, like the Apparition of the Angel to the Shepherds, considered to be the first nocturnal scene of 14th century painting in Italy. Or the crucifix by Donatello: it seems that Brunelleschi became so indignant at its rough-hewn look that, as a response, he sculpted the crucifix now in the basilica of Santa Maria Novella.
In the refectory, which is the most monumental part of the whole complex, Cimabue’s great crucifix is preserved, masterpiece of art for all time. The work was horribly damaged in the catastrophic flood that struck Florence in 1966 – at the time, the mangled painting became an authentic symbol of the tragic losses suffered by the city. On the west wall, as in every convent refectory – where the monks recalled episodes from the gospels as they ate – there is a picture of the Last Supper. The moment is that in which Jesus announces the betrayal by one of the Apostles: Judas is shown with his back to us and isolated from his companions, so as to be immediately recognizable.
This work set the tone for all the Last Suppers of the most prestigious convents and monasteries of the time. A tradition that would only be broken for the first time by Leonardo da Vinci, with his famous Last Supper.
Next to the basilica, in the first of the two 14th century cloisters that are, today, connected, there is the Pazzi chapel. The name of this family is tied to the famous conspiracy of 1478, a failed attempt to eliminate the rich and powerful Medici family from the city’s political scene. The chapel is generally attributed to Brunelleschi and is a real manual of Renaissance thought: the building is composed of a cube with a hemisphere on top. The forms are simple and severe. The spaces are well proportioned and governed by precise geometric relationships.
“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart…and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” It is the Stendhal syndrome, that the writer experienced at the beginning of the 19th century, after a visit to Santa Croce. Since then, many visitors have felt the same sense of lightheadedness when confronted with such astounding beauty.