The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
Santa Croce is one of my favourite places in Florence. The big square, surrounded by little bars and leather shops and the beautiful façade of the Basilica, have always a hypnotic effect on me. In this post I will talk you about the Basilica of Santa Croce, the biggest Franciscan church in the world, and a precious chest of art, history, frescoes and sculptures.
I had the opportunity to visit it and I definitely felt in love with it.
A bit of history of the Basilica of Santa Croce
With about one million of visitors every year, the Basilica of Santa Croce is one of the most seen museum of Italy.
The first stone of the building was placed in 1294 BC, to replace an older and smaller Franciscan oratory created in 1228 BC by St Francis. Only a century later, in 1385 BC, the building was completed (even if the façade was still missing).
The square of Santa Croce has always been a meeting point of artists, theologians, writers, humanists and politicians. It was used as Speaker’s corner, to host the city market, knight tournaments and during 1530 BC the first Calcio Storico match, an historic tradition that still lasts. Even the Basilica was a place dedicated not only to the prayer but also for public conferences and there was a wall to split the religious area for the believers from the laic one.
The most scenic part of the Basilica is with no doubt the façade that remained in pietraforte sandstones for more than three centuries . Only in the ‘800s, when Santa Croce became a pantheon, it was brought to completion by the Italian architect Niccolò Matas. He chose a neo Gothic style and used different kind of marble coming from different parts of Tuscany and from Egypt. He probably was Jewish and this should be one of the reasons of the existence of a Star of David in the middle of the façade and of the decision to be buried outside of the temple under the churchyard.
Santa Croce suffered other big changes during the XX century. In 1905, a portion of the cloister was demolished to build the nearby National Library. The Big Flood of 1966 damaged most of the furniture’s, especially the famous wooden Cimabue Crucifix. Finally, the statue of Dante Alighieri, originally placed in the middle of the square, was moved on the left side of the churchyard, where nowadays you can admire it.
Since the beginning, the Basilica of Santa Croce, was the house of the graves of important Florentine families. As time passed by it became a real pantheon of many celebrated Italian artists. In fact, it houses the graves of Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gioachino Rossini and of the poet Ugo Foscolo. In his poem “Dei Sepolcri”, Foscolo renamed Santa Croce the Temple of the Italian Glories (Tempio dell’Itale Glorie).
What to see inside the Basilica
The entrance is just behind the statue of Dante Alighieri on the left side of the church, where also the information and ticket office are. If you wish you can get an audio guide or a tablet to know everything about the history of Santa Croce and its treasures. I tried the tablet and I found it really helpful.
1. The interior is apparently simple and majestic at the same time. It is very bright thanks to day light that come inside from the many stained glass windows. It has a T-shape, with three aisles divided by two rows of columns.
2. The six different chapels, decorated by Giotto and his faithful collaborators, were dedicated to important Florentines families’. The Cappella Maggiore is decorated with frescoes of the legend of the Holy Cross by Agnolo Gaddi. The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, instead, were decorated by Giotto in person.
3. The counter-façade hosts a statue that I am sure you will think to have already seen somewhere. It’s looks like the Statue of Liberty in New York City, isn’t it? The statue represents the Liberty of Poetry and it’s the funeral monument of the Tuscan playwright Niccolini. It may be possible that the french Auguste Bartholdi during his travels to Florence, drew inspiration to create the famous symbol of New York and freedom for all mankind.
The Liberty of Poetry Statue.
4. The two side aisles are plenty of magnificent sculptures that I could not stop going backwards and forwards watching them. The right aisle houses the majestic grave of Michelangelo designed by Giorgio Vasari. It represents three crying women corresponding to the three Arts: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. There are also the cenotaph of Dante Alighieri (he is buried in Ravenna) and other wonderful funeral monuments. The left aisle, instead, holds the grave of the great Galileo Galilei.
Michelangelo’s grave designed by Giorgio Vasari.
Galileo Galilei’s grave designed by Giulio Foggini.
Dante Alighieri’s Cenotaph designed by Stefano Ricci.
5. If you look down to the floor you can see hundreds of marble slabs. They are the floor tombs of the aristocratic of the past.
6. The Cimabue Crucifix is another gem of the Basilica. During the tragic flood of 1966, in the suburb of Santa Croce, the water reached a level of five meters and two centimeters of highness (16,47 feet). The crucifix, losing more than 60% of the paint of the surface, became one of the symbol of this natural disaster.
One of the Floor Tombs
7. Walking out of the church you get into the two cloisters, one with rectangular shape, the other with a square shape. Here you will find the Pazzi Chapel, a piece of art designed by Brunelleschi, that got inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. You cannot miss to take a picture with the bell tower and the sky as background.
8. The Museum of the Opera of Santa Croce houses many frescoes, sculptures, wooden furniture, sketches and reliefs. The last room of the museum is the refectory that hosts the painting of the Last Supper and the Life Tree made by Taddeo Gaddi, one of the best pupils of Giotto.
The Last Supper and the Life Tree made by Taddeo Gaddi.
I hope this post helps you to have an idea on what expect visiting one of the most important places of the Florentine history of art. If you have any question or curiosity, just ask.
If you are planning to visit Florence, I also recommend you to have a look at these posts about the “birth land of Renaissance“: