Church of Santa Croce
Situated approximately 800 meters from the Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Croce, or the Basilica of the Holy Cross, dates to the 15th century, when it was constructed on marshland outside the city walls. A previous structure had been built on the same site, dating from 1212, which legend says was founded by St. Francis of Assisi himself during a visit to the city. The stone layout of the original church was found in 1966 after the terrible flood of that year.
The work on the new church, built by Franciscans, began in May of 1294 on the site of the previous church. This new construction began in the apse and was carried out while the existing church was still functioning. The building seen today was consecrated in 1442, although it had been in use since before 1320.
In the 14th century, the sacristy, infirmary, dormitory, guest quarters, library, and convent were incorporated into the church. In 1423, the dormitory, part of the library, and part of the convent had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by fire.
The church’s construction was subject to several problems. In 1504, public funding for the building ended, resulting in work being suspended, particularly on the building’s façade and bell tower. Eventually work continued because of the generosity of the Spinelli, Pazzi, and Medici families (who produced their own chapels inside the church), as well as contributions made by the public.
In the mid-16th century, the choir in the central nave, which stood in front of the main altar, was demolished which resulted in the destruction of original frescoes and works of art. Large altars were constructed along both side aisles after this demolition.
There were problems with the construction of the marble façade, as it was started at the end of the 15th century but a disagreement between the church and the financier led to the work being halted. The matter was not resolved until the 19th century when construction in the neo-Gothic style began. This work was done between 1857 to 1863, and was paid for by the English benefactor, Sir Francis Sloane. The façade was designed by the architect Niccolo Matas but, as he was Jewish, he was not buried inside the church but under the threshold.
The central door made of wood came from the Duomo of Florence when the latter was fitted with its current bronze doors. Towards the side door is a small plaque which indicates the height that the waters of the Arno River reached in the 1966 flood.
Inside, the nave is 40 meters wide and well-lit, with large, widely-spaced piers supporting pointed arches. It is 115 meters in length with an open-timber painted roof 40 meters high. There is an aisle along either side with a line of octagonal columns separating each from the nave. The width of the transept is just over 74 meters. The floor plan is set out as a Tau cross, which is in the shape of a T. Its name comes from the fact that it is shaped like the Greek letter “tau,” which in its upper-case form has the same appearance as Latin and English T, and which is the symbol of St Francis.
Many of the wealthy families of Florence owned chapels in the complex and for 500 years it was a place for notable Italians to have chapels and monuments erected. There are sixteen family chapels, decorated to honour each family, and dedicated by them to one of the saints.
Santa Croce is the burial place for many of the most famous and notable people connected to Florence and is known as “The Temple of Italian Glories.” Elaborately carved and decorated tombs fill the interior and many tombstones cover the floor. These include those of Michelangelo, Rossini, and Machiavelli.
There is a memorial to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in the form of a sarcophagus, but it is empty, as he is not buried in the church. Dante was born in Florence but was exiled from the city and died in Ravenna where he was buried. There is also a statue of Dante in the square in front of the Church which can be seen to the left in the photograph above.
Although he was born and died in Pisa, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is buried in Santa Croce. He was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737, 95 years after his death, due to what the church considered his heretical beliefs.
Louise of Stolberg-Gedern (wife of Charles Edward Stuart, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie') is buried in the church, as is the wife of Joseph Bonaparte, Julie Clary, and their daughter Charlotte Napoléone Bonaparte.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) has a commemorative plaque, although he is buried in Château d'Amboise in France. The church’s commemorative plaques are not restricted to historic figures from the arts, however. They include more modern figures as Guglielmo Marconi who is buried at Sasso Marconi, near Bologna, and Enrico Fermi, nuclear physicist, buried in Chicago, USA.
The construction of the Chapter House (known as the Pazzi Chapel), was begun in 1429 and was completed in the 1470s. It is entered via an atrium with six Corinthian columns by a central arch. The room is covered by an umbrella-shaped dome, while the two sides are covered by a barrel vault roof.
The sacristy is the room where the priests prepare for a service, and where vestments and articles of worship are kept. In Santa Croce it includes the Rinuccini Chapel which contains some well-preserved frescoes and original 14th-century furnishings and provides an indication of how the church would have looked in the 14th century when it was completely covered with paintings. The central wall is frescoed with scenes of the life of Christ. The wooden ceiling is decorated with Franciscan saints. Within the sacristy hangs a large wooden Crucifix which has become the symbol of the 1966 flood which damaged so much of the building and its artefacts, including the Crucifix.
The church’s crypt was not discovered until 1844 after a flood in that year. It was used as a place for storage until the 1930’s when it became a war memorial. It was converted into a shrine in 1934 by Alfredo Lensi.
The complex of Santa Croce has three cloisters. These are covered walkways which provide a place for contemplation and meditation. The Ancient Cloister is located by the bell tower and contains tombs and cypress trees, which are the symbol of death. The Cloister of the Dead was built by Arnolfo di Cambio (1240-1302) and is known by that name because it held a number of tombs. Later, this cemetery was converted into a garden. The third cloister, the Primo Chiostro, was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), who designed and built the dome of the Duomo in Florence. He never saw the cloister completed, however, as it was not finished until many years after his death. Within this cloister is a monument to Florence Nightingale, who was born in Florence and named after the city. Off this cloister is the refectory which houses the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce where religious artefacts and paintings are on display.
The bell tower is in the cloister to the right of the church and stands over 78 meters high. This was built over a period of several hundred years. The original tower was over the apse of the church, but this fell down in 1512 and, although the replacement was started immediately, funding issues meant that it wasn’t completed until the 1800’s.
In 1866, following the wars that gained Italy its independence and unity, the government carried out the suppression of most religious complexes and Santa Croce became public property.
In 1966, Santa Croce was flooded by the Arno River, as in fact was much of Florence. A great deal of damage was done to the buildings and its treasures, damage that was to take several decades to repair.
In 1933, the church was given the title of “Basilica” by Pope Pious XI. Today San Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world.
| Nave showing tombs and altars
| Dantes Tomb
|| Tomb of Leonardo Bruni