The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, one of the finest examples of Italian Gothic architecture, faces a vast piazza of the same name, which was built to complement it.
It is while recalling the various depictions of Dante Alighieri that Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno, thought of the statue of the poet that lies in this piazza.
The Santa Croce complex has always been closely connected with the religious orders of the Franciscans, who established themselves here around 1228. Although the first building was enlarged around 1250, its dimensions were not sufficient to welcome all of the many worshippers who used to attend it. As such, on May 3 1294 or 1295 (the year is not confirmed), construction of the present church began. A solemn ceremony was held: the architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, laid the first stone of what was to become a masterpiece of Gothic art. His design was based on spatial grandiosity, and the structural elements were carried out with rational clarity and sobriety.
The basilica is built according to the plan of an Egyptian cross (in the shape of a T), with the interior divided into three naves, a chancel, and a transept full of chapels, whose patronage was reserved for the most illustrious families in this quarter of the city.
The walls of these chapels and the entire church were immediately covered in frescoes by Giotto and his school, who turned the basilica into a museum of Florentine Trecento painting. The same artists also designed the wonderful luminous stained glass windows.
When at last the church was finished in 1442, it was consacrated by Pope Eugene IV.
Above the apse of the church was built a bell tower, which was struck down in 1512 by lightning. It was rebuilt by the architect Gaetano Baccani in 1847, this time next to the sacristy.
The Basilica of Santa Croce was severely damaged by the flood of 1966, as evidenced by a tide plate that is still visible on the pillars and walls. The water entered the church bringing mud, pollution, and heating oil. The damage to the buildings and art treasures was severe, taking several decades to repair.
Santa Croce’s Facade
The facade of the church remained unfinished for more than three centuries, showing its bare Florentine limestone surface, the structure apt sustaining the architectural, and sculptural elements. It was not completed until 1865, commemorating the fifth centenary of Dante’s birth.
The Neo-Gothic style facade, with its three cusps and its being covered with bichrome marbles, followed Florentine architectural models: the architect Niccolò Matas, born in Ancona, presented a drawing inspired by a long-lost work of Simone del Pollaiolo called il Cronaca. Matas’ tomb is located outside the church (the memorial grave-stone is located on the churchyard in front of the main portal).
The Piazza Santa Croce
The piazza is renown worldwide because for centuries it has hosted the traditional “Historical Football Game” competition. Along its perimeter lie prestigious buildings: among the most notable are Cocchi Serristori, attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo or Baccio d’Agnolo, and Palazzo dell’Antella, whose facade was frescoed between 1619 and 1620.
On May 14, 1865, the fifth centenary of the birth of Dante Alighieri, a monument dedicated to the poet made by the sculptor Enrico Pazzi was placed in the middle of the square. However, to allow the Historical Football Game to be played, the monument was moved to its present position, in front of the facade on top of the staircase. The square continues to be the best place to hold events and fairs. Accordingly, many important shows are still held here today.
In Santa Croce there are three cloisters: the main one, called “Arnolfo’s cloister”, one named “Brunelleschi’s cloister,” and a smaller one known as the “Ancient cloister.”
The first cloister has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, hence the name. It was planned when construction of the complex began, as testified by the use of thin octagonal pilasters with waterleaf capital, preferred over the use of columns. The cloister was divided into two parts by a building that intersected the church and joined the refectory. As many funeral monuments were placed against the central part of this building, the cloister was called the “cloister of the dead.” The cemetery became a garden surrounded by many cypress trees.
The second cloister takes its name from Filippo Brunelleschi, although the artist had died before it was finished in 1453, and the work was probably completed by Bernardo Rossellino. The work was commissioned by a rich banker, Tommaso Spinelli. The lowest part of the porch rests on columns made of “pietra serena” (a typical local stone) and is covered by cross vaults. The upper part is composed of slim columns bearing a trabeation. The arches are decorated with the rounded coat of arms of the Spinelli family.
The smallest cloister of Santa Croce is known as the ancient cloister because it is connected to the second phase of the building of Santa Croce, which is dated post 1250. It is the heart of the Franciscan complex, is surrounded by the Pazzi chapels, and is considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture.
The chapel has a rectangular base covered with a conical central dome supported by fine vaulting that one also finds in the porch. The spaces are divided up with a geometric lucidity. The white intonaco (plaster) of the walls is in cool contrast to the pilasters in grey “serene” stone. The beautiful decorations in glazed terracotta that adorn the interior are by the sculptor Luca della Robbia.
Santa Croce and its Works of Art
Santa Croce is the richest Florentine church in terms of works of art. Inside, for example, there are wonderful frescos by Giotto, a marble pulpit by Benedetto da Maiano, the Vittorio Alfieri monument by Canova, and Donatello‘s high-relief, the Annunciation. There is also a museum including such masterpieces as Cimabue‘s Crucifix, frescos by Orcagna, and a bronze by Donatello.
Many famous Italians are buried in the church: Leon Battista Alberti, Michelangelo, Vittorio Alfieri, Leonardo Bruni, Gioachino Rossini, and Galileo.