The Santa Croce is the principal church of the Franciscans in Florence. It is one of the largest Franciscan churches in the world, perhaps even the largest. The basilica can be found on the Piazza Santa Croce, which is the location of the annual Calcio storico or historical football in Florence. It is a time when, as my friend snidely put it, “all the prisons in Florence are emptied”. The game is pretty rough, as is demonstrated by this video. Although I was in Florence this year on the day of the final – which is always on 24 June – I decided to skip the football and the fireworks afterwards. I did visit the Santa Croce, which is mostly famous for two reasons: frescoes by Giotto and his followers and about a dozen tombs of and cenotaphs for famous Italians.
The Franciscans arrived in Florence in 1208 or 1209, about a decade before their contemporaries and rivals the Dominicans did. While the Dominicans settled west of the city centre, where they would ultimately build the Santa Maria Novella, the Franciscans had their headquarters in the east, in a neighbourhood that was (and still is) home to leather workers. It seems they had a small oratory here first, then a church of modest size. It was not until 1294 or 1295 that construction of the Santa Croce started, funded by many wealthy Florentine families. The design of the church is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, but it seems to be a habit to attribute just about every church and palazzo built in this period to Arnolfo and there is no actual proof. In any case, the church was not finished until well after Arnolfo’s death (before 1310). Construction seems to have been completed sometime between 1375 and 1385, but the church was only consecrated in 1442.
The Santa Croce is easily recognisable because of its ornate facade. Keep in mind that this is a relatively recent addition. Originally, the facade was left undecorated. The facade we see today is the work of Niccolò Matas (1798-1872), who executed this work between 1857 and 1863. Two things should be noted here. The first is that Matas was a Jewish architect from Ancona, who was responsible for the facade of a Roman-Catholic church. Matas added a rather conspicuous Star of David in the large triangular pediment above the rose window, but whether this is a reference to his Jewish heritage is unknown. The second interesting fact is that the Florentines themselves did not pay for the facade. Funds were provided by an Englishman, one Francis Sloane. The original campanile of the Santa Croce collapsed in 1512. The Neo-Gothic bell tower we see today is the work of Gaetano Baccani (1792-1867), who completed it in 1842.
The Santa Croce is an immense basilica. It is some 112-116 metres deep and it is easy to feel tiny here. I must say some parts of the church are disappointing. The floor is composed of very cheap looking tiles which look like they were taken from the Bishop’s bathroom or kitchen. The walls must have once been entirely covered in frescoes, but only traces of these remain today. This was the result of a deliberate modification by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in the 1560s. Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici had ordered his architect to “modernise” the churches in Florence, and this involved removing the rood screens and covering the Gothic frescoes – which were considered old-fashioned during the Renaissance – with layers of plaster.
Of all the post-Vasari works of art on the walls, I only enjoyed a serene Pietà by Bronzino (1503-1572), who was Cosimo’s court painter. The most interesting objects in the aisles are the tombs and cenotaphs. Many famous Florentines and other Italians are honoured here, for instance the poet Dante Alighieri (who was, by the way, buried in Ravenna), the political theorist Niccolò Macchiavelli, the scientist Galileo Galilei, the sculptor and architect Michelangelo and the composer Gioachino Rossini. Although Galilei had died in 1642, his theories were considered so controversial by the Church that he had to wait until 1737 for a proper tomb. The bust of Galilei on the tomb is the work of Giovan Battista Foggini (1652-1725). The tomb itself is pretty plain, but note the remnants of colourful fourteenth century frescoes surrounding it. Michelangelo’s tomb was designed and executed by Vasari, with the aid of some less famous sculptors.
Between the monuments for Machiavelli and Dante, one can find a beautiful pulpit by the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497). It was made around the year 1481. A little further down the aisle is a wonderful gilded sculpture of the Annunciation by Donatello (1386-1466).
The chapels in the left transept of the church are regretfully not accessible to tourists. The area is riservato alla preghiera, that is: reserved for prayers (the custodians seem to take this very seriously; a rather corpulent American was initially denied entrance, as the guard on duty could not believe he was a worshipper). This part of the basilica is where Donatello’s famous crucifix is located. You can see a good picture of it here. The crucifix allegedly led to a feud between Donatello and Brunelleschi, the man who had designed the dome of the Duomo. The latter felt that Donatello had made Christ look like a peasant and decided to sculpt a much more refined crucifix himself, which can be found in the Santa Maria Novella. In this part of the church, one can also find chapels frescoed by Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1280/90-1348) and Maso di Banco (died ca. 1348).
Four chapels in the Santa Croce were frescoed by the famous Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337) himself, but only those in the Cappella Peruzzi and the Cappella Bardi have survived. They are located to the right of the Cappella Maggiore, where one can find the high altar and which was frescoed with the History of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1350-1396), son of Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366), who was a student of Giotto. It is not entirely clear whether Giotto did the Cappella Peruzzi or the Cappella Bardi first, but the work seems to have been executed in the 1310s and 1320s. Giotto expert Francesca Flores d’Arcais gives dates of 1313-1315 for the Peruzzi Chapel and ca. 1325 for the Bardi Chapel. While Giotto used the buon fresco technique for the latter chapel, he painted a secco (onto dried plaster) in the former. Buon fresco painting is much more durable and it must be said that the frescoes in the Bardi Chapel are in much better condition that those in the neighbouring Peruzzi Chapel.
However, that does not mean they are in mint condition. The walls in both chapels have been whitewashed in the past and the Bardi Chapel frescoes are damaged in places, partly because of the removal of plaques and monuments. They depict Stories from the Life of Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1181-1226), founder of the Franciscan Order. We for instance see Franciscus being submitted to a test of fire by the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade and a scene where mourners gather around the dead body of the saint. The fresco cycle was very influential and inspired Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) to paint a similar cycle in the Santa Trinita church elsewhere in Florence. The altarpiece in this chapel shows a rather large Saint Franciscus and more scenes from his life. It is attributed – at least by the church itself – to Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276), whose work we have seen in the Baptistery and the Brancacci Chapel.
The frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel show scenes from the lives of the two Saint Johns, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. They are interesting, but their condition is poor. At the end of the right transept, we find the Baroncelli Chapel. It was frescoed after 1328 by Taddeo Gaddi, who – as stated above – was a student and later a co-worker of Giotto. Since the chapel is dedicated to the Virgin, it should not come as a surprise that the frescoes show scenes from her life, as well as a number of annunciations. The altarpiece depicts the Coronation of the Virgin and has been attributed to Giotto and assistants, among them certainly Taddeo Gaddi. The panel is literally crammed with people: all witnesses to the coronation event, with Jesus and the Virgin painted larger to signify their importance. Taddeo’s son Agnolo frescoed the Castellani Chapel around the corner, as well as the Cappella Maggiore, which was already mentioned above.
Refectory and sacristy
The old refectory is now a museum. The highlight here is Taddeo Gaddi’s famous fresco of the Last Supper and the huge Tree of the Cross. On the right wall are a couple of fragments of a large fresco cycle painted by Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368). Here in the refectory we also find the statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse that Donatello made for the church of Orsanmichele.
In the sacristy hangs a huge crucifix by Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302). Cimabue was the nickname of the artist Cenni di Pepo, and he seems to have been active as both a painter and a mosaicist. We have seen some of his mosaics – or rather: some of the mosaics attributed to him – in the Baptistery and the Duomo in Pisa, while his painted altarpiece for the Santa Trinita is now in the Uffizi. His huge crucifix in the Santa Croce is known for its realistic depiction of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist, a break with the artistic traditions of the Middle Ages. The crucifix was, however, heavily damaged by the great 1966 Flood that killed more than 100 people and destroyed thousands of books and works of art. Although the crucifix was saved from destruction and partly restored, its condition is still pretty poor even today. Cimabue’s cross has been moved to the sacristy in 2016.
The sacristy is dominated by a huge fresco – or rather: a collage of four separate frescoes – to which at least three artists contributed. In the centre is a scene of the Crucifixion by Taddeo Gaddi. It is flanked by an Ascent to Calvary on the left, which is attributed to Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410), and a Resurrection by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (died 1415) on the right. The fourth fresco, topping the other three, is also by Gerini. We have previously seen some of Aretino’s work in the sacristy of the San Miniato al Monte elsewhere in Florence, while Gerini worked on the altarpiece of the Santi Apostoli. Since Taddeo Gaddi died in 1366, we may assume that the scenes by Aretino and Gerini, who were much younger, were painted at least a decade later.
The sacristy has one chapel, the Cappella Rinuccini. Giovanni del Biondo was responsible for the altarpiece here. The frescoes on the walls were made by Giovanni da Milano and Matteo di Pacino. They represent scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen.
Bronzino’s masterpiece The Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552), usually in the refectory (if I recall correctly), was in a corridor near the sacristy when I last visited the church. Another interesting work of art that we can find here is a large polyptych showing the Madonna and Child with ten (!) saints by Lorenzo di Niccolò (ca. 1373-1412). The saints on the left are Lawrence, Anthony the Abbot, Andrew, John the Baptist and Louis of Toulouse. On the right they are Saints John the Evangelist, Peter, Bartholomew, Cristopher and Franciscus of Assisi.
Cloisters and Pazzi Chapel
There are two large cloisters to the south of the Santa Croce. The first was part of the original complex and is therefore attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, although there is no documentary evidence that he was actually involved. The second cloister was designed by Brunelleschi, but it was not completed until well after his death in 1446. It is usually assumed that Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464) finished it around the year 1453. I must say it is wonderful here. It is a serene oasis of peace and quiet in a city that is otherwise bristling with activity.
Brunelleschi also designed the Pazzi Chapel. The Pazzis were an immensely wealthy Florentine family. Andrea de’ Pazzi commissioned the chapel in the late 1420s, but it was still under construction well after Brunelleschi’s death and seems to have never been actually completed. This was partly the result of the botched-up Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478, during which Giuliano de’ Medici was killed and his older brother Lorenzo Il Magnifico barely escaped with his life.
Since Lorenzo survived, the conspiracy was a failure. The ringleaders Jacopo and Francesco de’ Pazzi were arrested and hanged (and so was Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, whose family owned the Baroncelli Chapel and whose lifeless body was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci). After the conspiracy collapsed, the Pazzis were banished from Florence and their property was confiscated. The chapel has its own pages on Wikipedia, in many languages, so I will refer interested readers to those pages for more information.
Sources for this post include my two travel guides, one by Dorling Kindersley about Florence & Tuscany and one by the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) about Florence. The information panels inside the church and especially the website Churches of Florence were extremely helpful as well.
Updated 15 July 2023.