Famous Florentines seem to have found a common resting place in Santa Croce. This Franciscan church dates back to 1294 and remains in the center of the city, housing an Italian “Hall of Fame,” which includes the tombs and cenotaphs of renowned people such as Galileo Galilei (by Giulio Foggini, 1737), Dante Alighieri (cenotaph, tomb in Ravenna), Michelangelo (by Giorgio Vasari 1564), Leonardo Bruni (Bernardo Rossellino 1445), and Machiavelli, among many other masters.
The Franciscan value of finding salvation through the poor reflects in the architecture of this church, such as the wooden roof which represents some of the simplicity for which their order strives. While the inside is Gothic in style, the outer facade is actually Neo-Gothic, created in 1863 by the Jewish architect Niccolo Matas. Matas also included a Jewish Star of David around the Jesuit insignia IHS on the top of the church, blending the two religions in his work. Since he wasn’t part of the Church, he had to be buried outside the church walls, forever contemplating his facade.
Giorgio Vasari whitewashed all of the gothic frescoes from the church walls in order to fulfill his vision of a minimalistic nave. However, visitors can be grateful that some attempts have been made to redeem the original art that used to cover the entirety of the church aisles, including works by Donatello (Annunciation c. 1434). This Renaissance master also created the Crucifixion that Brunelleschi thought made Christ resemble a peasant, which urged Brunelleschi to create his own Crucifixion in an attempt to outdo Donatello’s work. Along the floor of the church, visitors can take an eerie walk over the tombs of many influential families and individuals of Western history. Visitors only need to look up to see the entombed likenesses of Italian greats set in stone monuments above them.
In addition to the many works inside the church, there are also many chapels commissioned by wealthy Italian families lining the walls of the church. Giotto, the teacher of many masters including da Vinci, contributed much of his later years to decorating the walls of Santa Croce. He completed such works as the Bardi Chapel and the Peruzzi Chapel, both of which remain largely intact today. While the Bardi Chapel depicts scenes from the life of St. Francis from his conversion until his death, the Peruzzi Chapel shows frescoes of the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The latter, however, was painted a secco, and unfortunately for visitors, it is very faded and difficult to see.
Giotto’s pupils contributed much of their own work as well, including Taddeo Gaddi’s Broncelli Chapel from 1332-38. They also may have done work in Giotto’s name, although it is sometimes difficult to confirm these speculations. Regardless, it is fascinating to see the evolution of Western art as master and student contributed to the painting and adorning of the same church. Perhaps the most intriguing work in Santa Croce is Cimabue’s Crucifixion in the refectory. Cimabue taught Giotto, but this master teacher still painted in the Byzantine style that predates the Mannerist and Renaissance masters that would soon abandon his ways for these more realistic style.
Cimabue’s Crucifixion was very badly damaged in the flood of 1966. Diesel saturated this floodwater, which stripped the paint to an almost irredeemable point. However, many people have worked to restore and preserve this important work of art history on the cusp of Renaissance realism.
Student at the Gonzaga in Florence University