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Santa Croce
Piazza di Santa Croce

Arriving in 1208 or 1209, the Franciscans had initially settled in San Gallo, just outside the city walls. They then moved here, to an area of poor woolworkers and dyers. On oratory of was built here in the 1220s and a larger church in 1252. Work begun on a third church on May 3rd 1295 to designs by Arnolfo di Cambio in imitation of the old Saint Peter's in Rome, although no documents exist to prove Arnolfo's involvement. The church's dedication to the relics of the Holy Cross is unusual, as Franciscan churches are usually called San Francesco. The naming derives from a chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross, on a small island in the Arno, which was given to the order during Francis's lifetime. The nave was still unfinished in 1375 and consecration didn't happen until 1442. The funding ran out and work stopped in 1504, without the façade having been built. In the 16th Century the bell tower collapsed, damaging the roof, and there were military incursions and floods. It was during this century too that the counter-reformation lead to Vasari being entrusted by Cosimo de'Medici to modify the church which, as elsewhere, meant the demolition of the tremezzo (choir screen) and the loss of many 14th Century works. The sequence of altarpieces by 16th Century artists in the nave chapels is also Vasari's creation. Since the 16th Century it has been the place where Florence buries, or at least commemorates, its notable citizens, but is most valued today for its chapel frescos by Giotto and his immediate followers. The campanile, by Gaetano Baccini, was added in 1842 and the bare stone façade finally acquired a polychrome marble façade  in 1857-63, by Niccolò Matas, which is much maligned. It was paid for by an Englishman called Francis Stone. Suppressions during the 19th Century saw the Franciscans leave and return, twice; but they have remained here through the 20th and into the 21st.

The interior
Arnolfo di Cambio's original interior was spoilt, like the same architect's Palazzo Vecchio, by Vasari. This work, carried out in 1560, saw the choir and screen demolished, as at other churches around this time, and side altars added. The paintings above these altars tell the story of The Passion, starting at the altar end of the right wall and proceeding clockwise. The removal of the screen was prompted by the Council of Trent's decree that even the laity should have a clear view of the altar and be able to clearly hear the sermon. It is said that Arnolfo, like his contemporaries, would've designed the interior to be covered in frescoes and that their having not been carried out, or having been removed, results in an 'unsightly appearance', as one old guidebook (by Edmund G. Gardner) puts it.

There's a lot to see in Santa Croce, most of it wonderful, but some of it not. The nave of the church is full of pompous monuments and the aforementioned altarpieces by small-name artists of the late 16th Century which can safely be appreciated in the five minutes it takes you to wince at Vasari's monument to Michelangelo and get the OK tombs of Galileo (surrounded by fresco fragments), Dante and Machiavelli looked at. (Galileo had been hastily buried in secret under the bell tower in 1642. A planned monument was forbidden by Pope Urban VIII due to Galileo's 'very false and erroneous opinion'. So his monument was not built until 1737.) Altogether more unmissable is Donatello's lovely gilded limestone Cavalcanti Tabernacle on the right before the transept (see right). The complete complement of putti on the top was restored only relatively recently. In 1894 the two central reclining putti were found in storage here and were not restored to the tabernacle until 1900.

Ten family chapels were built at the east end of the church between 1295 and 1310, but contemporary fresco decoration has survived in only four. The left-hand transept has some important frescos but is open only to those wishing to pray. The Bardi di Libertà (Pulci Berardi?) chapel here was decorated by Bernardo Daddi, with a martyrdom scene each from the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, and Maso di Banco frescoed the Bardi di Vernio chapel with scenes from the lives of Saint Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine. The most famous of Maso's being the one where Sylvester tames the dragon with bad breath. In another Bardi chapel on this side there is a Crucifix by Donatello which Brunelleschi complained had a peasant's body.

Which leaves the right-hand transept, and the famous stuff (see The 14th Century Chapels below). There's the Giotto-frescoed Peruzzi and Bardi chapels; the former faded and hard to make out, the latter damaged and easy to love. Giotto also frescoed the Tosinghi-Spinelli and Giugni chapels, both cycles now destroyed, and four altarpieces, including the contested  Coronation of the Virgin in the Baroncelli Chapel. This last chapel is to be found diagonally opposite the Perrozzi and Bardi chapels, in a somewhat Gaddi-dominated corner - Taddeo's Baroncelli Chapel and his son Agnolo's Castellani Chapel are both filled with fine frescos and very worthy of attention.

The apse
Agnolo Gaddi is also responsible for the frescoing in the polygonal vaulted apse (see right) in 1385-87, although it and the transept had been built earlier in the century. The frescoes reflect the church's very Franciscan dedication to the relics of the Holy Cross, from which the church gets its name, as the side walls depict scenes from the Story of the True Cross. This is the earliest recorded monumental cycle to depict this story, and contains scenes not previously presented on such a scale. The eight scenes read top to bottom on the right wall and then top to bottom on the left. But Agnolo's work is again not easy to get close to as there's a rope keeping you back beyond the altar steps. The high altarpiece is by various hands from the late 14th Century put together in 1869.















The sacristy
Off through the doorway from the right-hand apse is the recently spruced up Sacristy, which now has the famous flood-damaged Cimabue Crucifix and high on the wall opposite three huge frescoed scenes by Spinello Aretino (The Way to Calvary), Taddeo Gaddi (The Crucifixion) and Niccolo di Pietro Gerini (The Ascension). Taddeo Gaddi's Crucifixion is the last of his many fine works for Santa Croce, finished in the year he died.

The Rinnucini chapel off the Sacristy is frescoed with scenes from the life of the Virgin and St Mary Magdalene by Giovanni da Milano, another follower of Giotto, whose only surviving pictorial cycle this is. There's also an attractive early polyptych altarpiece by Giovanni del Biondo. An (albeit handsome) gothic grill (see right) prevents a closer view of these walls and the altarpiece.

A small room off the Sacristy leads to the bookshop and the leather works. It also contains a triptych by Giovanni del Biondo of c.1370 depicting St John Gualberto Enthroned, with Four Scenes from His Life (from San Salvi); a Nardo di Cione triptych of the Madonna and Child with Saints Gregory and Job (from the chapter house of Santa Maria degli Angeli); a Neri di Bicci panel of 1461 of The Trinity between Saints Benedict, Francis, Bartholomew and John the Baptist (from the Badia); and
St James the Greater Enthroned by Lorenzo Monaco.

The corridor also has some early altarpieces from here and there, with Michelozzo's Medici Chapel (of the Novices) at the end housing some later displaced works, contemporary with the chapel, by the likes of Salviati, Allori and Bronzino. Bronzino's Descent of Christ into Hell (40 years in restoration following the 1966 flood) is a highlight, and features portraits of Allori, Pontormo, and Bronzino himself.

The Pazzi Chapel and the museum
Back into the church and out the (right-hand) side door takes you to the entrance to the Pazzi Chapel (see right) which is one of the highlights of Brunelleschi's career. It was finished in the 1460s, just before the family fell out of favour following the conspiracy against the Medici which now bears their name. Beyond is the wonderfully peacefully second cloister, by Brunelleschi reached through a doorway by Michelozzo. The entrance to the museum is here too. It's full of some quite nice fresco fragments, a few underdrawings and some paintings. The highlight is the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi in the refectory (see below), topped with a huge Tree of the Cross. It was done later than his Baroncelli Chapel in the main church and just before his Crucifixion in the sacristy. When early art historian Mrs Jameson came here in 1847 (at which time the Last Supper was thought to be by Giotto) the refectory 'was a carpet manufactory, and it was difficult to get a good view of the fresco by reason of the intervention of the carpet-looms'. In here now are also some suspiciously vivid fragments of a massive fresco which once covered the whole right-hand wall of the nave of Santa Croce, before Vasari installed all the tombs. Next to the Pazzi Chapel, through the shop, is a small cloister, called the Ancient Cloister as it dates to the original building. A door off this cloister leads to an oppressive bunker-like crypt (which is beneath the sacristy) called the Famedio (see below), it's a memorial installed by the Fascists in 1937 with the names of the 3,672 Florentine soldiers who died in WWI inscribed on black marble all around the walls. Under the colonnade by the exit is a small memorial to Florence Nightingale, who was named for the city where she was born in 1820.



The Trecento Chapels

Giotto's Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels
Giotto's final works in Florence, completed before his 1328 move to Naples at the behest of King Robert of Anjou. Both of these apsidal chapels had their frescoes later whitewashed over (probably during restoration in 1714) and were uncovered in the 1850s and restored later in the 19th Century. This work, by a restorer called Gaetano Bianchi, involved drastic interventions replacing lost elements. (See H.Taine said below.) A before-and-after example can be seen below right.
These additions were removed during further restoration work in the late 195os and early 1960s by Leonetto Tintori, which prompted further controversy regarding the distraction of the bare patches. Both chapels would originally have had iron gates across their entrances and the perspective of the paintings on the side walls usually assumes a viewpoint peering through these grills, installed by the wealthy families paying for the chapels. It's also noticeable that neither chapel contains scenes stressing the asceticism of the Saints, which is an especially noticeable exclusion in the case of Francis, with his order's famous renunciation of worldly wealth.

The Bardi Chapel
is now thought to be the first of these two chapels to be completed, having been painted between 1317 and 1321. The back wall has saints, including Saint Louis who belonged to the Angevin family, Ridolfo de’ Bardi himself having been the the banker for King Robert of Naples, the saint's younger brother. The walls are decorated with six scenes from the life of Saint Francis, with a seventh, The Stigmatization, on the wall above right of the entrance to the chapel. The Death of Saint Francis (see right) is probably the most famous of the scenes. The large box-shaped loss is due to the removal of a later monument. The non-monk figure this side of the bed is the doubting knight called Jerome who is shown poking his fingers into Francis's side wound. The two figures far left are thought to be members of the Bardi family, due to their more contemporary hats and haircuts. The altarpiece in here (artist unknown) depicts a large Saint Francis surrounded by twenty scenes from his life, almost half of which are are not to be found in any other paintings. It  dates to the mid-13th Century and is thought to have been made for the previous church on this site.

The Peruzzi Chapel mysteriously was frescoed using the older technique of painting onto dried plaster, known as a secco. This process results in a much more fragile paint surface and so time and, especially, the process of whitewashing and the removal of the whitewash, has been even harsher to this chapel than the Bardi, which was painted using proper buon fresco technique. (Although strangely more detail is visible when ultraviolet light is shone on the fresco surface.) The dating of this chapel's decoration in relation to the Bardi chapel is much disputed - broadly the Italians place the Peruzzi before the Bardi and the Anglo German scholars reverse the order. The degree to which the Peruzzi's decoration was left to Giotto's studio is also much argued about. As the original Peruzzi donor was called Giovanni it's no surprise that this chapel's frescoes tell the stories of the lives of the Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, three scenes on each wall. The left wall is devoted to the life of John the Baptist - The Annunciation to Zacharias, The Birth and Naming of the Baptist and The Feast of Herod. The beheading panel has lost its figure of the just-decapitated saint far left. This continuous narrative scene was much copied and very influential. The right wall is dedicated to John the Evangelist, the only evangelist who wasn't martyred - St John on Patmos, The Raising of Drusiana and The Ascension of the Evangelist.

Giotto is also said, by Vasari, to have frescoed the Life of the Virgin in the Tosinghi-Spinelli Chapel (1st chapel in the left transept) and the Martyrdoms of the Apostles in the Giugni Chapel (3rd chapel in the right transept) but both of these works are now lost.

The Baroncelli Chapel
Added to the right hand transept and not part of the original plan. Building began in 1328 and it was frescoed soon after by Taddeo Gaddi, a follower of Giotto, one of the so-called Giotteschi, Vasari said he was considered Giotto's most talented pupil, working with him for 24 years, probably up to Giotto's death. (Taddeo's father was Gaddo, a mosaicist, and the painter Agnolo was his son.) Taddeo had previously frescoed the Lupicini Chapel here, but no trace of this work remains. (A polyptych by Taddeo formerly in the Bromley Davenport Collection in Macclesfield may have been the altarpiece in this chapel.) He continued the work at Santa Croce following Giotto's death and the work he did here (including frescoes in the refectory and sacristy) is commonly considered to be his best. This chapel (see right) with its scenes from the life of the Virgin and her parents, is probably the most complete and undamaged cycle of pre-1350 frescoes. To the left of the window is a sequence of scenes depicting annunciations. On the right are meetings and greetings. The Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece (see below) was very influential and is also now widely thought to be by Gaddi, but has a problematical Giotto signature, which generates the claims that it's by Giotto with help from various hands, including Gaddi's.  The panels were taken out of their original Gothic frame and reframed by Ghirlandaio in the late 15th Century. This resulted in the predella panels, depicting Christ and four saints, oddly not aligning properly with the main panels. A later member of the Baroncelli family, Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, took part in the Pazzi conspiracy. He it was who murdered Giuliano de' Medici and who was sketched by Leonardo dangling dead from a window in the Bargello in 1479.




















The church in art
Telemaco Signorini's Carnival in Piazza Santa Croce has the church in the background before the addition of the 19th Century façade.

Buried here

Michelangelo, Dante (monument only, he is buried in Ravenna), Machiavelli, Galileo, Ghiberti, Rossini, Taddeo Gaddi (in the second cloister) and Agnolo Gaddi.

Local colour
According to tradition (and Vasari) Cimabue had his studio in the nearby Borgo Allegri. The visit of Charles of Anjou, King of Naples and the famous procession of the Rucellai Madonna to Santa Maria Novella began here, hence the naming of the street, '...the Glad Borgo from that beauteous face' as Elizabeth Barratt Browning puts it. The story is put in much doubt by the fact that when Charles of Anjou visited the first stone of Santa Maria Novella had yet to be laid, and that the painting is actually by Duccio. But let's not quibble with a precious legend. The procession is depicted in a famous painting by Frederic, Lord Leighton, now in the National Gallery in London.

John Ruskin said
...the ugliest gothic church you were ever in...no vaultings at all.

H.Taine said
(Italy: Florence and Venice 1869)

This is the church in which some small frescoes by Giotto were lately discovered beneath the plaster. The stories of St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and St Francis. Are they really by him, and has the restorer been faithful? In any event they belong to the fourteenth century and are curious.



Lost art
A polyptych of Christ, the Virgin, St John the Baptist and St Francis of c.1309 painted by Giotto's studio (see above), with some much-contested involvement by the man himself, in the North Carolina Museum of Art is said, by most, to have been painted at the same time as the Peruzzi Chapel here for placing on the altar in that chapel. It is one of four altarpieces which Ghiberti said that Giotto had painted for Santa Croce. Another, commissioned for either the Peruzzi or Pulci-Baraldi chapel here, is the Madonna and Child now in the Washington National Gallery, with one of its panels, depicting Saint Stephen (see right) now in the Museo Horne.

A heptaptych by Ugolino di Nerio, made in Siena for the high altar here in 1325-7, was removed in 1566 when the altar was moved forward four braccia (around 233.6cm) and the altarpiece replaced with a ciborium.  The altarpiece remained in the friars' upper dormitory until the early 19th Century, when it was 'sold to an Englishman'. Most of it is now in the National Gallery in London, but the three surviving main tier panels, dominated by Saints John the Baptist, Paul and Peter are in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

A Madonna and Child, the middle panel of a five-panel altarpiece by Maso di Banco c.1335/6, believed to have been painted for the Franciscans here, is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

Twenty-seven panels (c.1340) by Taddeo Gaddi, painted around the same time as the Baroncelli Chapel and depicting scenes from the lives of Christ and St Francis, which supposedly decorated the doors of a cupboard in the sacristy here, or maybe the choir stalls. The majority are in the Florence Accademia in the Giottesque Room
, but some were sold to private collectors, so two are in Berlin and two in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Predella panels by Fra Angelico probably belonging to a triptych painted c.1429 for the chapel of the Compagnia di San Francesco here, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca, Berlin (but not to be found in the Gemäldegalerie when I was there) and Altenburg.

Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child with Four Saints, painted in the early 1440s for the Medici Chapel of the Novices here, has been in the Uffizi since 1919. Pesellino painted the predella, according to Vasari. Two panels from this, Saint Francis Receives the Stigmata and Saints Cosmas and Damian Heals Justinian, looking very Giottesque, are in the Louvre.

Opening times
Daily 9.30 - 5.30
Sundays and holidays 1.00 - 5.30
(last admission is at 5.00 pm)

Also closed: New Year’s Day (January 1), Easter, St. Anthony of Padua (June 13), St. Francis (October 4), Christmas (December 25), St. Stephen’s Day (December 26).

Church website: santacroceopera.it/en/ 
and a handy map

A fascinating blog devoted to Santa Croce



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