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. An oratory was built here in the 1220s and a larger church in 1252. Work begun on a third church on May 3rd 1295 to gothic 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.
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 the tremezzo (rood screen) demolished, as at other churches around this time, and side altars added around the nave. 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 these screens is traditionally said to have been prompted by the Counter Reformation and 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, but recent research has lead to the appreciation of more factors, many more aesthetic than liturgical, and a longer timescale. The foundations of the screen here where revealed when the church's pavement was relayed after the flood of 1966. But these supports where not thought to be important and where demolished, which would not have happened in more recent decades, such has been the increase of interest in the function of these structures. Measurements and photographs that were taken have, however, allowed Marcia Hall, for example, to produce drawings giving a good idea of what the tremezzo looked like (see right).
It is said that Arnolfo, like his contemporaries, would have 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 lesser-known artists of the late 16th century, contemporary with Vasari and his building the new altars, and his sweeping away the original decoration. They can safely be appreciated in the five minutes it takes you to wince at Vasari's mediocre monument to Michelangelo and get the OK tombs of Galileo (surrounded by 13th-century 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, with funds left in the will of Vincenzo Viviani, his favourite pupil, who is buried beside him. The large pavement tomb of Ghiberti is half way up the left aisle, after the forth chapel. On the wall behind hangs a nice small Pieta by Bronzino.
Also unmissable is Donatello's lovely gilded limestone Cavalcanti Tabernacle on the wall in the right aisle before the transept (see right). This Annunciation was the work which made Donatello's name, according to Vasari. 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 frustratingly only ever open to those wishing to pray or confess. The Pulci Berardi chapel here was an early fresco program 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. Maso's work here is visibly inspired by Giotto's nearby. In the Bardi di Vernio chapel is also a Crucifix by Donatello which Brunelleschi complained had a peasant's body. A painting of Saints Louis of Toulouse and Agatha and Two Angels which was painted as a backdrop to this Crucifix in 1631/32 by Il Riposo is in the museum here.
Which leaves the right-hand transept, and the famous stuff (see The Trecento 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 Peruzzi 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.
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.
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 six vivid fragments of a massive fresco by Orcagna of the Last Judgement from c.1350 which once covered the whole right-hand wall of the nave of Santa Croce, before Vasari installed all the altars and tombs. Vasari's own Last Supper from the Murate convent has just been restored, after being damaged here in the 1966 flood, and was hung back in the refectory in 2016. Santa Croce has at least ten 16th-century altarpieces damaged during the flood and in need of restoration.
Next to the Pazzi Chapel entrance, through the door to the right, is a small cloister, called the Ancient Cloister as it dates to the original building. It is now a free WiFi area, with USB charging ports too. A door off of this cloister leads to an oppressive bunker-like crypt (which is beneath the sacristy) now called the Famedio (see below), it's a memorial built by the fascists in 1934 as a Sacrario dei martiri fascisti with the tombs of 36 'martyrs'. It had a permanent fascist guard and was visited by Hitler and Mussolini together in 1938. It retains 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
2.The Franciscan Rule
3.Saint Francis Appears
4.Trial by Fire
5. The Confirmation of
6. Saint Francis Appears to
The Life of John the
The Life of John the
2. The Raising of Drusiana
3. The Feast of Herod
3. The Ascension of
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 1840s and restored later in the 19th century. This work, by a restorer called Gaetano Bianchi, involved drastic interventions replacing lost elements. (See H.Taine wrote below.) A before-and-after example can be seen in black and white photos below right.
These additions were removed during further restoration work in the late 195os 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. (A viewpoint with the viewer's back to the last column in the nave has also been suggested.) 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 (or last) of these two chapels to be completed, having been dated by scholars to various dates between 1317 and 1325. The back wall had four Franciscan saints, including Saint Louis of Toulouse 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 other two remaining are Saints Clare and Elizabeth of Hungary. The side walls are decorated with six scenes from the life of Saint Francis, with a seventh, The Stigmatization, on the wall above right of the chapel's entrance arch. 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. In the vaults are medallions of the four Franciscan virtues.
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. There are many theories as to why Giotto chose to use this method, ranging from the bizarre to the quite convincing. The best of the latter is the one that suggests he was experimenting. This process results in a much more fragile paint surface and so time and, especially, the process of whitewashing over and the later removal of said whitewash has been even harsher to this chapel than the Bardi, which was painted using the proper buon fresco technique. But 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 Anglo-German scholars reverse the order. The degree to which the Peruzzi's decoration was left to Giotto's studio, not the man himself, 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 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 scene 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 - Saint 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 works are now lost.
The Baroncelli Chapel
The postcard c.1847/54 (see below right) shows the stump of Francesco da Sangallo's campanile to the left of the façade.
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.
Michelangelo, Dante (monument only, he is buried in Ravenna), Machiavelli, Galileo, Ghiberti, Rossini, Taddeo Gaddi (in the second cloister) and Agnolo Gaddi.
The complex in a print of 1718.
Oltrarno :: Fiesole