Guide to Santa Croce, Florence

While studying abroad in Florence last Fall, I signed up to be a volunteer tour guide in a cathedral (you had to be a pro for art museums, but the churches had a ton of art anyway). Since I was living in an apartment a five minute walk away, I was assigned to the beautiful cathedral of Santa Croce!

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This cathedral meant a lot to me because on my backpacing trip through Europe three years earlier, my first stay in the beautiful city was in a hostel right around the corner from the church, and it was one of the first things I saw in Florence.

Also, as I was to soon find out during my tour-guide training, my beloved Michelangelo is buried there!

After the initial training, I returned with two of my classes, Lifestyle in Renaissance Florence and 19th Century Art, for on-site lectures. So although I’m no where near a professional tour guide or expert, I do have some great anecdotes about the cathedral to share with you.

These highlights are only for the cathedral, as that’s all I was trained in, but be sure to check out the museum in the old monastary (actually still partially in use today!) to see more wonderful works of art.

 

Santa Croce- A Franciscan Church

What does “Franciscan”mean anyway? As I am personally not religious, I have no idea if this is common knowledge or not, but I did not know the difference between orders ofthe Catholic church until living in Italy.

If you’re like me and also have no idea, then please enjoy my amateur explanation.

So Francis of Assisi (a small Tuscan town south of Florence) was the son of a wealthy man in the 13th century. He battled as a knight in some historical fight, and on the way home, stopped in a small church. Upon kneeling and praying in the church, God came to him and told Francis to fix his church, as it had gone to ruins.

Francis then returned home and denounced all of his inherited wealth to live a life of chosen poverty. He wore an uncomfortable brown garment with a rope belt- later to become the order’s costume. He preached all over the countryside, evetually ending up in Florence.

Since he taught the humbleness and piety of poverty, he always appealed to the lower classes. In medieval Florence, the area that now surround Santa Croce was a poor neighborhood, filled with leather tanneries. He decided to build a church for them there, and called it Santa Croce after the holy cross.

In 1966, during Florence’s great flood, Santa Croce was bady hit, since it occupies the lowest section of Florence. Because many works of art were badly damaged, such as the Crucifixion of Cimabue, you may notice paintings on thick black ropes. At the threat of rising water levels in the river, these ropes will pull the art up high automatically to protect them from further damage.

The Interior

Look up! You’ll see that the ceiling is original wood. Although it was a fire hazard, and although many churches at the time were sporting high-arched stone ceilings, Santa Croce has a flat wooded ceiling in reference to the church’s namesake- the holy cross.

The walls may seem plain, but in some areas you can still see original frescoes- many of which were severely damaged during the flood. Many of them are also covered by the Baroque tombs designed by art historian and artist Giorgo Vasari.

On the right side of the altar are original frescos by Giotto. Giotto is considered by some to be the father of the Italian Renaissance because he is the first painter to experiment with perspective. These frescos depict the life of St. Francis. See if you can find him (psst! he’s the one in the brown robe!).

The Tombs & Sculptures & Art

Okay, this is the best part. I mean, Santa Croce is not called the “Pantheon of the Italian Greats” for nothing. During my tours, I usually started at the Northwestern corner of the church and went couter-clockwise, so that’s the order I’ll go in here. When you enter the cathedral on the North side, just turn right and go all the way down til you see Galileo.

Fun Fact! If you see a tomb marker with a skull and cross bones on it, it means that person died from the Black Plague.

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Photo from WikiMedia

Galileo, the famous astronomer responsible for discovering that the Earth revoles around the Sun and not vice versa, is buried here. Well, most of him. Although there was scandal in burying him in a church (as he argued against the church about his beliefs), admirers of his work treated Galileo as a kind of saint, and took his pointer finger (the one used to point at the stars) as a kind of relic. This famous finger is housed nearby in the Galileo Museum.

Galileo is shown grasping his telescope and looking up at the heavens. He is flanked by the allegories of astronomy and geometry. Below him is the planet Jupiter and its satellite moons he discovered.

Michelangelo is buried just across the apse from Galileo. Just a fun fact, the year Michelangelo died was the same year Galileo was born. On your way towards this tomb, be sure to check out the sculpture that inspired the creation of the Statue of Liberty near the door!

Michelangelo’s tomb is decorated with three sculptures of allegories. From right to left they are sculpture, painting, and architecture- the three mediums he worked in. You may notice that the allegory of painting looks sad- personally I think that this is because Michelangelo didn’t really like to paint (despite his Sistine Chapel materpieces) and constantly argued with the Pope about painting assignments.

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Photo from Google Images and is not my own

Michelangelo grew up nearby Santa Croce, and was inspired by Giotto’s frescos to the right of the altar of the cathedral. However, he spent most of his adult life living in Rome, and eventually died there at age 89. The people of Florence wanted to bury the artist in his hometown, but knowing the Pope would never allow it, they had to sneak his body out of the city. They put him on a cart covered in hay and smuggled him out of Rome. It is said that over 2/3 of Florence went to witness his burial.

PS. Michelangelo is not buried in the sarcophagus of his tomb, but under the floor with the rest of his family.

Dante Alighieri is not actually buried in Santa Croce as you might think as you walk to the right and see his sculpture. This “tomb” is actually just a tribute to the poet who is also known as the father of the Italian laguage. Dante (whose home you can visit nearby) is actually buried in Ravenna as he was exiled from Florence during his lifetime. His sculpture is flanked by allegories of politics and poetry.

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Photo from Google Images and is not my own

Macchiavelli is next! He was a political philosopher who was very active in Florence’s political scene, though you may know him from his novel The Prince, published in 1532. His tomb is simple and elegant. It includes a sarcophagus, on which the figure of a woman sits. She holds a portrait of him in profile- reminiscent of Roman coins that emphasize power.

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Photo from WikiMedia

Rossini. If you’re not an opera fanatic, you probably won’t know this guy (like I didn’t- and well, still don’t). He’s the man responsible for writing the opera that includes the song “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” over and over that I only know from cartoons!

Donatello, though not buried in Santa Croce, has a few artworks here. One is on the wall next to the door outside. It is The Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. It is carved from Florence’s famous grey stone known as pietra serena (serene stone) and gold leaf.

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Photo from VisitFlorence.com

The next work of art by Donatello here is his Crucifixion in the transcept to the left of the altar. There is actually a funny story about this work told by Vasari. Apparently Donatello and Florence’s famous architect Brunelleschi (you may know him as the creator of Florence’s great cupola) were friends. Upon seeing Donatello’s Crucifixion, Brunelleschi scoffed and told him he had crucified a peasant. He thought Christ should not look like a lowly farm worker, so Donatello challenged him to create a better version. A few weeks later, when Donatello came to Brunelleschi’s house for dinner, the architect revealed his masterpiece. Donatello, amazed at his friend’s work, dropped all of the eggs he had brought over. Brunelleshi’s Crucifixion hangs in the Dominican church Santa Maria Novella.

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Photo from “Santa Croce in Florence

Lorenzo Ghiberti is also buried here, although he does not have a large tomb like the others. You can find him near the altar on the floor, marked by an emblem with an eagle. Ghiberti is known for the Baptistery’s famous bronze doors.

Giotto’s frescoes decorate the capellas around the altar. Giotto was the most famous artist of his time, and is said to be the first true Renaissance artist. His frescoes depict the life of St. Francis.

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Photo from VisitTuscany.com

On your way outside, be sure to check out the Pazzi Chapel (the one with a ramp on your left). It was designed by Brunelleschi, and is topped with a beautiful dome inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. You may notice that this chapel is empty- there are no tombs or tributes. This is because the Pazzi family conspired to eliminate the powerful and beloved Medici by murdering them at Easter Mass in 1478. They managed to kill Giuliano, but Lorenzo survived. An outraged Florence exiled the family- at least the ones who weren’t first caught and murdered by those loyal to the Medici. Basically, there are no Pazzi buried in the Pazzi Chapel because there were no more Pazzi in Florence to be buried.

There are so many other treasures and interesting stories to be found in the cathedral and it’s surrounding museum, as is true for all of Florence, these are just some of the highlights!

What is your favorite part about Santa Croce? Comment below!

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7 thoughts on “Guide to Santa Croce, Florence

  1. Brianne says:

    Hey #thatarthistorygirl!, I found this page while searching up art history in Florence. Will be studying at LDM in the spring! Also an Art History student… Did you study at LDM?

    How did you sign up to volunteer your guide in Santa Croce? That’s my dream! Why not spend time learning about the church in the church rather than via projector and lecture. Was it through one of your school’s internships? We’re you fluent at the time? Please let me know the details! Need to get in on that! Thanks for the post and info! -Brie

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    • charliebeatty says:

      Hi Brie! I’m so glad you’ll be studying in Florence! It is such an amazing city.
      I did go to LDM last fall, and they introduced me to the idea of becoming a volunteer guide. I submitted an application that really just asked me what my major was and what languages I was fluent in. Don’t worry about not being fluent in Italian- I conducted my tours in English! After I was accepted, I went on a tour with other volunteers to learn about the cathedral. They give you plenty of information and you choose what you want to talk about. The training tour lasted about 2 hours, but our tours are only about 20 minutes (so we don’t compete with longer, paid tours). It’s pretty casual, especially because the people you give tours to know that they’re free and that you’re a student/volunteer.
      I hope this helps! Good luck, and feel free to contact me with any more questions 🙂

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      • Brianne Simon says:

        This is so helpful! Thank you!
        I do have a few more questions for you if that’s alright. Lol.
        So, it was more of a volunteer tour guide position that a professor recommended? Were other volunteers were mostly students? Is the volunteer application to all the Florence Churches or just Santa Croce? Is it something Coordinated by LdM or the churches and museums?

        It sounds like an amazing opportunity especially if you’re an art person and you love talking to people about art!

        I was thinking about applying for the Museum/Gallery Internship at LdM because I want to be involved in art history somewhere in the city. I think it would be such a beautiful experience and helpful because you get to research on site and practice Italian!

        But— if there was an opportunity to just volunteer for a couple of hours a week that would be so much better! Especially since I’ve done the unpaid intern thing already. Lol. I need to email them about it but they have NO contact Information to anyone online… not even instructor names or department heads. What is the deal with that anyway? It’s Italy I suppose, so laid back.

        Thanks for all the info, I’m going to message you on instagram if that’s alright!

        Like

      • charliebeatty says:

        Hey Brianne! Thanks for reaching out via Insta- I haven’t spent as much time on this site as I’d like.
        So when you get to LdM there will be a lot of emails and orientations and information regarding clubs, events, and volunteer opportunities. I heard about the tour guide opportunity through them, ad they gave me the application and sent it in for me-even though it is through a program independent of the school. While filling out the application, I got to choose my top choice locations, but ultimately they assign you based on location and availability. One girl I knew was volunteering at Santa Maria Novella, and others were assigned to San Lorenzo.

        And don’t worry about too much commitment- I only went twice a week for two hours each day, and if I had travel plans I just told them a little in advance and they were very flexible. After all, you are a volunteer!

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  2. Brianne Simon says:

    Thanks for the reply! I’m unbelievably excited. SO happy to hear about someone’s positive experiences especially another art history student… It’s hard to know what you’ll be walking into.

    Did you take any good Art History classes that you would recommend? Some of them look like they could be great… like Palaces of Florence. I’m about to write my thesis though so I don’t want to get wrapped up in anything that isn’t so worthwhile or beginner.

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    • charliebeatty says:

      My three favorite courses were: #1 The Genius of Michelangelo, which was a course just on the works of Michelangelo and was AMAZING! Especially because we got to have class in hi childhood home once. #2 19th Century Art was so interesting. #3 Lifestyle in Renaissance Forence- this class taught me about the powerful families that ruled the city back in the day, and we went on a field trip pretty much everyday!

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      • Brianne Simon says:

        Oh My Gosh, you are a wealth of information. That Michelangelo course does sound like a dream– especially in Italy. I just finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy kind of for fun but totally should have saved it for Florence. –Also read that there are some other programs better for art history but just being there with all the books and information in the city… I get the feeling you don’t have to do much digging. (I picked it over another like FUA because they had a nicer variety of classes like the Michelangelo and Lifestyle in Ren. Florence.) Nothing makes me happier than some art history classes- it’s kind of terrifying to think about a life w/o it- not sure how I will stay sane.

        Thank you so much for taking the time to respond!! Definitely going to apply to volunteer. It’s unbelievably helpful.. Especially for those who like to plan everything. LOL

        Wish Italians weren’t so cryptic and withholding of all their city’s secrets. But that’s kind of part of the draw, no? I have to read the rest of your blog posts about Florence now! The way you described it here was beautiful. ❤
        (inspired to maybe do a little online journaling also)

        Like

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