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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!