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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence

What is Basilica di Santa Croce?

Basilica di Santa Croce is a harmonious basilica known as the ‘Temple of the Italian Glories’ that holds the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.

Basilica di Santa Croce

Basilica di Santa Croce History

When the English poet Lord Byron first saw the Basilica di Santa Croce, he declared himself to be ‘drunk with beauty’. The interior of this church, relatively plain and simple, owes much to Giorgio Vasari. Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Vasari in the mid-16th century to add a touch of the Renaissance to the original 13th-century Franciscan church. Amongst his alterations, Vasari whitewashed some of the walls, widened the nave (the area intended for the congregation) and removed the carved wooden screen that separated different parts of the church. However, the 14th-century frescoes by Giotto in several of the chapels were left for posterity to enjoy.

The exterior of the church today differs to that which Lord Byron would have seen. Whilst Byron would have cast his eyes over a plain red-brick exterior expressive of the austere approach of the Franciscan order, today the exterior delights with a neo-Gothic marble façade added in the 19th century by the Jewish architect, Niccolò Matas. At the top, Matas included a prominent Star of David.

The church’s cloisters remain largely similar to what Lord Byron would have seen, apart from damage caused by floods in the 20th century. The cloisters are harmonious and peaceful, offering a quiet place for contemplation. They also offer a glimpse of the Cenacolo, the refectory where the Franciscan monks once shared meals together. The smaller, second cloister was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, as was the Pazzi Chapel, one of the great architect’s most famous works. The chapel, which fronts the larger, first cloister, was commissioned as a chapter house by the powerful Andrea Pazzi in the 1420s.

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world and is designed in the shape of a Tau cross, symbolic of Saint Francis who some say even founded the basilica himself. It owes its name to a splinter of the holy cross (or santa croce) donated by King Louis IX of France in 1258.

Buried within are some of Italy’s most illustrious painters, philosophers and politicians, and for many this is the church’s principal draw. The basilica is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories for good reason, as Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo and Machiavelli (among others) all lie sleeping within it. In the nave of the church sits Galileo’s 18th-century tomb designed by Giovanni Battista Foggini. When Galileo died in 1642, he was buried somewhat secretly in a small room near the basilica’s Medici Chapel. The notion of building him a tomb aroused opposition among some clerics. It was only when Grand Duke Gian Gastone de’ Medici intervened that his sarcophagus, monument and bust were erected and placed where they are today. On the left Astronomy holds a piece of parchment, while on the right Geometry displays a plank on an incline demonstrating the equation of falling bodies, first formulated by Galileo. Galileo gazes at the heavens with a telescope in his right hand whilst his left hand rests on a celestial globe. Jupiter with her moons, which Galileo discovered and christened as the ‘Medici planets’, is also alluded to. Today, in the Medici Chapel you can see a plaque marking the spot in the small room next door where Galileo was first buried.

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