London, Henry S. King & Co., 1877; Transcribed and Photographed, Carolyn Carpenter




Chapter XIX:  Sta. Croce - Architecture

When St. Francis visited Florence in the year 1211, he found several brethren of his newly established Order, who had already formed themselves into a community beyond the Porta San Gallo.  Their numbers rapidly increased; and when, in 1288, the family of Altafronte bestowed on them a tract of marshy land, with a hospital upon it, near the Arno, they removed thither, and built a small chapel, which they dedicated to St. Anthony.  This chapel, consisting of one simple cross-vaulting, may still be seen beneath the choir of the Church of Sta. Croce.  That same year, 1288, Pope Gregory IX., who had canonized his old friend Francis of Assisi, took this little community of Franciscans under his special protection.

The Church of Sta. Croce was commenced by the friars nine years later, on the Day of the Holy Cross - the 15th May, 1297 - when the foundation stone was laid, and Arnolfo di Cambio was employed to make the design.  As Arnolfo, who had at the same time been commissioned to undertake Sta. Maria del Fiore, laid the foundation stone of the Florentine Cathedral the following year, 1298, these two sacred edifices rose simultaneously.

Unfortunately for the early history of Sta. Croce, the archives of the monastery were nearly all destroyed by the floods from the Arno, which took place in 1333172 and in 1557; but the scanty records which remain inform us that in the year of the foundation, Cardinal Matteo d' Acquasparta, general of the Franciscan Order, proclaimed an indulgence to whoever should contribute money for the pious work.173   We also learn that in 1320 the church, though still unfinished, was opened for public worship; that in 1334 Giotto was chosen master of the works; and that in 1371 a Board of six citizens was appointed by the Signory of Florence to superintend the building both of the Church of Sta. Croce and of the Cathedral.  Political disturbances caused some delay, and the friars were obliged to resort to fresh devices to raise a fund for the continuation of their church:  they were assisted by two of the guilds, or arti - the Mercatanti (merchants), and the Calimala (dealers in foreign wool), who undertook to collect the required sum.

The exterior of Sta. Croce has little left of the original construction.  On the northern side is a porch, under which are some curious early monuments; the front, however, continued a wall of rough masonry.  In the fifteenth century one of the Quaratesi family offered to defray the expenses of a handsome fašade, but appended the condition that the arms of his family should be introduced among the ornaments; to this, however, neither the friars nor the Board would consent, and the munificent donator accordingly withdrew his gift of 100,000 golden florins, and assigned the money for the construction of another Franciscan Church, near San Miniato al Monte, which he dedicated to the Saviour, San Salvador.174

A layer of green and white marble, at the base of the fašade, is all that remains on Sta. Croce to commemorate Quaratesi's generous intention.  In 1834 Lorenzo Bartolini, the celebrated Tuscan sculptor, urged upon the Government the completion of the exterior of this noble church in a manner worthy of the interior; but want of funds again prevented the undertaking. Preparations were, however, made for a future fašade, by the removal of a block of masonry in front of the church, popularly called the "Massa di Sta. Croce."  This Massa was the remains of a campanile, commenced after a design by Franšesco di Giuliano di San Gallo, in 1549, at the north-western angle of the edifice, and which was the second attempt, and failure, to erect a belfry for the church, after the first had been destroyed by a great storm in 1512.  The Massa di Sta. Croce was left untouched for nearly two centuries, an ugly projection on the wall, frequently used as a hiding place for thieves.  The present campanile, at the eastern extremity of the church, was built in 1842.

After the removal of the Massa di Sta. Croce, the design of the sculptor Nicola Matas was chosen for the new fašade; the expense was reckoned at 25,000 scudi (ú5,600), a sum impossible to have been raised, had not an English gentleman who had long resided in Florence, the late Commendatore Sloane,175  offered to advance as a loan 3,000 scudi (ú700), and thus enabled the Government to begin the work.  On the 21st August, 1857, the foundation stone was laid with great solemnity by Pope Pius IX., in the presence of the Grand-Duke Leopold II. and his family, and of an immense concourse of spectators.  That same day the Commendatore Sloane converted his loan into a gift, and subsequently added to the sum, until, on the completion of the fašade, his contribution alone became upwards of twelve thousand pounds sterling.

Matas raised upon Quaratesi's base of green and white marble, a facing in the same style of the old Florentine sgheronata, which when mellowed by time will have a more agreeable effect than it has now.  Over the three doors Matas has introduced pointed arches and canopies, crowning the whole with pinnacles of white marble.  The statues and bas-reliefs were added by Giovanni DuprÚ; it represents the Exaltation of the Cross, whilst above it, by the same artist, is a most beautiful statue of the Madonna. The rose window is left free, and the monogram of our Saviour in yellow on a blue ground is placed above the Madonna.  Two angels in bronze support the cross at the apex of the central pinnacle.  The gates are also in bronze; the subject of the central gate is the Via Crucis, divided in twelve compartments from designs by Emilio Santarelli.

The fašade was uncovered in the presence of Pope Pius IX in May, 1863.

The interior of Sta. Croce is a good example of the style of Arnolfo di Cambio, more remarkable for ingenuity of construction than architectural invention.176  He was required to build a church large enough to contain the vast numbers who sought the confessionals of the Franciscan friars.  Cold and severely simple in his decorations, Arnolfo has, however, succeeded in leaving an impression of solemn grandeur, by vast space and long lines of perspective.  The form is that of the old Roman basilica; the long nave and two short transepts make the Latin Cross.  The eastern extremity is divided into nine chapels, the apse being only an enlargement of the central chapel.

The length of the nave is divided by seven pointed arches resting on octagonal columns; the clerestory above is supported by brackets, between which are windows of coloured glass.  The ceiling of the nave and aisles is composed of beams, which were originally coloured in soft harmonious Saracenic tints, now in the process of restoration.  The height of the columns and the wide span of the arches made it unsafe to impose any great superincumbent weight; Arnolfo therefore constructed gable roofs, with stone gutters to prevent water settling and causing decay.  The pavement is brick, with many marble sepulchral slabs.
The architectural proportions of Sta. Croce have been injured by the removal of a step, which, like that of Sta. Maria Novella, raised the pavement of one-third of the nave towards the eastern extremity.  This part was further divided from the body of the church by a screen, such as is found in most English cathedrals, with gates - regge - which term was exclusively applied to the doors shutting out the congregation from the Holy of Holies, where the priests performed the sacred ceremonies.  Dante calls the gates of Purgatory, regge.177  The choir belonged to the wealthy family of the Alberti, whilst the chapels within the transepts and round the choir were the property of other distinguished Florentines, who caused them to be decorated with frescos, and placed iron gratings before those containing marble monuments.  These frescos were painted by Giotto, Giottino, Memmi, Lippi, Taddeo Gaddi, &c. &c.

Baroncelli Chapel
In 1512, the storm which destroyed the first campanile and broke the roof of the church, likewise damaged the choir, which was still further injured by a flood in 1557.  The friars, seconded by the Board of Works, petitioned the Grand-Duke Cosimo I. to be permitted to remove the screen, and carry the choir into the apse.  Their request was granted, in spite of the remonstrances of the Alberti, who were thus deprived of all their rights within the church, except that of interment in the space once occupied by the choir.  The chapels which had been attached to the choir were destroyed, and thus some valuable works of art were lost; an Enthronement of the Virgin, by Ugolino of Sienna, after lying neglected for centuries in the dormitory of the monastery, was sold for a mere trifle, and found its way in fragments to the Ottley Collection in England.178

When the choir was removed, the frescos on the lateral walls of the church were ruthlessly sacrificed to make room for chapels, constructed by Giorgio Vasari along the whole length of the nave, which were bestowed on families who had been deprived of their chapels around the former screen.  All that remains of these paintings are the figures of St. John the Baptist and St. Francis, by Andrea del Castagno, near the Cavalcante Chapel.  The Baptist is drawn with Castagno's usual dry hard outline, and has all the appearance of starvation given with characteristic realism.  It was probably painted soon after the artist's return from Rome.

For many years banners were suspended over the illustrious dead, but, by order of the Signory, they were afterwards carried into the clerestory gallery, where they hung until very recently, when they were finally removed from the church.

One of the most beautiful objects in Sta. Croce is the pulpit of white Seravezza marble, which a wealthy Florentine merchant, named Pietro Mellini, commissioned Benedetto da Majano to execute about the year 1493.179  Benedetto is much commended by Vasari for the skill he displayed in attaching this pulpit to one of the columns of the nave, in which he inserted a spiral staircase.  The reliefs, surrounded by an elegant framework of marble, are especially beautiful.  The scenes represented in five compartments are taken from the life of St. Francis: - Pope Honorius III. confirms the rules of the Franciscan Order; St. Francis passes unscathed through a fire, in the presence of the Sultan; he receives the Stigmata at La Vernia, in the Casentino; his dead body is exposed in the Church of Assisi - one of the finest of the series; and, lastly, the martyrdom of his followers in Mauritania.  Small figures, seated in niches of red marble, represent Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, and Justice.

Over the western door is a bronze statue of St. Louis of Toulouse, which was formerly outside the church.  This saint was the son of Charles of Anjou, King of Naples and of Maria, a Hungarian princess, and nephew of King Louis IX of France.  When only fourteen years of age he with his two brothers were delivered as hostages to the King of Aragon, and he spent several years in captivity.  The cruel treatment he received in Spain appears to have quenched all that might have existed of worldly ambition inhis gentle nature, and on regaining his liberty Louis renounced the throne of Naples in favour of his brother Robert, and assumed the Franciscan habit.  Two years later he was made Bishop of Toulouse by Boniface VIII, and died at the age of twenty-four.  He was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1317.180  This statue is the last executed by Donatello, who did not value his own work greatly, and it is certainly one of his most inferior productions.  He has represented St. Louis in the same attitude as he is painted by Taddeo Gaddi on one of the pilasters of the Capella Rinuccini, in the sacristy of this church.  When Donatello was reproached for having made so indifferent a statue, he replied it was good enough for a man who had been so dull as to exchange a kingdom for a monastery.181

The rose window above has a Deposition in coloured glass, after a design by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and over this is a stone tablet containing the monogram of our Saviour, by San Bernardino, which was formerly outside the church.  San Bernardino was born in 1380 of a noble Siennese family, and assumed the Franciscan habit at twenty-five years of age; it is related of him, that when preaching to the people he held a tablet before him on which the monogram of Christ was inscribed within a circle of golden rays.  A man who earned his livelihood by the manufacture of cards and dice was reduced to sore distress by the reformation of manners produced under the influence of San Bernardino, who accordingly suggested, as a compensation, that he should manufacture tablets similar to that he had invented, and sell them to the people.  The man took his advice and prospered.  The original tablet was, by permission of the Signory, placed on the fašade of Sta. Croce, with great ceremony, by San Bernardino, in 1437.  Around it he caused to be inscribed in Lombard characters the following words: - "In nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur cŠlestum, terrestrium et inferorum."



Arno overflowed 1333
Arno overflowed again 1557
Benedetto da Majano 1442-1497
Bernardino, St., born 1388
Church of Sta. Croce commenced 1297
Church of Sta. Croce opened for public worship 1320
Church of Sta. Croce, choir destroyed 1557
Church of Sta. Croce, fašade finished 1863
Church of Sta. Croce, Giotto Master of the Works 1371
Francis, St., came to Florence 1211
Ghiberti, Lorenzo 1378-1455
John XXII., Pope 1316-1334
Louis, St., of France, died 1297


171 See "Discorso sopra il Giuoco di Calcio - Memoria del Calcio."  Fiorentino, 1688.
172 This flood is recorded in a Latin inscription on a tablet on the Ponte Vecchio.
173 Cardinal Matteo d' Acquasparta is mentioned by Dante in his "Paradiso," as having relaxed some of the severities of the Franciscan Order. - Paradiso, canto xii. v. 124.
174 This church is known as Michael Angelo's Bella Villanella, from its simplicity and beautiful proportions.  The design was by Cronaca; but as he was only eleven years of age when Quaratesi died - 1466 - San Salvador was not built until many years after the death of the founder.
175 The Commendatore Franšesco Sloane, an active and generous benefactor of Florence, died at his villa of Careggi, October, 1871.
176 See "Cicerone von Jacob Burkhardt," 1860, p. 143.
177 "Purgatorio," canto ix., v. 134.
178 See "Crowe and Cavalcaselle," vol. ii. p. 53.
179 In the Bargello is a fine bust of Pietro Mellini by Benedetto da Majano.
180 See life of this saint in Mrs. Jameson's "Monastic Orders."
181 See Vasari, "Vite dei Pittori - Donatello."

Chapter XX:  Sta. Croce - Monuments


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