It’s true that Italy’s churches are filled with the works of the country’s most revered artists, though Santa Croce boasts not just their art… but their remains as well. Amongst them you’ll find: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile and Rossini to name but a few and of course such names, learned philosophers, artists and musicians, deserve a grand and beautiful tomb to lay their head for the eternal sleep.
The cathedral’s interior is vast and spans several different areas. The main cathedral, as above, can look rather plain from some angles, but the devil’s in the details, and as you walk from wall to wall, tomb to tomb , you begin to fathom a sense of the building’s beauty – taking in intricate stonework, grand alters, delicate carvings and the vast echoes of the past. The Basilica, which dates back to the 1200’s, is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and is made up of sixteen chapels – many adorned with frescoes by Giotto – a variety of tombs, pretty cloisters and cenotaphs, though the beautiful neo-Gothic marble façade dates back to only the mid-1800’s.
Pay close attention as you walk these hallowed walls – and you’ll see some wonderful works of art – macabre and beautiful, fearful icons and ageing relics that span more than 800 years. The interior itself is absolutely stunning, with delicate frescos, intimidating archways, breathtaking monuments and vibrant stained glass sitting alongside delicately worked columns and often decadent stone and woodwork.
The piece below is Cimabue’s Crucifix. One of Cimabue’s earlier works – painted around 1265 on wood. Unfortunately, the cathedral was flooded in 1966, resulting in the near destruction of the crucifix. Cimabue’s Crucifix is especially important because of its depiction of christ. Earlier Byzantine depictions of the cross would show Christ as invincible even in death – a symbol of everlasting life (Christus triumphans or Triumphant Christ), however it was felt that this depiction of Christ bore little relation to the actual sufferings endured during the crucifixion and just reinforced the perceived distance betwixt divine and human. The piece was commissioned by Saint Francis of Assisi, who was a Franciscan (remember – Santa Croce is a Franciscan church and was even said to have been founded by Saint Francis himself), and didn’t believe in this all enduring Christ, but instead believed in the Christus patiens or the suffering Christ – in other words a Christ who carried both burden and pain – not an indestructible force as in earlier renditions. Cimabue’s Santa Croce Crucifix is one of the earliest examples of this suffering Christ.
Santa Croce, as large as it is, holds many a secret or two – some better known than others. One, famed though strangely often unspoken example is the Scuola del Cuoio or Leather School. Created by the Franciscan friars of the Monastery and the Gori and Casini families (Florentine leather artisans since the 1930’s) their mission was to give orphans of the war a means to learn a trade with which to earn a living and thus the leather school was born. Today the traditions continue, and one can take a peak at leather artisans at work and, if inclined, buy something from the leather shop which is housed within the cathedral grounds. The school isn’t at all hard to find – just search the air for the scents of leather pressed hard against the steel of the leather-working machinery and you’ll find it.
There are several spaces outside of the cathedral including gardens and cloisters and even in the height of summer, these are often rather empty, as many tourists don’t make it past the main cross section of the building. Be sure, especially on a hot summer’s day, to take advantage, as the gardens and cloisters are beautiful and surprisingly peaceful.
In the image below, look for the Franciscan symbol, the Tau cross, which is perched above the central door in a round setting. It depicts the arms of Jesus and St. Francis crossed over the Tau, both bearing the imprint of the Crucifixion nails. The left arm belongs to Francis and is enclosed in the sleeve of his habit. The cross is said to be a celebration of the “remarkable gift of grace” which St. Francis received on Mt. Alverna, September 17th – namely – the Stigmata.
The entire city of Florence is coated in a pretty almost rose-like aura – it is simply incredible to explore – and with its achingly beautiful architecture – it’s possible to wonder the ages exploring pre historic and Roman architecture like the Roman Amphitheatre and the Necropoli of Palastreto through Romanesque (Church of Santa Maria Maggiore), Gothic (Giotto’s Belltower and the Ponte Vecchio), Renaissance (the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore), Rococo (Arco di Trionfo) and so much more.
“In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise.”Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
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