The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, which they began to build in 1294 according to the plans of Arnolfo di Cambio, is the largest Franciscan church in the world. It was constructed with funding from the population and the Florentine Republic and built above the foundations of a small church which some monks had erected outside the walls of the city in 1252, just a few years after the death of Saint Francis.
The remains of the original building weren’t identified until 1966, when, in the aftermath of the great flood that submerged the city, part of the paving belonging to the present Basilica gave way. From its beginning, the history of Santa Croce has been closely linked to the history of Florence itself. Since its foundation, it has been continually re-planned and re-designed throughout the course of those seven centuries without suffering significant interruptions, and therefore acquiring new symbolic connotations each time.
From the original Franciscan church it evolved to become a religious “town hall” for the important families and corporations when Florence was ruled by the Medici family. From being a craftsmen’s laboratory and workshop – first Humanist and then Renaissance – it became a theological centre; and in the 19th Century, it saw a change from being a pantheon of the nation’s glories to a place of reference fro the political history of Italy before and after its unification.
In Florence, Santa Croce has always been a prestigious symbol and a gathering place for some of the greatest artists, theologians, religious figures, writers, humanists and politicians. It has similarly served the powerful families that throughout the centuries have determined, both for good and bad, the identity of Florence during the Late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Within its walls, it has hosted many famous people in the history of the church, such as Saint Bonaventure, Saint Antony of Padua, Saint Bernadino of Siena, Saint Ludovico d’Angiò and the bishop of Tolosa. It was also a resting and reception place for Pontiffs such as Sixtus IV, Eugene IV, Leo X and Clement XIV.
With its impressive gothic architecture, marvellous frescoes, altar pieces, precious stained-glass windows and numerous sculptures, the Basilica represents one of the most important pages in the history of Florentine art from the thirteenth century onwards.
Inside it houses works of art by Cimabue, Giotto, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Giorgio Vasari, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Orcagna, Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi, Della Robbia, Giovanni da Milano, Bronzino, Michelozzo, Domenico Veneziano, Maso di Banco, Giuliano da Sangallo, Benedetto da Maiano, Canova and many others.
In particular, the presence of Giotto and his school of art makes Santa Croce and extraordinary complete testimony of Fourteenth Century Florentine art.
The historical and political upheavals that have accompanied Santa Croce right up until today have always left a precise mark as much in the artistic-architectural works (such as the radical transformations imposed by Vasari around the middle of the sixteenth century; or the exuberant commitment during the nineteenth century to transforming Santa Croce into a huge mausoleum of Italian history), as in the testimonies guarded in its archives which hand down to us a daily reconstruction, through the course of the centuries, of a great project befitting its own creators, its own resources, its own objectives and difficulties.
Santa Croce has been defined as “the Pantheon of the nation’s glories” because within its walls are the tombs of famous figures such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Gioacchino Rossini, Giorgio Vasari, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Vittorio Alfieri and Ugo Foscolo.
The indisputable fascination that this place exerts, in an unequalled synthesis of art, spiritually and history, is confirmed by the influx of around one million visitors a year.
Source: Opera di Santa Croce, Italy.