The much loved complex of Santa Croce is a Gothic masterpiece, with splendid frescoes by Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi. There are two cloisters, and the famous Pazzi Chapel designed by Brunelleschi for the Pazzi family that plotted against the Medici and paid dearly for it.
This church is much loved by the Florentines and is a symbol of civic pride. It may be because the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo are here, amongst others. Or because for centuries it has witnessed countless games of calcio storico (historic football) played in the square. The Santa Croce Church has many international friends too. It has made its way into novels by James and Melville, and there’s a themed visit that explains the relationship between the Americans and the church. Today this has been confirmed by the successful international crowd-funding campaign to restore Renaissance landmark Pazzi Chapel.
The multicoloured marble facade and 19th century neo-Gothic belltower don’t prepare you for the spare austerity of the vast interior. But don’t be put off by the severity of the space. If you take your time to explore the interior you will be rewarded by some beautiful frescoes and the tombs of many illustrious characters such as Galileo and Michelangelo.
There’s a cenotaph to celebrate Dante Alighieri, Florence’s famous son who was sent into exile and died in Ravenna. Dante also has a statue just outside Santa Croce Church, that is one of the stages in our popular Dante walking itinerary.
Santa Croce Church – What to see
Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels – These chapels contain some of the best frescoes in Florence. The artist behind them was Giotto. The ones in the Bardi Chapel are in better condition, depicting scenes of the Life of Saint Francis. The frescoes show Giotto’s realistic scenes that opened the door to future Renaissance painters that came a century later. See the weeping monks in the “Death of St. Francis.”
Art lover? Find out about Florence’s magnificent frescoes to visit.
Castellani Chapel – Agnolo Gaddi, Taddeo’s son painted these delightful frescoes with scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas. He also painted the main chapel with the Legend of the True Cross.
Baroncelli Chapel – Taddeo Gaddi‘s “Stories of the Virgin” – Gaddi was the most talented pupil in Giotto’s workshop. This work shows off his mastery of Giotto’s new style, to which he added a personal touch in the architectural backgrounds. (Notice the staircase in the Presentation of the Virgin.) This fresco also has the first night scene ever depicted in a fresco, in “Annunciation to the Shepherds”.
Taddeo Gaddi also painted the “Last Supper” and the huge Crucifixion scene painted in the form of the “Tree of Life“, on the refectory’s wall. Today this is part of the Museo Opera S. Croce. Scenes like these were typical of the refectories, so that the monks could meditate during their meals. In the “Last Supper”, notice Judas showing the viewer the back, and St. John sleeping on Jesus’ knee. The tree of life in Christian symbolism is related to salvation given to us by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
The Sacristy – An enchanting 14th century frescoed Gothic room is reached from the south transept.
The Annunciation Tabernacle by Donatello (1435). Produced in sandstone, and partly gilded, it has a rare expressiveness. Notice how the sense of perspective throughout, from the wholly sculpted heads to the delicate relief where the vestments touch the ground.
Pazzi Chapel – This is where Brunelleschi tries to convey the sense of harmony and proportion that he learned in Rome studying classical buildings like the Pantheon. He couldn’t finish the project, and it was carried on after his death by other architects following his design. The result is a perfectly organised geometrical space. Corinthian pillars feature in the portico outside and inside there is a repetition of geometrical figures. Not surprisingly it became the model for early Renaissance architecture.
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