The Tombs of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy is much more than just a church. Santa Croce is one of the oldest and largest Franciscan basilicas in the world and by far the most magnificent. Some of history’s most influential artists have made their mark on the church, from frescoes by Giotto and Agnolo Gaddi, to architecture by Brunelleschi and Donatello. While many basilicas in Italy contain the works of great artists, Santa Croce is unlike any other in the fact that it contains more than just their art; it contains their remains as well. Dubbed “The Temple of the Italian Glories,” Santa Croce contains more skeletons of Renaissance masters than any other church in Italy.
Santa Croce was built in 1294 of a design by the great architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Its most notable features are its 16 chapels, many of them decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils, and its tombs and cenotaphs designed by artists of the Renaissance. The church has lived through more than seven centuries of history and has an artistic and cultural heritage so profound that it has become one of the best-loved and most visited sites in Florence.
Santa Croce was established as a Franciscan church and was decorated as such. A fundamental feature of early Franciscan churches was the frescoed narration of the stories of Christ and saints. Several of the great Florentine families, including the Bardi, the Peruzzi, the Alberti, the Baroncelli and the Rinuccini, acquired the patronage of chapels in Santa Croce, thereby assuming the honor of decorating and furnishing them.
Some of the 14th century decoration has survived, including that painted by the great Giotto, who frescoed the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels with scenes from the life of St. Francis and scenes from the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Giotto’s closest followers, Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and Maso di Banco, painted frescoes in the chapels patronized by the Baroncelli, Pulci, Berardi, and Bardi di Vernio. In the mid-14th century, the walls of the aisles and the Sacristy were frescoed by Andrea Orcagna, Giovanni da Milano, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Agnolo Gaddi. The 14th century decoration was crowned by Agnolo Gaddi’s frescoes for the chapel of the high altar, commissioned by the Alberti and illustrating the Story of the True Cross.
In the 15th century, Santa Croce received important architectural additions. In 1429, Andrea de’ Pazzi undertook the construction of the Chapter House (known as the Pazzi Chapel), which was designed and begun by Filippo Brunelleschi but not completed until long after his death. It is one of the most harmonious buildings of the Florentine Renaissance and is decorated not by frescoes but by glazed terracotta roundels created by Luca della Robbia and his followers. In the late 15th century, sculptural works, tombs, altars and pulpits were created by some of the greatest Florentine masters, including Donatello, Antonio and Bernardo Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano and Benedetto da Maiano.
Santa Croce underwent an architectural transformation in the late 16th century which involved the erection of large altars embellished with paintings by the greatest Tuscan artists of the time. However, it was with the construction of the tomb of Michelangelo that the basilica became a favorite resting place of Italian greats and would earn its title as “The Temple of the Italian Glories.”
Upon entering Santa Croce, the first tomb visitors encounter is that of Michelangelo. Legend has it that the Renaissance master chose this spot so that the first thing he would see on Judgment Day, when the graves of the dead fly open, would be Brunelleschi’s dome through Santa Croce’s open doors. Michelangelo died in 1564 in Rome, miles away from his beloved Florence. However, the people of Florence were so determined to return Michelangelo’s remains to his home that a group broke into Rome’s church of Santissimi Apostoli, stole the great artist’s body and smuggled it back to Florence. Michelangelo is buried beneath a monument with allegorical figures of sculpture, architecture and painting designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1570. The structure was so beautiful that it served as a model for all other tombs that would be built in the church.
Directly across from Michelangelo is the tomb of Galileo who died in 1642. The great astronomer was born in Pisa, yet spent the later part of his life in Florence under the patronage of the Medicis after the Roman Inquisition had intimidated him into recanting his belief that the earth revolves around the sun. His monument was not constructed until 1737 when his remains were finally allowed a Christian burial. The structure was designed by Giovanni Battista Foggini.
Nearby the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo is a 19th century tribute to Dante Alighieri. The remains of Italy’s greatest poet are buried in Ravenna, as he was exiled from Florence for his political activities in 1302 and was not allowed to return. Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 and the city had refused to allow Florence to reclaim his body.
Nearly halfway down the nave of Santa Croce stands the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, the political theoretician whose brutally pragmatic philosophy so influenced the Medici. Though he died in 1527, his tomb was not built until 1787. Despite his reputation as a contemptuous political theorist, Machiavelli was an honest servant of the Florentine state. The great Italian statesman could have easily taken bribes from competing parties, yet he never did. Machiavelli’s monument is a marble structure created by Spinazzi that bears the inscription, “Tanto nomini nullum par eulogium,” or “No elegy is equal to such a name.”
The tomb of Lorenzo Ghiberti, creator of the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral which Michelangelo called the “Gates of Paradise,” is far simpler than that of his contemporaries. Ghiberti’s remains are marked by the emblem of an eagle on the floor of the basilica.
Further into the church adjacent to the magnificent “Annunciation” sculpture by Donatello is the tomb of Leonardo Bruni. A renowned orator and Florentine diplomat, Bruni was an eminent scholar known for his translations of Plato and Aristotle and his writings on the history of Florence. When Bruni died in 1444, his last wishes were for his remains to be housed in an antique-style funerary monument. The structure, executed by Bernardo Rossellino, features ancient Roman art rather than religious imagery, thus complying with Bruni’s final request.
At the very end of Santa Croce’s nave is the tomb of opera composer Gioachino Rossini, who died in 1868. Rossini penned 39 operas, including the famous “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola.” Until his retirement in 1829, Rossini had been the most popular opera composer in history. His monument was created in 1900 by Giuseppe Cassioli.
In the late 19th century, Santa Croce became not only a resting place for the greatest Italians, but for ordinary individuals as well. Private tombs inspired by a romantic mourning for lost affections also found their place in the Basilica.
The great Italian writer Ugo Foscolo, whose remains were transported from London so that he could be buried in Santa Croce, once wrote that the tombs of Santa Croce were “urns of the strong, that kindle strong souls to great deeds.” These words could not be more true, as those put to rest in the church of Santa Croce are among the most inspirational individuals in history.