Before anything else is said, I need to acknowledge that there are much, much more than five things to see in the Basilica di Santa Croce. There are dozens of things to see in this church, from religious, historical and artistic perspectives. There is a niche for almost anyone who walks in here, whether they are interested in medieval art, the Franciscan religion, the history of Florence, or any of the famous people buried here. There is also a small museum, a lovely courtyard, and the soon to be blogged about Scuola di Cuoio, a leather shop attached to the Basilica. However, after multiple visits to the Basilica, I can definitively say that the following elements are not to be missed.
One of most impressive facets of this Basilica is that it is also the resting place of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Galileo Galilei, two of the most influential men to ever live. It is almost unfathomable to be so close to Michelangelo’s tomb, arguably the best sculptor who ever lived. It is definitely worth noting that Michelangelo would have likely hated his tomb, for it combines two different forms of art, a technique which he abhorred. The fact that he is forever decorated with both sculpture and paintings is rather ironic, since he vehemently refused to combine the two within his own work.
Galileo is most famously known for advocating Copernicus’ claim that the universe was in fact heliocentric, meaning that the sun was the center, and subsequently being convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church. Being that close to his tomb is surreal; most people could have never imagined being within ten feet of the man whom they read about in seventh grade, for he was perhaps one of the most famous men to emerge from the Scientific Revolution.
Another favorite moment in Santa Croce was seeing the original inspiration for America’s Statue of Liberty. I had no idea it was reminiscent of another piece of work, or that this work would be in Florence of all places. Created about five years prior to the Statue of Liberty, it is actually a memorial to the 19th century playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini. This piece is entitled Libertà della Poesia, and for me is much more attractive than her American counterpart. They are of course still very different works, this one being a fraction of the size of the Statue of Liberty and representing a totally different kind of freedom, the freedom of creativity as opposed to the freedom of the self.
For any bibliophiles like myself, the Sacristy is a must-see inside the Basilica. This beautiful room is adorned with dark, carved wooden panels on the walls and ceiling, and houses some extremely old folios on display behind glass. The time and artistry which went into book making during this period is incredible, and it is a rare treat to be able to examine the folios up close.
Perhaps the most impressive feature—and only offered in this fashion until May 2012—is the frescoes done by Agnolo Gaddi which decorate the inside of the main chapel. To be honest, these are not my favorite works of art within Santa Croce, yet the way in which I was allowed to view them was incredible. Over the past few years, extensive restoration has been done to these frescoes, and while it was completed in 2010, the scaffolding remains standing so that visitors may climb up and see up close frescoes which were only ever meant to be seen standing from the ground or sitting in the pews, at least 30 meters away. I adored being somewhere normally inadmissible in churches—oftentimes, you are not allowed to stand in the main chapel, much less examine the frescoes near the ceiling! It was a truly incredible opportunity to stand so close to these works, and to see the detail which was put into something which the artist could never have dreamed would be noticed. The most interesting part of the tour was when Antonio, our guide, pointed out that Gaddi had painted his own portrait within some scrollwork framing one of the frescoes near the ceiling. His head was perhaps three inches tall—completely impossible to notice from the ground, and surely something that no one had seen for hundreds of years, until the restoration began taking place. It is an odd feeling to know that you are seeing something relatively few people ever have, and in this vein of thought, I also suggest that you take the opportunity to look out over the nave of the church while standing on the scaffolding—you will have a point of view of the Basilica that people are rarely afforded.
After seeing all this amazing artwork, I suggest stepping outside the Basilica, and continue until you find yourself in a large square with four rose bushes, neatly trimmed grass and lovely arches. The area is refreshingly serene after such an overload of art and history, and is almost cleansing to relax within. It’s almost as though we are being reminded that there is beauty everywhere, in both the simplicity of nature and the complexity of art. For me, a pause in the rose garden is the perfect way to end a visit to Santa Croce and prepare oneself for going back out into the hectic piazza and exploring the rest of Florence.
Blogger Kaytie Norman is a soon to be graduate student of Syracuse University currently studying in Florence. She is an English major and Italian minor with a deep admiration for the arts.