The first lines of John Keats’ poem Endymion can be used in many contexts. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ pass into nothingness.” Keats, obviously, was British; however, this quote has a lot of poignancy in relation to the Basilica di Santa Croce. Not just because the Basilica is beautiful, but also because of the way it has changed and influenced artists through the years. It cannot pass into nothingness because it is dynamic. In fact, the construction of the Basilica began in 1294, and changes were still being made up until the nineteenth century. Currently, it houses a functioning church, a museum, as well as a leather factory. It is a place with a history, but also a place that has maintained relevance since its conception.
One man who saw the artistry in the Santa Croce was Henry James. James was a great admirer of Italy since his first visit to the country in 1869. He documented his travels throughout Italy in a book of essays called Italian Hours, which was published in 1909 after his final trip to Italy. To James, Italy was “reluctantly modern,” a place that had been “preserved for curiosity’s and fancy’s sake, with a vague, sweet odour of the embalmer’s spices about it.” Although there is a bit of a morbid quality to this quote—one would hate to think of Italy as something dead—I think that James is making a great point about the way Italy maintains its history and antique beauty while still perpetuating modernity.
James discovered Italy’s unique way of preserving the past by exploring the country’s churches and cathedrals. On one visit to the Santa Croce, he admired the church for its weightless quality, saying:
“The vastness, the lightness, the open spring of the arches at Santa Croce, the beautiful shape of the high and narrow choir, the impression made as of mass without weight and the gravity yet reigning without gloom—these are my frequent delight, and the interest grows with acquaintance.”
For James, there was something intriguing about the Santa Croce. For him, it was a place that required a second look, “a thing of beauty” that’s grandeur would not allow it to “pass into nothingness.” The Basilica impacted him through its architecture. James saw this great space as light, a place that seemingly defied gravity.
There is a large possibility that James’ perception of the lightness in Santa Croce was directly influenced by Giorgio Vasari’s work in the church. Like James, Vasari also derived creativity from Santa Croce. However, unlike James, Vasari’s creativity was used to restore the church while James’ work portrayed his reaction to the church. Vasari, as you may know, was considered the first art historian after he published Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vasari was also an artist in his own right, and is, in fact, the man responsible for whitewashing the walls of the Santa Croce in order to embark on his own vision for the church
Vasari imagined the nave as a much more minimalistic space, not a place dominated by Giotto’s frescoes. Therefore, he had it whitewashed. The frescoes were gone; replaced by small, dark-toned paintings done by Vasari’s own students. The space that was covered in sweeping Tuscan earth tones became light. Now, tourists have the opportunity to see some of the original frescoes in the chapels to the right of the nave; however, in James’ time, the church would have been all white, save the paintings done by Vasari’s students and the elaborate altarpiece. No matter your opinion of Vasari’s minimalist nave, it cannot be denied that he contributed greatly to the weightless effect that James expands upon in his writing. In thinking of the Keats quote, it is difficult to say whether or not the white walls made the loveliness of the church increase. One thing that can be said for sure is that the white walls show how the Basilica could adapt to modern opinion about art and design.
So here we have it. Two artists who, in their own way, contributed to the history of the Basilica di Santa Croce. These artists were from different centuries and from different cultures. In fact, while Vasari was tirelessly editing the nave of Santa Croce, America, James’ birthplace, was not yet a country. As a first-time visitor of Santa Croce, I find it comforting to know that this church’s story is still being written. It is timeless; a place that forces you to look to the past while still thinking of the future. Yes, Santa Croce is a place that contains the “sweet odour of the embalmer’s spices,” but it is a place that is open for new interpretation. Now to quote the first lines of Italian Hours that opens James’ famous essay about Venice, “It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it.” I would love to try and explain the magnificence that is the Santa Croce; however, my words do it no justice. It is a place that must be seen to be believed.
Blogger Emily Daubert is an Undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University, currently studying abroad at Syracuse University in Florence. She is a Creative Writing major who is passionate about metaphors, similes and enjambment.