Walking in someone else’s shoes is never easy, but for some people, like Donata Grossoni, this skill is a requirement. Ms. Grossoni works for the Opera di Santa Croce, and for her, a typical day means talking to visitors, or, as she explains it, listening to visitors. Ms. Grossoni is an extremely educated woman; she has a degree in art history, and wrote her thesis about applied arts, but oftentimes it is more interesting for her to see Santa Croce through different eyes. Ms. Grossoni is fully aware that everyone can bring a beautiful and new point of view to the basilica, and one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is being a witness to these new discoveries.
Her favorite visitors are children and teenagers. These are the people who she considers especially interesting because they are like puzzles. A typical teenager who comes to Santa Croce may not be interested in the famous tombs or the Giotto frescoes, and so Ms. Grossoni must find a way to ignite their interest in the church. A lot of times, this means that she asks the questions. She realizes that it would be narrow minded to only share her point of view. In fact, as I was talking to her, she asked me what my first impression of the church was. I was taken aback by this role reversal, wasn’t I supposed to be asking the questions? However, I realized that by doing this, Ms. Grossoni was forcing me to interact with the church. When Ms. Grossoni asks younger kids about their first impressions of Santa Croce, she often receives mixed results. Some believe that the Church resembles a backdrop from Harry Potter, others might just want a clearer explanation of the construction of a Franciscan church. Ms. Grossoni is happy to answer and listen to all of these visitors, because for her, this place is not just a stop on a tour of Florence; it is a place with a history and an ever-evolving story.
Of course Santa Croce has a vast social, cultural and religious history, but Ms. Grossoni acknowledged that the church also holds a special place in her own personal history. I asked her about her favorite spot in Santa Croce, and her face lit up. She turned to her right and pointed at a wall sculpture made out of pietra serena with gilded accents. The sculpture was Donatello’s Annunciation. Ms. Grossoni gave me, at first, an art historian’s analysis of the sculpture as she explained the contrasting materials and the dynamism in the piece, but it was clear that this was not what mattered most to her. She said that as a child, she gravitated to this piece because she believed that it looked: “like the illustration of a fairytale.” She still sees the fairytale quality in the piece, but seems more astounded by the emotions present between the Angel and Mary. She says that while looking at this piece, she feels as if she is watching something that is very private. Mary is noble and gentle, and yet closed off. Mary’s position and her emotions make the viewer feel as if it is a privilege to stare at this work.
This is a feeling that people have throughout Santa Croce. One important thing that Ms. Grossoni pointed out about the basilica is that it is part of a globalized world. Santa Croce is not only a home for Italian art and artists; it holds significance for people from all over. Ms. Grossoni told me that when people come to Santa Croce, they expect the famous figures that they recognize to have tombs in the church. She told me that one time in particular, a man asked her where Evita Perón was buried in the basilica. Although Santa Croce may not contain the tombs of figures such as Evita Perón, there are still references to the outside world within the church. Ms. Grossoni noted that people from the United States come to Santa Croce and discover that the church houses a statue that looks strikingly similar to the Statue of Liberty. The statue is part of the memorial monument to the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Niccolini, but it is a work with which people can identify. In the main cloister outside of the Basilica, there is a monument dedicated to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale, after all, was born and named after the city of Florence. Because Florence Nightingale is such a familiar figure, many visitors feel a connection to her, and this connection can then extend to Santa Croce.
It was important for Ms. Grossoni to explain to me that within Santa Croce, there are always things that impact people a personal level. After I told her about what struck me about the church; the fact that it is a historical timeline, Ms. Grossoni led me to two monuments. These were the tomb of Vittorio Alfieri and the Memorial to Dante. The tomb of Alfieri was constructed in 1810, and in the piece, there is a woman weeping over the tomb. This woman is meant to be Italy. Dante’s memorial was constructed in 1829 but this time, there are two women: Poetry and Italy. Poetry is weeping, and Italy is portrayed as Stoic and proud. Ms. Grossoni explained that between the periods that the two monuments were built, it was decided that Italy could not be portrayed as weak. I asked Ms. Grossoni why this was, and she simply stared at me and said, “Would you want to see your nation weep?” This was a question that I knew has a universal answer, No. At this moment, I realized that nations and cultures are more similar than we think. This is something that Ms. Grossoni understands. No matter what people’s impressions of Santa Croce, she is always able to find something to spark the interest of even the most skeptical visitor.
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.