Agnolo Gaddi’s Legend of the True Cross: Fully Restored and Back in Action

Main Chapel ph Sison
Photo: Arielle Sison

If you paid a visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce to see the famous fresco cycle of Agnolo Gaddi’s Legend of the True Cross in its main chapel between 2006 and 2013, you would have been sorely disappointed to see it covered with scaffolding that probably ruined your photos. However, this massive restoration project wasn’t all for naught! For the first time after a restoration of this scale, the scaffolding was left up for two years after its completion in order to allow visitors to see the frescoes up close and from the vantage point at which the artist would have had while he was painting them. An incredible experience to be sure, but now in 2014, the frescoes are fully restored, the scaffolding is gone, and the majesty of Gaddi’s 14th century masterpiece can be fully experienced.

Completed in the last 14th century, Gaddi’s Legend of the True Cross is based on the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, depicting the lives of various saints and the biblical origins of the Cross used to crucify Christ. A short summary of the legend is provided by the Web Gallery of Art:

Legend dictates that Adam, on his deathbed, sent his son Seth to Archangel Michael, who gave him some seeds from the tree of original sin to be placed in Adam’s mouth when he dies. The tree that grows on the patriarch’s grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood is used to make a bridge. The Queen of Sheeba, on her way to see Solomon, is about to cross the bridge when by a miracle she learns that the Saviour will be crucified on that wood and falls to her knees in devout adoration. When Solomon discovers the nature of the divine message received by the Queen of Sheeba, he orders that the bridge be removed and the wood, which will cause the end of the kingdom of the Jews, be buried. But the wood is found and, after a second premonitory message, becomes the instrument of the Passion.

The queen of Sheba

Agnolo Gaddi was the first to commit the narrative of the Golden Legend in visual form, thereby providing the inspiration for Piero della Francesca’s later work of the same name in the Basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo in the mid-15th century. While della Francesca’s fresco cycle has since become the more famous of the two, Gaddi’s Legend of the True Cross pre-dates della Francesca’s work by nearly 70 years and undoubtedly provided the basis for such a work of its subject, size, and scale.

Agnolo Gaddi is considered by many to be the last descendant of Giotto’s distinct style and his fresco cycle was the last to decorate the chapels of the Basilica di Santa Croce, fully realizing the completion of a distinct 14th century painting style and suggesting a movement towards a new “International Gothic” style. The expression of human emotion in the faces of Gaddi’s figures and the drama of their actions directly displays an adherence to Giotto’s school of painting, but Gaddi’s lighter and more colorful expression suggests a divergence in a new direction for Gaddi. Whereas Giotto concentrated on the figures themselves in his own work, Gaddi was more interested in the overall unity and composition of his frescoes, clearly showing signs of a new artistic transition at the end of the 14th century.

Now, Agnolo Gaddi’s masterpiece, Legend of the True Cross, is fully restored and back in action. The restoration, which took over five years, have exposed the smallest minute details previously unseen as well as reversed the work of the 1946 restoration, which had filled in the missing pieces of the fresco. Visitors to the Basilica di Santa Croce can now see the main chapel just as Gaddi had intended us to see it, even 600 years after it was painted.

Last scene with portraits

Visit to get an up-close and personal look at the entire restoration process, giving you a view of the fresco cycle which is no longer open to the public since the scaffolding has since been taken down. Experience The Legend of the True Cross through the eyes of the artist!


Blogger Arielle Sison is a Stanford University student who studied in Florence in the Spring of 2014. She is pursuing a major in European History with a double minor in Education and Classics and is passionate about Italy’s rich history and culture.


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