Santa Croce and Piazza

We now walk for the Piazza Santa Croce that is home to the church of the same name. This basilisk is devoted to the Holy Cross and was constructed around 1295 by the Franciscan Order. There were two important Mendicant orders, namely the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Mendicant orders moved towards the cities where they procured affordable plots on the edge of the city to found their churches.

Santa Croce       Piazza Santa Croce
Santa Croce on the outskirts of the city

photos: Jason M Kelly

The two most important churches in Florence are the Santa Croce of the Franciscans and the Santa Maria Novella of the Dominicans. What’s novel and remarkable about the Mendicant orders that arose in the thirteenth century is that the monks did not retreat behind their monastery walls, but preached for the common folk and lived off charity. Humility and frugality was their motto.


One year after construction of the Duomo and the Palazzo della Signoria, the slums of Santa Croce saw the start of the construction of a simple, yet sizeable basilisk: the Santa Croce. There is no consensus on who the architect was, but we know he likely came from Siena.

photo: Benjamín Núñez González

Saint Francis

The church was given an approximation of the dimensions of the old St. Peters in Rome. Francis, the founder of the Mendicant order, left Bologna right when a stone house was constructed instead of a wooden one. The basilisk is fairly simple if you leave out the burial tombs and ornaments that were added later. For instance, an open timber roof truss crowns the nave, which is considerably cheaper than the crossed-ribbed vaults in the Santa Maria Novella, the basilisk of the other Mendicant order.

Before you enter the church, you can tell by the facade that this church was named after the Holy Cross. Above the entrance it reads: ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ or ‘in this sign shallt thou conquer.’

Santa Croce          Zoom in

photos: Benjamín Núñez González and zoom: Karim Rezk

Constantine saw this text around a cross at the firmament right before he battled his Roman rival Maxentius. Constantine offered the Christians in the Roman Empire freedom of religion. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is depicted in the recess above the left door. Helena discovered the holy cross. Constantine can be seen to the right above the entrance. In the middle, above the door, the faithful is reminded that when the End Times are upon him, he or she shall be judged during the Apocalypse: his soul scrutinised by Gabriel. The top of the facade, naturally, has a crucifix.

The marble facade, like the one in the Duomo,is from the nineteenth century. The neogothic design does trace back to a seventeenth century design. And that design, in turn, is based on the work of Arnolfo di Cambio.

Portal       Zoom out

As we enter the church, we can see how wide and high the gothic arcades really are. The inside of the clerestory has two windows per bay, allowing for a lot of natural light. The pink and yellow masonry gives the incoming light a pinkish hue. Straight across from the entrance, the church ends with a square chevet.

photos: Jebulan and zoom: Rufus46

Santa Croce        Zoom in       Wooden roof framework

photos: Sailko; Kotomi_ ; zoom: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta; framework: Diego Delso
photos: Rabe!; Diego Delso altar: Sailko

Main altar     Cross     Altarpiece

Like the old St. Peters, the layout is T-shaped. Aside from the square apse with the main altar, there are five chapels on either side. We will look at some of these chapels on the day of painting, including the Cappella Peruzzi with frescos by Giotto. The current church certainly doesn’t look too shabby. The main reason is that the church looks like one big cenotaph. Many important people lie buried here, including Michelangelo Buonarroti to the right of the entrance (for Michelangelo’s grave, click here).

Construction of the church was not just financed by sums paid for the graves, but also included revenues from public tasks entrusted to the Franciscans. These included:

  • The inquisition (ecclesiastic court that tracked down heretics and executed them). The possessions of heretics, often Ghibelines, were divided as follows: one third was spent on constructing the large city walls, and the rest funded the Santa Maria Novella and the Santa Croce. Much to the anger of thedominicans, they were not the ones appointed to track down and eliminate the heretics.
  • Drawing up electoral lists and safeguarding ballots in bags, the so-called ‘borse’.

The Piazza Santa Croce or the Piazza degli Spettaccoli

 Giovanni Signorini ‘Carnival at Piazza Santa Croce’ 1846
Giuseppe Zocchi ‘Church and Piazza Santa Croce’      The Morgan Library&Museum

Wikipedia: Piazza Santa Croce

The famous Cappella Pazzi and the refectory (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce) in the courtyard to the right of the church will be covered later.

Giovanni Stradano (Jan Van der Straet) ‘Horse joust in Piazza Santa Croce’

Google Art Project
photo: Chabe01

Statue of Dante

The squares in front of the churches played an important role as you can still see today. They are still important meeting spots where people gather, chat, play and make music. Dante’s statue (Wikipedia) even had to make way for football-playing youths, and was placed back on a raised area to the left, in front of the Santa Croce. The church, though it was anything but small, could not house all the people who attended the popular speeches. This is what gave the square its nickname: la Piazza degli Spettaccoli. It was home to jousting games and speeches.

Another important game was the so-called giuoco del calcio fiorentino (Wikipedia).

The Calcio Storico, a yearly event held in June-July, hosts a traditional football tournament that is held between four neighbourhoods on the Piazza Santa Croce. All this while wearing historical outfits. The grand prize? A live cow. This event has been hosted since the 16th century. It is not regular football as we know it, but a local variant, the “calcio storico”, a mix of football, rugby and wrestling. To the left of the entrance of Palazzo dell’Antella with number 20 is a marble disc that reads 10 February 1565, which denoted the midline of the playing field. That is the date of the first game. Translated from: Henk Woudsma ‘Het onbekende Florence’

Jacopo Bellini ‘St. Bernardino of Siena’ 1450-1455 private collection

Naturally, the monks of the Mendicant orders preached in the worlds of the simple believer. The lectures by one Franciscan travelling monk are particularly famous: Bernardino of Siena (Wikipedia: preaching style). Whenever he preached, the square would fill up. This monk would always start his popular preaches with Italy is the wisest land in Europe, Tuscany is the wisest region in Italy and Florence is the wisest city in Tuscany … [but] where noble deeds go hand in hand with evil, you will see the most nefarious people.’ Eva Borsook
Huge crowds gathered to hear him speak. Rumour has it that opposing parties within the church reconciled because of him and miracles occurred during his preaching. Bonfires of the vanities were lit during his preaching, stimulating gathered folk to burn all objects of desire and temptation. During one stay in Siena in 1425, he preaches every day, for seven weeks. His dedication was such that for one lecture he sometimes prepared up to four different versions. Source Wikipedia

Fra Bartolomeo ‘Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola’

The sermon of Bernardino would then turn very fiery, reminding the believer in a powerful and visual way how earthly existence was so very fleeting. Woe was he who lived wrong or sinfully. The burning of books by the Nazi’s in Berlin anno 1333 (Mahnmal zur Bücherverbrennung auf dem Bebelplatz Berlin) was not the first book burning. Back in the fifteenth century, this also happened in Florence, at the Piazza degli Spettaccoli. It was done on the advice of Bernardino, but mostly the later religious ruler Savonarola, that pyres were erected on the square. “The influence and authority of Savonarola was so large that no one dared to protest. Laughter in the streets, jewelry and fancy dresses were forbidden. Servants of the regime not only confiscated luxury items, but also playing cards, dice and anything that could serve as an object of earthly desires. To set an example, these objects were then burned at the so-called “bonfires of the vanities.” Source

Sandro Botticelli ‘Self-portrait’
detail from: Adoration of the Magi 1475

Pyres not just for burning books, but other sinful things like mirrors, wigs and cosmetics. Even Botticelli threw several of his paintings with classic mythological themes in the fire. Afterwards he would only paint Christian themes. Up to 1580, the pyres on the square would still burn worldly baubles and trinkets. Eventually, religious terror came to an end and Savonarola himself was burned at the stake.
Filippo Dolciatia ‘The hanging and burning of Savonarola in 1498’ Museo di San Marco
Artist unknown ‘The hanging and burning of  Savonarola in 1498’ Museo di San Marco

The Santa Croce district traditionally has a bad reputation, and not just for its poverty. For instance, Boccaccio writes in his Decamerone about the ‘grey robes’, the franciscans, who regularly visited women of ill repute. Of course, the magistrates intervened. They had bricks constructed in the road with a clear warning against the dangers of visiting ladies who accepted money for love. The Via de’Macci still bears the nickname: Malborghetto, or, the street of lewdness.

Continuation Florence day 1: Pazzi chapel in the cloister of Santa Croce