Spring and my thoughts turn to Florence, Italy, my favorite city. I’ll cover a few of my treasured memories of Florence in the next few posts.
Let’s start with Santa Croce (Holy Cross).
This is a church and compound dedicated to St. Francis. Some say, St. Francis of Assisi actually started construction on the original church on the site. This iteration was probably started in 1220-ish. By 1252, it was completed. Franciscan Monks still live at Santa Croce. The robes (and I think I recall, the sandals) of St. Francis are on view in an ornate reliquary in the sacristy, a room off the main sanctuary.
The Cimabue Crucifix
For me, one of the most powerful pieces of art of all time is the Cimabue cross. I believe it was created for the Pazzi Chapel. The Cimabue piece is a knee-buckling crucifix—my expression for art that brings you to your knees. I am not Catholic, yet there is something so somber, so evocative of this piece that it pulls me to my faith.
In a future post, I’ll discuss the Pazzi family in greater detail. They plotted against the Medici and now the word in Italian for “insane” is: Pazzi. Note to self: don’t cross the Medici.
The Cimabue cross suffered tremendous damage in the flood of Florence in 1966. It was out of the church for years. It has had much attention and repair. It is not restored as the damage from the flood is still evident, but it remains immensely powerful. It is a piece that Graham T. Mason and I have always planned to reproduce—perhaps in full size—to hang in some future home of his or mine. This piece was a turning point for me opening my eyes to the beauty and power of the pre-Renaissance, Byzantine style using the iconic stylized, “scripted” qualities to convey a message universally understood by Christians of the era.
After seeing the Cimabue cross, I expanded my study of Italian art. It had been primarily Florentine, from the 1400s forward. Now my interest includes the art back to the early Roman days. I can understand if you don’t “get it.” I didn’t until I stood in front of the Cimabue crucifix.
Notables Entombed at Santa Croce
Some of the most famous people in the world are buried in the sanctuary of this church. Michelangelo, who died in 1564, is buried here in a magnificent tomb. Allegorical figures representing great artistic endeavors—sculpture, painting, and architecture—surround the site. Giorgio Vasari, the historian and fellow artist of the era, created the tomb. Vasari’s life itself is fascinating. A contractor to the Medici’s, it is astonishing his head didn’t roll by the hand of the most powerful family in Italy. But, I digress…
Others buried in the sanctuary include Galileo Galilee, Niccolò Machiavelli, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Gioacchino Rossini. Dante is honored there, although I think his remains are elsewhere. Florence Nightingale, named for the city of Florence, is also honored there.
The Giotto Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel
One of the most well-known aspects of Santa Croce is the Bardi Chapel. Glorious expressive frescoes in the chapel are by Giotto di Bondone. This is the artist generally known as Giotto. Unusual for the era, Giotto instilled much emotion in the figures in his work, particularly through the eyes. The eyes of his subjects seem to carry the weight of the drama and storyline in the scene. In the fresco by Giotto of the death and ascension of St. Francis, his fellow friars are distraught and bent over with grief at the suffering of Francis. The scene is compelling and alive with angst
The one-dimensional aspects of the work (the faux patterning on the wall) are realistic, accurate representations of marble or painted plaster on a wall. Three-dimensional aspects still present a challenge at this point in the advancement of Western art, circa 1325. Perspective and conveying a sense of “mass” have not been conquered yet. For example, in addition to the problems with everything seeming to be in the foreground, there are no shadows yet under any people, objects, or buildings. People appear pasted one on top of another. There is a realistic suggestion of color changes as fabric folds around their bodies, but there is neither roundness nor space suggested between the people.
Pondering Halos. Do they move like plates on a plane or hats on a head?
Another notable observation is in the halo of St. Francis. It is a fascination to me to follow the development of the depiction of halos through the history of art. In this era, we see the articulated gold halo with a geometric pattern (radiating lines) sitting it seems on the plane of the painting. If the subject were to move his head, the halo would remain in the same position and the head would move through the halo.
It is sort of like that “invisible plane” at the end zone of a football field, or the plane of the surface of water–no matter your body position as you crash through the “plane,” the plane stays in the same place. Halos painted later began to be fixed on the head and moved as the head moved.
Yet, presumably we rarely see halos, so I’m not sure if the greater sophistication in painting halos truly represents how halos work. The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane. They stay attached to the head.
(FYI — let me insert here that whether you believe halos exist or not, there still needs to be a way to depict them in art. To tell the stories, we need a way to convey the image of a unicorn, or the super powers of a hero, or the change that happens to a werewolf.)
The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane.
But I am quite curious if a halo is like a hat or has a completely different spiritual complexity. I would think it may have a unique underlying principle to guide its movement and maybe it “breathes” or is more like a sphere (a balloon) encompassing a head. Or radiates in the way a street light shines with soft edges in a foggy night.
These types of decisions, such as how to convey the concept of a halo, are choices artists make. The leading contender of the day is followed and emulated. Thus the creation of “icons” to signify an underlying concept. We accept a ripping green shirt as Marvel Comic’s Incredible Hulk. In the same way, watching the changing iterations of halos is a way to understand what the culture is awarding at that time in terms of style and interpretation of a spiritual concept.
Byzantine and Moorish Influences
Other patterns in the frescoes in various other chapels at Santa Croce, illustrate the Byzantine and Moorish influence of African-based patterning (geometric circles and repeating small patterns). These seem to carry a more traditional style, not appearing as the breakthrough new style Giotto was incorporating at this time into his own work. Perhaps they are included to bridge the visual gap from the traditional to the new. Perhaps it was an easy way to separate the elements in the stories. Or probably it was simply how frescoes and similar murals were “supposed” to be painted.
The Piazza at Santa Croce
The large piazza in front of Santa Croce is also well known. Historically it was the scene of many jousting matches.
Currently the Florentines hold other games and activities in the piazza, including a celebration of flags each year. During the day, many eat lunch, stroll around, sketch, have a coffee or snap selfies.
I lived near Santa Croce when in Florence and found it had a powerful draw for me. I visited on many, many occasions.
There is so much more to this church and lively community in Florence. My choices highlighted here represent a small collection of the objects I am most drawn to. That’s why I visited it over and over, and I always return whenever in Florence.
Do you have favorite memories or images of Santa Croce to share?
For more reading on Italian art, see my post on the Fibonacci series of numbers and Vitruvian Man, Fibonacci intersecting nature and art.