A first introduction to the last eight hundred years of Florentine history may be had from that panoramic balcony over the city that is Piazzale Michelangelo: the huge dome of the cathedral and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio are the two landmarks in the cityscape around which the history of the Florentine community played out from the 13th century to our times. During the last quarter of the 13th, Florentia - the city-state that shortly after its birth invented internationally-recognised currency: the gold florin - was re-founded and reconstructed, beginning with the, by that time, insufficient perimeter represented by the original Roman castrum.The area circumscribed by the first circle of walls expanded by more than 8 kilometres (that is, the city's size went from 75 to 450 hectres9 and there was a boom in construction, with new houses, towers, places, streets, squares, bridges and churches.
Making the new urban geometry were the great churches of the new spiruality of the era: to the north, Santissima Annunziata dei Servi di Maria; to the south, Santo Spirito, the church if the Augustine monks, and the Carmelites'Santa Maria del Carminte; to the west, Santa Maria Novella, the church of the Dominicans; and to the east, Santa Croce of the Franciscan friars. These new buildings became the points of reference for the social functions ot the new civitas, promoting profound interchange and to some extent hybridising the lay and religious dimensions of the new centre. Understanding Florence starts here, in its homes and functional structures, the great "containers" of history and artistic works. One concrete example of this relationship between the city and its monuments is the monumental complex centring on the Basilica di Santa Croce.
The church mixes art, spirituall, and civil history in a dimension that mirrors -and summarises- the character of the city, of which it is at once offspring and expression. Santa Croce is one of the great examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, and the eolrd's largest Franciscan churchc. It was built by public subscription during the Florentine Republic on the site of a small church raised by the friars in 1251 outside the city walls. Design of the new church (founded in 1294) was entrusted to Arnolfo di Cambio, the premiere architect of the ime. With its soaring Gothic architecture, its cycle of frescoes, its altarpieces, its precious stained-glass windows, and its numerous sculptures, the Basilica binds together some of the most substantive pages in the history of Florentine art since 1200. It is home to works by Cimabue, Giotto, Maso di Banco, Giovanni da Milano, , Brunelleschi, Michelozzo, Donatello, Domenico Veneziano, the Della Robbias, Beneddetto da Maiano, Giuliano da San Gallo, Bronzino, Vasari, Canova, and others. Giotto and his school, in particular, make it an extraordinarily complete compendium of 14th century art. In the seven centuries since it was consecrated, the church has been redesigned and renovated many times, at each turn acquiring new symbolic values: from a Franciscan church to a religious edifice with civil functions for the great families and the guilds of the Florence of the Medici; from laboratory and artistic workshop to theological centre; from a pantheon of Italian glories to a point of reference, in the 19th century, for the political history of the new Italian nation.
Santa Croce nurtures the roots of that culture and those values in which, when the Italian territory was unified, generations of Italians were shaped, trainde, and educated. Defined by Foscolo as the "tempio delle itale glorie", Santa Croce houses the tombs of many great personalities including Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, Foscolo, Machiavelli and Alfieri. For all these reasons, any "reading" of Santa Croce is an experience of travel through space and time: a journey on which, aswe are propelled by nearly a millennium of chronicles and history, great works and great individuals are our ports of call.
The ancient refectory or the Convento di Santa Croce, dating to the first half of the 1300s, is a large rectangular room with a ceiling illuminated by two windows, ornamented with black and white painted strips. THe back wall is occupied by Taddeo Gaddi's 14th century fresco of the Last Supper, surmounted by the Crucifixion. ON the side walls, The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis and three sacred stories on the theme of food, as is only proper for a room designed for dining. Used in the 1800s as a storehouse and becoming a museum on 2 November 1900, the refectory is now the heart of a much larger museum that numbers among its many masterpieces the gigantic Crucifix by Cimabue and fragments of the Triumph of Death and Hell by Andrea Orcagna.
Piazza Santa Croce
open: MOnday to Saturday 9.30-17.30; SUnday and holidays, 6 January, 15 August, 1 November, 8 December 13.00-17.30
closed 1 Jannuary, Easter Sunday, 13 June, 4 October, 25 December, 26 December