Santa Croce began construction (possibly under the instruction of Anolfo di Cambio) on top of an earlier site in the 13th century alongside the arrival of Franciscan friars to Florence and became the biggest Franciscan church to exist. As is typical of Franciscan churches, it is ‘T’ shaped instead of being shaped like a cross. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the facade that stands now was finished. It is Neo-Gothic in style. It has flying buttresses and pointed windows/arches.
Inside it has only one floor, with arcades; instead of boasting a number of floors like you would find in other European Gothic churches. This is mainly because the Florentines were renowned for being earthbound and merchant. Florence was an affluent centre of trade and invented the Gold Florin that was used as international currency throughout the Renaissance years. Therefore, Gothic never quite broke through and while their Gothic buildings are beautiful and in some cases overwhelming, they do not intimidate or frighten you with a sense of the sublime in the way a Gothic church would elsewhere. However, the impressive structure of the church did in fact survive bombing in the Second World War.
Florence although clearly religious in the centuries throughout the Renaissance did not wholly succumb to the trend of Gothic churches. The Florentine bankers and numerous trades and guilds asserted their dominance and therefore the churches were influenced as so. All churches in Florence will have the emblem/crest of their contributor somewhere, and often quite obviously. The church Orsanmichelle particularly epitomises the importance of trade when it was rebuilt in 1344 to be used to store grain.
Santa Croce translates into ‘the Holy Cross’. The reason for this name is the illustration of the story ‘Legend of the True Cross’ situated in the ‘cappella maggiore ‘of the church. The frescoes were done by Agnolo Gaddi, the son of Taddeo and collaborator of Giotto. Running along the walls also once stood another fresco cycle of the life of Jesus.
The story tells of the Roman Emperor Constantine who had a dream where an angel held out a cross and said he would be victorious in battle under ‘this sign’. As the battle ensued, Constantine instructed his soldiers to use no weaponry, only the cross and march towards the opposition. As the angel had promised, Constantine won the battle with no bloodshed whatsoever and as consequence became the first baptised Roman Emperor in 312 ad.
The mother of Constantine, Helena, wanted to find the ‘true cross’ that Jesus was crucified on and therefore tortured a Jewish man who she believed knew where the cross was. The Jewish man supposedly took her to the three crosses that were used the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and in order to find out which one was the ‘true cross’, she put each one in front of an ill man. The cross that cured him was the ‘true cross’.
At the left hand side of the altar above (of which was a later addition by Vasari), an unveiled part of a fresco cycle can be seen (the Passion scene). Note how the altars also cover up some of the original windows.
There are a total of 16 chapels; chapels were often sold to rich families thus each chapel is decorated in their preferences and will no doubt have their family crest present and a number of tombs where family members have been buried.
Alongside the many notable pieces of artwork in the church are the crucifixes by Donatello and Cimabue. The wooden crucifix by Donatello dates back to the early 15th century, the exact date remains disputed among art historians although it is estimated to have been made somewhere in between 1412-1425. The pieces are movable, therefore during mass and prayers the passion scene can be acted out. Cimabue’s crucifix was finished during the 1280’s and suffered water damage in the 1966 flood.