Arnolfo di Cambio (attributed to)
Santa Croce – pictured in November 1966
Pietra forte (local limestone)
In and around the Basilica of Santa Croce, one can find some of best representations of Florentine and Italian culture. The church itself, while Gothic in structure, with its wooden truss ceiling, is simpler and more appropriately Franciscan than typical Gothic architecture. The design is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, the designer of the Duomo. Like many churches in Florence, Santa Croce is filled with great works of art, including Donatello’s Annunciation, Giotto’s cycle of St. Francis, and Cimabue’s Crucifix. Vasari, considered by some to be the father of art history, called Cimabue the “first page” of Italian art. Vasari’s own Last Supper as well as his funerary monument to Michelangelo were also to be found in Santa Croce. (Hartt, 66-67)
The church also contains the tombs and funerary monuments to some of Florence’s and Italy’s heroes. Those buried in the church include Michelangelo, Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli as well as Vittorio Alfieri and Gioacchino Rossini, intellectuals who had called for the unification of Italy. Monuments include those to Dante, Guglielmo Marconi, and Enrico Fermi.
In the sixties, the neighborhood of Santa Croce was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Florence. And it would be one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the flood. The monks of Santa Croce retreated to the upper story of the cloister as the ground floor was completed submerged, the water spilling into the famous tombs and crypts. The prisoners of the Murate–the former convent turned jail–were set loose to fend for themselves. Many swam away or clung to debris. Many residents were trapped on the second and third floors of their buildings. Some watched the manuscripts from the cloister and the books from the Biblioteca Nazionale float by. (Clark, 142-3)The next day the floor of the Basilica of Santa Croce was a sea of mud as was the piazza outside with cars piled on top of one another. One thousand houses in the neighborhood would be been condemned.
Within and around the walls of Santa Croce one could find some of the best emblems of Florentine and Italian society, dating from the middle ages to the twentieth century. The conflict between the proletariat in Santa Croce and the capitalists and Christian Democrats they felt had failed them was in spirit of its own time, but as typically Italian as ever. The people in Santa Croce were poor before the deluge and now many were homeless and the threat of starvation loomed. The Communists at the Casa del Popolo in the neighborhood called themselves to action and quickly opened their de facto relief center with food tables, clothing, and an infirmary. They tried clear the streets of the mud and mire with what little tools they had. The neighborhood of Santa Croce, the most deeply flooded, was not receiving enough help and it was the Casa’s belief that the the Christian Democrats and the capitalists had ignored Santa Croce. On the afternoon of November 8th, they marched all the way to the Palazzo Vecchio, assuring that they were “united not by ideology, but by common misfortune” they demanded to talk to the mayor. They demanded of him supplies and official recognition of the Casa. When the mayor sent his deputy to inspect the neighborhood where he was seized by a group of women and marched down the Borgo Allegri to fully take in the damage and misery, to rendersi conto. That day shovels arrived from the Casa’s counterpart in Perugia. (Clark, 184-6)
Santa Croce in good weather, 2011
Photo by Clare O’Dowd
• Clark, R. (2008). Dark water: art, disaster, and redemption in Florence. New York: Anchor Books.
• Hartt, F, & Wilkins, D.G. (2009). History of Italian Renaissance art: painting, sculpture, architecture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.