Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Interior of the Basilica of Santa Croce

Contributor: Francesca Benatti

Location: Piazza Santa Croce, Florence

Description: The Basilica of Santa Croce is a late 13th-century Gothic church in Florence, probably designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Home to the Franciscan order in Florence, it contains significant artworks by, among others, Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Vasari. From the mid 15th century onwards, Santa Croce became the burial place of some of the most prominent literary, artistic and scientific figures from Tuscany and later, the rest of Italy. In the early nineteenth century, it boasted the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei and Vittorio Alfieri, the latter completed by Antonio Canova in 1810. These burials attracted the attention of Romantic authors across Europe, who variously interpreted them as metaphors of the state of Italy and for the nature of artistic fame.

The most significant Italian reflections on Santa Croce are contained in Ugo Foscolo’s poem Dei sepolcri [On Sepulchres] (1807). Foscolo (1778-1827) mentions in particular the absent Petrarch and Dante, the latter a model for Foscolo in his self-fashioning as an artist successively exiled for his political activism. For Foscolo, the urns of the “mighty dead” are first and foremost an inspiration to “lofty deeds” (“A egregie cose il forte animo accendono / L’urne de’ forti”, vv. 151-152). Santa Croce becomes for Foscolo the “temple” of “Italian glories”, a source of hope for the “great in spirit” and for the future of Italy (vv. 186-188). It was Foscolo’s poem, written in defiance of a Napoleonic prohibition of funeral monuments, that established Santa Croce as a defining locus in the nascent Italian national identity. Significantly, after dying in poverty in London in 1827, Foscolo too was eventually buried in Santa Croce, when the newly independent Italian state built him a prominent tomb in 1871.

Foscolo’s poem may also have served as a source for subsequent Romantic depictions of Santa Croce. Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) centred Book XVIII of her novel Corinne, or Italy (1807) around a visit to Santa Croce. The eponymous heroine, who has been unable for a while to compose poetry, is inspired by the presence of the famous dead and prays to be given back her talents, in the hope that genius and truth may be rewarded in heaven. “The silent presence of the great revived, for a moment, that emulation which once she felt for fame. She stepped more steadfastly, and the high thoughts of other days arose within her breast.” However, her melancholy conclusions focus on the silence of the dead and by extension, her own:

She cast her eyes to earth, and, on the stone where she had knelt, read this inscription:——
“Alone I rose, alone I sank, I am alone e’en here.”
“Ah!” cried Corinne, “that is mine answer. What should embolden me to toil? what pride can I ever feel? who would participate in my success, or interest himself in my defeats?

The passage is remarkable for glaring factual errors, such as the inclusion of a non-existent tomb of Boccaccio and the misidentification of the tomb of historian and politician Leonardo Bruni as the burial of satirist and erotic writer Pietro Aretino. Foscolo mercilessly castigated de Staël for these errors in his article “Narrative Poems of the Italians” in the Quarterly Review (vol. 21, 1819).

Byron discussed Santa Croce at length in stanzas 54-59 of Canto IV of Childe Harold (1818), stanzas which may well have been interpolated in response to de Staël’s recent death. Byron writes about “Santa Croce’s holy precincts” and the “Ashes which make it holier” (478-479) and lists correctly the burials of the “four minds, which, like the elements, / Might furnish forth creation” (487-488). He is also more explicitly political than de Staël in his appraisal of the role of Santa Croce within contemporary Italy, as both witness to its past greatness and mourner of its current “decay”:

[…]—Italy!
Time, which hath wronged thee with ten thousand rents
Of thine imperial garment, shall deny,
And hath denied, to every other sky,
Spirits which soar from ruin:—thy decay
Is still impregnate with divinity,
Which gilds it with revivifying ray (488-494)

Byron focuses four of the six stanzas on tombs that are not in Santa Croce: those of the three greatest Tuscan writers, Dante (buried in Ravenna), Petrarch (buried in Arquà) and Boccaccio (buried in Certaldo). Santa Croce thus inspires in Byron reflections on the painful relationship between art, politics, exile, and the possibility of enduring poetic fame, as “Florence vainly begs her banished dead, and weeps” (531).

The Irish novelist Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, also described Santa Croce in Volume 2 of her travel narrative Italy (1821), which was based on the journey she undertook with husband Charles Morgan in 1819-20. Like Foscolo and Byron, Owenson is alert to the political dimension of the Santa Croce tombs. She casts a polemical glance at the works of Alfieri, in her view still too rooted in his aristocratic perspectives (“Ready to dethrone a despot, he shrunk from emancipating a nation”, p. 13), but acknowledges his role in “the great events that will ultimately tend to Italy’s liberation”. But for the present genius must still struggle with powers, such as the Church and the Austrian overlords of Italy, that punish and restrain those who, like Galileo, attempt to improve “the condition of humanity, by extending the sphere of its knowledge” (p. 16).

These literary interpretations of Santa Croce increased its mystique and led to a flourishing trade as many of the wealthy, Italians and foreigners, paid to be buried in the church, their graves now forming the Gallery of Romantic Tombs. At a national level, Foscolo and Owenson’s predictions were to an extent realised, as an independent Italian state established itself during the nineteenth century. Santa Croce became the resting place of other “great Italians”, such as Gioacchino Rossini, in an attempt to create a secular pantheon, of which Foscolo himself was one of the chief saints. This nationalist reading of Santa Croce was continued with the construction of the memorial to the Florentine victims of the First World War in the basement of the church. It was taken to its extreme with the building of a “shrine to the supporters of Fascism” to coincide with Hitler’s visit in 1937, during which Foscolo’s tomb was also renovated. The thousands of tourists who now walk the nave of the basilica with selfie sticks are creating but the latest reinterpretations of this Romantic location, installing themselves, like Corinne and Childe Harold, as would-be monuments within its precincts.

Creator: Arnolfo di Cambio (attributed to) and others

Date: 1295-1939

Subject: Basilica of Santa Croce

Media rights: Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] via Wikimedia Commons. “Santa Croce, Firenze”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_croce,_int.,_navata,_veduta_alta_01.JPG. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Object type: building

References

Byron, George Gordon Byron. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Canto 4. John Murray, 1818.

Foscolo, Ugo. Dei sepolcri carme di Ugo Foscolo. Nicolo Bettoni, 1807.

Morgan, Lady (Sydney), and Sir Thomas Charles Morgan. Italy. Vol. 2, H. Colburn, 1821.

Staël, Germaine de. Corinne, Or Italy. Trans. Isabel Hill. Bentley, 1833.

 

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