La Basilica di Santa Croce (The Basilica of the Holy Cross) is one of the landmarks of Florence (Firenze), and the world’s largest Franciscan church. It contains 16 chapels (many resplendent with frescoes by the famous Giotto and his pupils), and many tombs and cenotaphs of famous Florentines, such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Enrico Fermi, Guglielmo Marconi, and my love Dante.
Construction began 12 May 1294, to replace an older church, and was financed by some of the wealthiest Florentine families. Arnolfo di Cambio may have been the starting architect. Construction was completed in 1385. Pope Eugene IV consecrated it in 1442. Prior to the completion and consecration, this piece of land was a marsh outside the city walls.
Over the years, the basilica was modified many times. The bell tower was rebuilt in 1842 after a lightning strike; the interior was rebuilt in 1560 upon the removal of the choir screen; a neo-Gothic façade was built from 1857–63; and several decades of repairs followed the disastrous 1966 Arno River flood. There’s a Magen David on the façade because architect Niccolò Matas was Jewish. Unfortunately, due to religious prejudices of the time, Matas was buried under the porch and not with his peers inside.
Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce is mostly located in the refectory. In the cloister is a statue of Florence Nightingale, who was born in and named after Florence. The Franciscan friars’ former dorm today houses the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School), and visitors get to watch while artisans make all sorts of leather goods. These goods are sold in an adjacent shop.
Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Wknight94
Detail of Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Giovanni Dall’Orto
The back of the basilica houses old orchards and gardens. Its trees include Himalayan and Atlas cedars, and hackberry trees. It’s a giant super-complex, with many smaller structures within, not just an ordinary church.
Sacristy of Rinuccini Chapel, Copyright Sailko
Sacristy wall, Copyright Sailko
On the left side of the basilica piazza is a statue of my love Dante, erected in 1865 to mark the 600th anniversary of his birth. King Vittorio Emanuele II was there when it was inaugurated. Originally, it was in the centre of the piazza, but it was moved in 1968 to allow for the city’s historic costumed soccer games. The statue also contains the Florentine coat of arms and Marzocco lions, which symbolise the people’s power.
Copyright Lorenzo Testa
My character Caterina attempts to hide behind Dante’s empty tomb in November 1943. Since the Italians refused to hand over their Jewish community or discriminate against them, the Germans stepped in and did it for them after Italy joined the Allies in September 1943. Caterina had several offers of help, but she wanted to hide where she always felt safe and peaceful.
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Pulpit, Copyright Geobia
Caterina was caught, and tried climbing further up the tomb, her arms locked around Dante’s neck in a death grip. A priest came to see what all the commotion was and begged the Nazis to respect the rule of sanctuary, but it wasn’t to be. Caterina had to be pried off of the tomb by three Nazis.
Dante’s empty tomb, Copyright Sailko
The day Caterina and her friends leave Florence for Paris in December 1945, they visit the Basilica, with Dante’s empty tomb their final stop. The figure on the left represents Italy, and the figure on the right represents Poetry. The inscriptions on the sides were added in 1965, on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.
Caterina feels a special relationship to Dante because she was born on his 600th death anniversary (called a nachala instead of a Jahrzeit in the Sephardic world), the very end of 13 September 1921.
Back view, Copyright Sailko
Dante’s tomb was built in 1829, though Ravenna has consistently refused to give back his bones over all these centuries. The inscription, Onorate l’altissimo poeta (Honor the most exalted poet), is hauntingly missing the next line, L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite (His spirit, which had left us, returns). I believe Dante’s spirit rests with this tomb, even though his bones are in Ravenna.
Dante watching over the basilica, Copyright Bruno Barral