Built by Arnolfo, then fifty-four years of age, by order of the Friars of St. Francis, this venerable temple was raised upon the piazza called Santa Croce, where formerly stood a small church belonging to the order of the Franciscan monks. They had resolved to embellish and enlarge their church, and Cardinal Matteo D’Acquasparta, general of the Franciscan Order, proclaimed an indulgence to all contributors toward the under-taking. The church was far enough advanced in 1320 for services to be held in it, tho the facade was then, as until a very recent period it remained, a plain brick wall, without facing or any other ornament. Santa Croce was not singular in this respect, for San Lorenzo and many other Florentine churches have never been decorated externally.
In 1442 Cardinal Bessarion, the founder of St. Mark’s Library at Venice, was delegated to perform the ceremony of consecration. Donatello and Ghiberti, incomplete as was the facade, executed some statues and a stained-glass window for it, but it is only within the last few years that the city of Florence completed the work, leaving untouched the grand piazza which had been the scene of so many fetes and intestine quarrels, and upon which is now erected a statue to Dante. The facade of Santa Croce was completed in 1863. The expense was principally borne by Mr. Francis Sloane, an Englishman.
The interior is striking from its vast size, the church being built in the shape of a Latin cross, with nave, aisles, and transepts, each of the seven pointed arches being supported on the octagonal column. Opposite the front entrance is the high altar, while all around the walls and between the side altarserected in 1557 by Vasari by order of Cosimo I.are the monuments of the illustrious dead. First of all on the left there is Domenico Sestini, a celebrated numismatist, whose bust was carved by Pozzetti. While in the first chapel on the right is the tomb of Michael Angelo, who died at Rome on the 17th of February, 1564; the monument was designed by Vasari, the bust was executed by Battista Lorenzo. Two contemporary sculptors, Valerie Cioli and Giovanni Dell’Opera, did the allegories of Sculpture and Architecture, the frescoes around the monument being by Battista Naldini. A nobler tomb might well have been raised to the memory of Michael Angelo. The body was deposited in the church on the 12th of March, 1564, and lay in state, for the people of Florence to come and pay him the last tribute of respect.
The next tomb is only commemorative, for it does not contain the ashes of Dante, in whose honor it was erected in 1829 by Ricci, as a tardy homage on the part of Florence to one who suffered so much for her sake in life.
After Dante comes Victor Alfieri, whose name has been borne with distinction by his descendants. This monument was erected by Canova in 1807. Compared with the monuments of the fifteenth century and of the Renaissance, which are to be seen in such splendid profusion in Florence, these tombs seem so inferior that it is impossible not to wonder how the decadence was brought about. It is not at Florence alone that this feeling manifests itself; for at Venice, in the Splendid temple of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, be-side the tombs of doges and condottieri of the fifteenth century there stands that wretched monument upon which the great name of Titian has been traced. This is evidently the result of an inevitable law to which humanity is subject: Genius comes into the world, grows, spreads, and covers the earth with its shadow; then slowly the sap runs back from the verdant trunk, the tree yields less luscious fruit and flowers not so fair, until at last the branches wither and the tree dies.
Close beside Alfieri is buried Machiavelli, his tomb, like so many of the others, being of modern erection, and consequently less beautiful than if it had been the work of a sculptor who had studied in the school of Ghiberti or Donatello. By the side of Machiavelli rests Luigi Lanzi, a name less generally known, tho celebrated in his time as an historiographer of painting, or an art critic as we should now call him. His friend, Chevalier Ornofrio Boni, prepared the design for his tomb, which was executed at public cost, The pulpita fine specimen of fifteenth-century sculpture, carved by Benedetto da Maiano at the cost of Pietro Mellini, who presented it to the church is well worth close inspection; and close by, between the tombs of Lanzi and Leonardo Bruni, is a group in freestone, representing the Annunciation. This ‘was one of the first of Donatello’s works, and gave an earnest of his future genius.
The tomb of Leonardo Bruni Aretino is one of the five or six greatest works of this nature which ever left the sculptor’s hands; it has been used as a model by the sculptors of all the tombs in Santa Maria del Popolo at Rome. The monument to Leonardo Bruni is the highest expression of sculptural art, combining all the taste of ancient Greece with the grace, the power, the calm, the supreme harmony, and the perfection which genius alone confers, its tranquil and subdued beauty comparing favorably with the theatrical effect and garish splendor of the monuments in St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s at Rome. The superb mausoleums of Leopardi and of the Lombardi at Venice are, perhaps, equally beautiful; but I am inclined to give the preference to the work of Bernardo Rossellini. He became acquainted with Leonardo Bruni at the Papal Court, where he, as well as Leo Battista Alberti, was a director of the pontifical works. The Madonna let into the upper part of the monument is by Andrea Verocchio. .
In visiting Santa Croce it is impossible not to feel how erroneous are the views often held as to the exact place which will be allotted in the roll of history to the men of the day. Many of the names in this Pantheon are almost unknown, the tomb next to that of Galileo containing the dust of Mulazzi-Signorini, who has never been heard of out of Italy. Another unavoidable reflection is that the talent of the sculptor is rarely in proportion to that of the man whose memory he is about to perpetuate. Michiavelli was commemorated by two obscure sculptors’ like Foggini and Ticcati, and Michael Angelo by Battista Lorenzi. What has the world not lost by the refusal of Michael Angelo’s offer to erect a tomb to Dante when the city of Florence was about to ask Ravenna to restore his remains to her !
The convent annexed to Santa Croce was also built by Arnolfo. It was originally occupied by the Franciscan monks, and it was here that, from 1284 to 1782, the Inquisition held its sittings. The notorious Frenchman, Gaulthier de Brienne, Duke of Athens, who for a brief period ruled Florence as Captain of the People, selected this monastery as his residence in June, 1342, but having in September of the same year succeeded in getting himself elected ruler of Florence for life, he removed to the Palazzo Vecchio. His reign, however, was of only brief duration, for the year following he was expelled by the people.