Florence is a city of endless delight for those with an eye for Renaissance art. It was home to Michelangelo, Donatello, Vasari, Brunelleschi, and Giotto, and they left impressions within Florence’s walls to be appreciated by art buffs across the world. However, for Earth’s other six billion inhabitants, it can all be an exercise in patience for anyone volunteering abroad in Florence.
You wait two hours to see Michelangelo’s David, only to find it identical to the postcard. You age another year in the Uffizi museum line, only to lose your way in the maze of priceless but identical works of art. You wander around Piazza della Signoria while your group snaps frantic pictures of Cellini’s Perseo, trying not to think about the half dozen people he probably murdered with the pope’s pardon. Then your guide mentions in passing a certain archbishop that was hanged from the top of Palazzo Vecchio, and you wonder, Would it be so bad?
Luckily, a five minute stroll past Palazzo Vecchio will bring you to a site in which art is secondary. The Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world, supposedly founded by St. Francis himself in the 13th century. It stands across an enormous, open piazza, which can be a jarring but pleasant transition from the Marianna Trench-like streets of Florence.
Like many Catholic churches in Europe, the first thing you notice is Santa Croce’s brilliant white façade. This wasn’t added until 1863, while Americans were lobbing cannonballs across the Mason-Dixon Line. Unlike other Catholic churches, Santa Croce is crowned with a giant blue Star of David, placed there by the Jewish architect who built the façade. Being Jewish, the Church wouldn’t allow the architect to be buried inside, but, as a kind concession, they put him in Santa Croce’s porch, right in front of the main doors.
There is a gargantuan statue of Dante Alighieri on the church’s steps, visible from well across the piazza. His Divine Comedy was one of the first works of literature written in the Italian vernacular instead of Latin, so he is often called the father of the Italian language. Florentines are proud to call Dante a native—and even prouder to call their dialect “pure, original” Italian. Had Dante been buried in Santa Croce, his statue would be more awe-inspiring. However, Dante was cast out of Florence in a 13th century civil war, so he is actually buried in Ravenna, a city on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Eight hundred years later, Florence is still lobbying for his bones.
It is best to search for a volunteer placement in Florence in the winter months, when tourism is lighter. Then you can approach Santa Croce’s white marble steps without difficulty. However, with the advent of April, crossing Piazza di Santa Croce is a religious experience in itself. The piazza’s gray cobblestones disappear beneath wandering congregations of Japanese and Koreans, who tend to amass in the Santa Croce area to shop. Many of Florence’s best leather shops are nearby, including Scuola del Cuoio, Florence’s famous school of leather.
In a way, plowing through the masses adds to the Santa Croce experience; there is nothing like a test of character to crack open a few spiritual doors.
Santa Croce’s interior is an enormous, cavernous space, held up by sequoia-like marble columns. Tombs of varying and incredible detail line the walls and floors, and they only multiply as you walk toward the altar. These tombs are very much the heart of Santa Croce, because the bones they contain are far from ordinary.
One of the first tombs to catch your eye is a fiery red canopy draped over a sepulcher. This belongs to Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of Florence’s loudest and proudest. Across from him is the tomb of Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science who, after dying in exile for heresy against the Church, was denied burial in Santa Croce for 200 years. Niccolo Machiavelli, another Florentine and the so-called father of political science for his book, The Prince, is not far from him. Their neighbors are writers, politicians, aristocrats, musicians, and general big-wigs of similar stature.
The presence of these great people from history is tangible in the Santa Croce air. A 19th century French rationalist named Stendhal described a fit of dizzy spells at the overwhelming awe the basilica instills. He was not alone, and since his visit, reactions like his have been dubbed Stendhal Syndrome. It even has its own scientific name: hyperkulturemia, which literally means “too much culture in the blood.” Santa Croce does have five conjoining chapels dripping with the masterwork of Giotto and Vasari, but they serve purely supportive roles, meant to bastion the church’s existing sublimity.
Florence is a truly beautiful city with enough artistic fodder to keep buffs salivating for eternity.
But when you feel yourself drowning in the art flood, Santa Croce is only a short walk away. In a city designed for the eyes, the basilica’s gravity offers a rare and refreshing touch of soul.