Sometimes our trains of thought can take us in unexpected directions. Recently, I was contemplating what I would do at Christmas, now only a few weeks away. From there, with my gift list already made out in my head, I began thinking about the traditional symbols surrounding the birth of Christ. This brought me to focus on the star of Bethlehem, said to have guided the three wise men to the manger where Jesus was born. My mind then wandered off to think about stars in Florence and, naturally, I began wondering about the beautiful star adorning the façade of the Basilica of Santa Croce. That question, unexpectedly, led me to Francis Joseph Sloane, a little-known Englishman to whom this city is deeply indebted.
Construction of the Basilica of Santa Croce, designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio and built in Gothic style, began in 1294. The work was completed in 1385 and the church was consecrated in 1443. Its original rough stone exterior, much like that of the church of San Lorenzo as we still see it today, remained unchanged for four centuries. Although there were attempts over time to embellish it, it was not until 1857 that architect Niccolò Matas (1798-1872) was given the job of creating its current neo-Gothic façade of traditional white, green and pink Carrara marble.
A graduate of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, Matas came to Florence in 1825. Teaching at the Accademia di Belle Arti here, he also worked on important architectural commissions, including Villa San Donato for the Demidoff family; the Porte Sante cemetery; and, also for the Demidoffs, the Napoleonic Museum at Villa San Martino, which was Napoleon's summer residence on Elba. Conjecture has it that Matas, being Jewish, placed the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, at the pinnacle of the tympanum of Santa Croce in tacit recognition of his religion. This is, however, far from certain, as the ancient six-pointed star has been used in many religions through the ages, Christianity included.
What is certain is that it was not the Florentines but Francis Joseph Sloane who paid for the Basilica's exterior. As it quickly became clear that the money needed to complete the façade could not be raised from amongst the citizenry, Sloane made an initial contribution of 20,000 scudi to begin work on it. He gradually added a series of loans to this sum, which, when, on August 21, 1857, Pope Pius IX laid the foundation stone, in the presence of Grand Duke Leopold II and family, he converted into a gift. According to the figures set out in Gianluca Salvatori's book Spall: Vita e virtù di Francis Joseph Sloane (2008), by the time the façade was completed in 1863, he had contributed the staggering amount of 400,000 scudi out of the total 580,000 scudi it eventually cost.
But the new façade was by no means universally popular with locals or visitors. In fact, as late as 1907, Edward Hutton, a founder of the British Institute in Florence, called it ‘a pretentious work of modern Italy, which lends to what was of old the gayest piazza in the city, the very aspect of a cemetery.'
Born possibly in Rome or Civitavecchia in 1794, Francis Joseph Sloane was the son of an expatriate Scottish banker and art collector. On completion of his education in England, he was employed as assistant librarian and tutor to the children of the rich and influential Russian count and bibliophile, Dmitrij Petrovic Boutourline (1763-1829), who had moved his family from Saint Petersburg to Florence in 1817.
The Boutourline family introduced Sloane to the upper echelons of power in Florence. So much so that, in 1837, following a visit by the grand duke to his copper mines in Montecatini Val di Cecina, where he was unhappy with what he saw, he turned their management over to Sloane, knowing of the Englishman's passion for geology. Under Sloane's guidance, the mines became the biggest and richest in Europe. As they prospered, so did he.
Sloane used much of his fabulous wealth to buy and lavishly restore such villas and gardens in and around Florence as Villa de' Medici at Careggi, the Torre di Monterivecchio and Villa Lepricine. A fervent Christian, he also donated large sums to charity.
When Sloane died from a stroke at his Careggi villa on October 23, 1871, he left his Irish widow a generous income but, because the couple was childless, the bulk of his huge estate went to Augusto Boutourline, one of count Dmitrij's grandsons. As Augusto was still a minor, the running of the mines passed into his father's incapable hands in 1873. Thanks to his mismanagement, they had to be sold after the elder Boutourline's death in 1879. (The mines closed in 1907, a result of a crisis in the copper market and use of outdated machinery).
So, next time you walk by the Basilica of Santa Croce, look up at its façade and whisper a ‘thank you' to Francis Joseph Sloane. He deserves it.
Mine Museum of Montecatini
Piazza Garibaldi 1
Montecatini Val di Cecina (Pisa)
The Mine Museum of Montecatini is dedicated to the mining history of Montecatini Val di Cecina. Thanks to Sloane, from the mid 1800s, work at these mines was regulated, assistance was given to widows and orphans, the miners' children were educated and a sickness benefit fund and a female school were instituted.
Natural History Museum
La Specola Zoology Section
Via Romana, 17, Florence
Today, Augusto Boutourline is best remembered for financing and joining the 1884-1887 expedition of Italian explorer Leopoldo Traversi to Ethiopia. Species of non-human primates were named in his honour, specimens of which can be seen at La Specola section of the Natural History Museum in Florence.