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.'