In their footsteps, through their eyes

Past Americans reflect on the Church of Santa Croce

Paola Vojnovic
February 27, 2014

How many people have set foot in the church of Santa Croce in Florence in the 700 years of its existence? We can realistically estimate that the number is close to at least several million. For most of these visitors, we will never know what memories remained with them following their visit to the ‘Westminster Abbey of Florence,’ Santa Croce’s evocative nickname during the era of the Grand Tour.


But not all visitors have gone unnoticed. Some took pen to hand and recorded their impressions, moods and feelings, often right on the spot while sitting in the magnificent nave of the church or enveloped in the peace of one of its three cloisters.


A new booklet in the Santa Croce bookshop, American Reflections, is as much a guide to the past as it is a guide to the church, for through their own words it captures the impressions of some of the church’s most famous American visitors who found inspiration there. They recorded fleeting moments of their visit, such as the light flooding through the stained glass windows, the freezing cold on a winter day, or their sense of awe as they stood over the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Alfieri.


The idea for American Reflections was born when U.S. Consul General Sarah C. Morrison first visited the church in 2011. Upon viewing Pio Fedi’s statue, the Liberty of Poetry, she was immediately reminded of home. In her introduction to the guidebook, Morrison writes, ‘Here was yet another example that serves as a testament to the deep ties between the United States and Italy that have existed for over 500 years. These ties are very special to me and the country I represent, and the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom not just for the U.S., but to people all over the world. That Lady Liberty’s likeness may have been inspired by an Italian sculpture, ultimately created by a French artist, and then given as a gift from France to the U.S., feels a bit like looking in a mirror within another mirror, ad infinitum… Thus the booklet’s apt title: American Reflections, of which the Church of Santa Croce is a veritable treasure trove.’


Curiously, most nineteenth-century visitors did not comment on the Liberty of Poetry. Rather, their attention wandered from the unfinished façade, which George Stillman Hillard described as ‘a mere mountain of brick with as little pretension to beauty … as the gable of a barn’; to the interior, on which Bernard Berenson mused, ‘To the eye expecting the magic of Amiens or Westminster, a church like Santa Croce can seem little else than a barn. But as an effect of space and harmony produced by the simplest conceivable means, Santa Croce has few rivals.’


Other visitors looked at past aesthetics and experienced, instead, a deeper connection to humanity. Upon his first visit to Santa Croce in 1835, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson composed this stirring description: ‘When I walk up the piazza of Santa Croce I feel as if it were not a Florentine nor an European church but a church built by and for the human race. I feel equally at home within its walls as the Grand duke, so hospitably sound to me the names of its mighty dead. Buonarroti and Galileo lived for us all.’



We saw Dante’s tomb in that church, but we were glad to know that his body is not in it; that the ungrateful city that had exiled him and persecuted him would give much to have it there, but need not hope to ever secure that high honor to herself.


Mark Twain,The Innocents Abroad (1869)



American Reflectionsis available for purchase at the Santa Croce bookshop for 5 euro.

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