For more than 700 years, the Gothic church of Santa Croce has seen the passing of the countless seasons, several renovations and myriad styles of art and architecture. It is the site of revolutionary works, such as Cimabue’s Crucifixion and the Pazzi Chapel, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. It has also withstood floods, among them the great flood of 1966. On May 3, 2014—marking the 720th anniversary of the current building—the museum of the historic church inaugurated a new approach to displaying its treasured artworks, one that not only ensures the safety of the works but transforms the interior and fundamentally changes the experience of those who visit the Basilica.
In medieval times, those entering the Franciscan church of Santa Croce found themselves as if within a large illustrated book: sacred stories were painted on the walls. In the sixteenth century, the space gained monumental dimensions and Renaissance colours. In the nineteenth century, the church became the main temple of the illustrious fathers of the new Italian nation.
These physical alterations can be plainly seen on the walls and in the old plans of the monumental complex. Yet another, more subtle transformation has occurred down the centuries: the commissioned artworks, created for devotional use, have acquired layers of meaning that continue to change depending on the viewer.
Consider a single artwork, Cimabue’s Crucifix. The large wooden cross, painted in the late thirteenth century by Cenni di Pepo, known as Cimabue, has become symbolic of Santa Croce. It was conceived as the testimony of a journey, of a mission and a militant commitment: Christ was no longer depicted in a Byzantine style—aloof, regal and triumphant as Christus triumphans—but as a suffering, dying man, Christus patiens, a victim of a fate common to other ordinary mortals. Through the Franciscans, this type of crucified Christ quickly became the universal symbol of Christian spirituality.
Over the centuries, the Crucifix has continued to accrue meaning: the piece of wood from the Casentino forests that was transported down to Florence on the Arno and was transformed by the artist’s touch into a palpable image for the Franciscan community later became a symbol of what appeared to be a manifestation of the Apocalypse: the great flood of 1966. The painstakingly rescued image of this Christ nine years after the flood became a universal symbol of hope.
This single piece, inextricably linked to the Basilica of Santa Croce, also provides an important lesson about the importance of safeguarding and preserving works of art. After five floods hit their first small church of Santa Croce, located dangerously close to the banks of the brooding Arno River, the early Franciscans decided to construct a new church, situated slightly higher than the original structure. This new church, started on May 3, 1294, welcomed within its walls Cimabue’s Crucifix—probably one of the most important works of art to be moved from the original church. Already cherished as an icon of the Franciscan community, the Crucifix probably had a different location in the basilica until as late as the modern era.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, a more systematic approach began to be taken to preservation of artworks, culminating in the opening of the first museum of the Opera di Santa Croce, on November 2, 1900, in the former Refectory (or Cenacolo). This large hall was completely restored 50 years later to reveal its original decorations and to open up its walled-in windows. Inaugurated in 1959, the space became home to Orcagna’s frescoes, stained-glass windows, Donatello’s Saint Louis of Toulouse and Cimabue’s Crucifix.
What seemed a great idea proved, in time, disastrous. The flood of November 4, 1966, forced the museum to close for 10 years. The works of art, gravely damaged, have slowly made their way back to the Refectory over the years: Cimabue’s cross in 1975, followed by another eight works of art in 2006.
A new plan for their final placement was announced in 2012: the works of art would return to the Basilica itself, located at a higher level than the Refectory, to avoid the threat of future floods. Relocating the Crucifix to the Sacristy of the Basilica in December 2013, followed by other masterpieces from the museum, meant that these works of art finally returned to their originally intended locations.
Replacing these artworks in situ and reopening spaces in the Basilica, in effect ‘lightens’ the interior. In some areas, visitors will experience a ‘frame’ through which they encounter works of art; in others they will find ‘empty’ spaces and will perhaps sense a crossing of time and space.
In the Pazzi Chapel, in the Refectory, in the loggias, the cloisters and the underground spaces, history is the very air we breathe. Like the sounds in a natural cave that seem to call out from afar, it is an invitation to experience the journey of meaning and beauty across time.