The present basilica, traditionally attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, was built from 1295, on the site where, around 1210, the first Franciscan friars to arrive in Florence had a small oratory.
Santa Croce is planned as an Egyptian cross, with an open timber roof; there are many tomb slabs set into the pavement. The nave is wide and well-lit, with massive widely-spaced piers supporting pointed arches. On entering the basilica, in the Florentine gothic style, our attention is immediately drawn to the east end, where the tall narrow stained glass windows pierce the walls beneath the vaulting.
A fundamental feature of early Franciscan churches was the frescoed narration, in simple and clear terms, of the stories of Christ, of St Francis and of other saints. Several of the great Florentine families, including the Bardi, the Peruzzi, the Alberti, the Baroncelli and the Rinuccini, acquired the patronage of chapels in Santa Croce, thereby assuming the honour of decorating and furnishing them. Some of this 14th-century decoration has survived down to our own time, including that painted by the great Giotto, who frescoed the chapels of the banking families Bardi and Peruzzi (1320-25), respectively with Scenes from the life of St Francis and Scenes from the lives of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Giotto’s closest followers, Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and Maso di Banco painted frescoes in the chapels patronised by the Baroncelli, the Pulci and Berardi, and the Bardi di Vernio. From the mid-14th century the walls of the aisles and the Sacristy were frescoed by Andrea Orcagna, Giovanni da Milano, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Agnolo Gaddi.
The fourteenth-century decoration was crowned by Agnolo Gaddi’s frescoes for the Chapel of the high altar, commissioned by the Alberti and illustrating the Story of the True Cross.
The Sacristy, which includes the Rinuccini Chapel, is reached from the south transept. Its well-preserved frescoes and original 14th-century furnishings give a good idea of how the whole church must have looked in the 14th century when it was completely covered with paintings. In the following century Santa Croce received some important architectural additions. In 1429 Andrea de’ Pazzi undertook the construction of the Chapter House (known as the Pazzi Chapel), which was designed and begun by Filippo Brunelleschi, but not completed until long after his death. It is one of the most harmonious buildings of the Florentine Renaissance, and is decorated not by frescoes but by glazed terracotta roundels, made by Luca della Robbia and his followers.
The Chapel of the Noviciate, which Michelozzo built around 1445 for Cosimo de’ Medici, has a glazed terracotta altarpiece by Andrea della Robbia, of the Madonna and Child with Saints.
The wooden Crucifix in the Bardi di Vernio Chapel in the left transept, and the stone Annunciation (commissioned by the Cavalcanti) in the right aisle, are both by Donatello.
The pulpit carved in relief by Benedetto da Maiano (c. 1475), with Scenes from the life of St Francis, is one of the most beautiful in Florence.
It is significant that Santa Croce, which was to become the resting-place of so many great Italians, has the first truly renaissance funerary monument: the tomb of Leonardo Bruni, Chancellor of the Republic, sculpted by Bernardo Rossellino (1444). Bruni’s successor, Carlo Marsuppini, is buried in another fine renaissance tomb on the other side of the nave, by Desiderio da Settignano (c. 1455), which follows the same scheme. From then on, the history of the Santa Croce is marked by its tombs.
Michelangelo, who died in Rome in 1564, was buried here beneath a monument with allegorical figures of Sculpture, Architecture and Painting, designed by Giorgio Vasari. Michelangelo’s tomb served as the model for others, such as the tomb of Galileo, who died in 1642 (his monument was made by Giovanni Battista Foggini).
Funerary monuments continued to be added to the interior, including ones to Niccolò Machiavelli, Vittorio Alfieri, Gioachino Rossini and the cenotaph to Dante Alighieri (1829). Ugo Foscolo, who died in England, was reburied here in 1871; in his celebrated Sepolcri he had written of the Santa Croce tombs as ‘urns of the strong, that kindle strong souls to great deeds’, and had thereby given rise to the secular view of the basilica as a Pantheon of civic memories. In the 19th century the church received a new bell tower (by Gaetano Baccani, 1847) and a marble façade (designed by Nicola Matas, 1853-63), in the neo-gothic style.