Tag Archives: Giotto

A Bad Day for Santa Croce

A Spanish tourist was just killed by a falling stone fragment inside Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. How could this happen?

Santa Croce is one of the major sights in Florence. The interior is warmly lit and surprisingly peaceful, considering the number of visitors.

People pause to pay their respects at the tombs of the great and good:





Rossini, and many others I feel like I should know.

Santa Croce is said to be the largest Franciscan church in the world, with beautiful Giotto frescoes honoring the humble monk from Assisi. 

St. Francis is believed to have actually founded this church. 

And now, it’s closed while the authorities investigate why an unsuspecting tourist was killed by a chunk of falling stone.

No tourists will be gazing up at the beautiful ceilings for awhile. The faithful will have to light their candles and murmur their prayers elsewhere in the city.

Italy has artistic treasures everywhere, but it seems there is never enough money to properly take care of them, or to accommodate the number of visitors lining up to see them. 

In 1966, the Arno River overflowed its banks, flooding much of Florence. Damage to Santa Croce took years and years to repair. There are still high water marks in the building, and some of the artworks can’t be completely restored. I hope Santa Croce can be made safe again.

No doubt lots of ink will be used as the investigation goes forward. One article about it is at:


A Medieval Dancing Dog for Christmas

An unknown artist created this enchanting image of a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe for his dancing dog between 1370 and 1390. It’s from a lunette–a semicircular fresco, divided into two parts–that once decorated the Monastery of Santa Giuliana in Umbria. Today, what is left of the lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Italy.

The shepherd and his dog occupy the far right-hand side of the nativity scene above. Why is this simple scene so special?  I love it for the way the ordinary mortals–and the animals–are as important as the Holy Family.


The musical shepherd, his dancing dog, and the cattle on the right-hand side of the lunette (the semi-circular scene)  are hanging out casually on the hillside, unaware of what’s going on in the stable.

I love the lifelike sheep, with their thick winter coats.

The shepherds stand on a flowery hillside, nudging each other in amazement at what’s happening in the sky above them–no doubt there were once angels.

The left-hand side of the lunette does show the missing angels, hovering over what looks like a typical Italian hill town much like Assisi or Perugia. A lucky cow and a donkey are special guests–or rather, they are hosting special guests in their humble stable.

All the elements of the Biblical story are here, in their simplest form. Gathered around the swaddled baby, we have musical angels, friendly cattle, and a proud mom and dad.

 St. Francis of Assisi, very near to Perugia, created the first three-dimensional manger scenes, in order to make the Christmas story seem more real to those he preached to. In early December when I visited , preparations were underway for a manger scene outside the Basilica in Assisi.

Francis is beloved for many reasons, but especially for his love for the working poor and the homeless.  Francis was all about radical humility. He was in demand in the palaces of the great, but he was determined to spend his time with the poorest of the poor.

Great artists like Giotto created wonderfully colorful frescoes illustrating the saint’s life for the Basilica that was immediately begun after his death in Assisi. A new pictorial language developed around the humble life of St. Francis, emphasizing his love for humanity, the joy possible in the most ordinary of lives, and the goodness of the natural world. The challenge was to honor the saint’s life without unduly glorifying him. The frescoes above were part of this artistic and spiritual movement. No doubt the anonymous artist who created these frescoes for a little monastery had seen the work of Giotto in the Basilica.  Although St. Francis is not the subject of the almost-primitive lunette I liked so much, his influence shines through in the simple everyday images.

I spent several happy hours soaking up the great art in this underappreciated museum. But I circled back several times to the damaged but charming fresco of the Nativity with the dancing dog.

“In Santa Croce with no Baedecker”

I can’t leave A Room with a View without revisiting one of my favorite scenes from both the novel and the movie:  “In Santa Croce with no Baedeker.” Lucy Honeychurch finds herself unaccompanied in the grand church of Santa Croce. Even worse, she has no guidebook.  A Baedeker–the equivalent of a Rick Steves guide–would tell her what to see, and how to see it.  From the novel A Room with a View by E.M. Forster:

She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy. 

But just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the dreaded Mr. Emerson and his handsome but impertinent son George appear. They were baffling enough at dinner the night before:

And Mr. Emerson insists on talking to her in a most alarming way:

I don’t require you to fall in love with my boy, but I do think you might try and understand him…. Make him realize that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes!

Of course what Lucy needs is to learn to say “Yes!” herself.

Santa Croce is a Franciscan church, so it is no accident that E.M. Forster places his characters here.  The author wants his stuffy Victorian English characters to unwind in the warmth and charm of Italy.  St. Francis is the very warmest and friendliest of saints.  Mr. Forster’s characters can well use the directness, humility and freshness of the beloved saint.  So, of course, together they look at the glorious Giotto frescoes of the life and death of St. Francis:

In 2010, frescoes of Giotto were “rediscovered” under centuries of neglect and old paint.  As far as I can tell, they’re been left alone so far.  But there’s a BBC video showing them under ultraviolet light at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8556930.stm.

Surely we’re all a little like Lucy in Santa Croce:  instead of constantly acquiring information, we can just look around us and be happy.  And surely great art can help make us happy.

Join me next time for more explorations of the art and history of Europe, with some sidetracks into literature too!