I blame myself, really. Before going to Italy for the first time, I didn’t ask, “where is Michelangelo buried?” This is how I almost missed visiting the burials of Santa Croce Basilica in Florence. A veritable who’s who is buried in Santa Croce — artists, scientists, philosophers, composers. It’s not just a church, it’s a pantheon.
My friend and I first spotted Basilica di Santa Croce from the rooftop of our nearby hotel. It cut a quite a figure across the Florentine skyline, almost as commanding as the famed Duomo. What is this imposing temple? When we found out it was the resting place of so many illustrious Italians, it shot to the top of our list of things to see in Florence.
Who is buried at Santa Croce in Florence?
The exterior of Santa Croce is beautifully Gothic. I mean actual Gothic. Built in the 1300s and consecrated in 1443, it got its neo-Gothic façade of white, green and pink marble much later, in 1863. The public square Piazza Santa Croce is a great place to admire it all from afar. If the sculpture outside the basilica reminds of you of Dante, that’s because it’s a monument to Dante. “Where is Dante buried?” is another question we realized we haven’t asked yet. Could it be… here?
Spoiler: Dante is not buried in Florence. But! There is a glorious cenotaph in his honour. And the many other extraordinary burials of Santa Croce Basilica make this a must-visit for anyone interested in funerary art and dead geniuses. Here are my favourites.
The most famous tomb in Santa Croce is Michelangelo’s. The sculptor, painter, architect and poet died in 1564 in Rome at the age of 88. Against the wishes of the Pope, his body was moved by a secret night-time kidnapping operation and buried in Florence!
Designed by Italian painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari, it took 14 years to complete. Michelangelo’s remains rest in a purple marble tomb surrounded by sculptures of three distraught women, representing painting, sculpture and architecture. The very arts themselves are mourning the death of Michelangelo, whose bust sits at the centre. You may see visitors becoming emotional in its presence, and you may wish to spend some extra time there paying respects to this art master, whose work probably brought you to Florence in the first place.
Dante Alighieri’s actual body is buried in Ravenna, more than 150 kms away. So this tomb itself is empty. But so beloved in Florence was the poet that the local art crowd fundraised to build him a monument. This one also took a while – 10 years. Looking way up, you see Dante deep in thought and resting on a copy of his famed work, The Divine Comedy. Two female figures stand on each side of his sarcophagus. On the right, we have Poetry draped over the tomb, weeping. On the left, a strong warrior type I later learn represents Italy itself.
Compared to some of the more opulent burials here, this one is practically minimalist. An inscription reads “Onorate L’Altissimo Poeta” – or “Honour the Poet of the Highest Regard.” This tribute certainly does that.
I had never heard of Leonardo Bruni before. Why would I? He was a chancellor of the republic of Florence who died in 1444. But when I walked past his tomb I needed to learn something about this man who was sculpted holding one of his books. Because I want to be sculpted in death holding one of my books!
Bruni is considered to have written the first modern history book and contributed to the development of humanism. Not bad. He was also one of the first Great Italians to be buried here, which kickstarted a trend of public tombs. This one doesn’t have any weeping women on it. But it does have a majestic arch and an oh-so gothic inscription, including “it is said that the Muses, both Greek and Latin, could not restrain their tears” at his death.
Unknown Floor Tombs
Some of the most interesting burials of Santa Croce can be trampled on. Back in the day, more than 1000 ledger stones were set into the floor here. It was both a great honour to be buried inside the church, but also showed humility since you knew you’d be walked on for all eternity.
Only 250 are left. Most of these have no barriers, and you will find yourself stepping on these marble slabs, further smoothing down the anonymous faces worn away by centuries of visitors. Judging by what you can see – a coat of arms here, a knight’s armour there – it’s clear that important families and military men are buried in this place of high esteem. A few have precious stones or metal inserted. Personally, I liked the simple skull and crossbones. But you knew that…
The bust and bones of Umiliana de’ Cerchi
In Canada, we don’t really have remains on full display in our churches. So I find the Italian tradition of showcasing relics of saints fascinating. I saw just one here. A gilded gold reliquary with a glass case containing what looks like a complete set of human bones laid out as they would be in a museum. And just above, a shiny gold bust of a woman.
We learn she is Umiliana de’ Cerchi. She was apparently the first woman to become a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and became a saint in 1634. I read that the bust is both artistic tribute and an actual urn for her remains. But then I’m not sure who the bones are? No matter. This is a highlight of Creepy Italy, and one of very few women on display amongst the burials.
Here’s a “fun” thing I like to do in museums: look for paintings or sculptures of subjects I think look like they were actually vampires. Wiki says Ugo Foscolo was a Greek-Italian writer, revolutionary and a poet. I say he’s for sure a vampire. The marble larger-than-life sculpture of him by Antonio Berti has serious immortal vibes, both romantic and menacing. He’s wearing a cloak. His eyes sort of follow you around like a painting in the Haunted Mansion…
History claims that 44 years after his death in London England in 1871, the exiled writer’s remains were exhumed at the request of the King of Italy and taken to Santa Croce with pomp and ceremony. Sure. This guy’s most famous writing is also a long poem protesting Napoleon’s decree forbidding tomb inscriptions and praising the burials of Santa Croce specifically. So maybe a bit too obsessed with the afterlife? [p.s. I’m joking. Goth jokes.]
Galileo Galilei’s tomb
Perhaps you’ve heard of this guy. Italy’s most important astronomer and physicist was also condemned by the Church for daring to say the Earth revolved around the sun. So why is Galileo buried in Santa Croce? He wasn’t, originally. When he died in 1642, Galileo was quietly buried in a small room at the end of a corridor, not in the main basilica. But his supporters continued to campaign for a monument alongside Italy’s greatest. Only after some switching of Popes did they get one.
The Monumental tomb of Galileo Galilei, as the artwork is officially called, was installed almost 100 years after the scientist’s death, right opposite Michelangelo. An opulent marble sarcophagus is flanked by two statues, one representing Astronomy, the other Geometry. Above the tomb is a bust of Galileo, holding a globe and a telescope, gazing to the heavens.
It’s a beautiful tomb. But what I love most about it are the things you can’t see. The sarcophagus also contains the remains of one Vincenzo Viviani, an Italian mathematician who studied under Galileo and is credited for his agitating relentlessly for the building of the tomb. So when they finally built it, and moved Galileo’s remains, they also moved the remains of Viviani, who died in 1703, and put them in with Galileo!
You know what’s not inside Galileo’s tomb? All of his fingers! When his remains were moved into the main basilica, three fingers and a tooth were removed from the body. These were passed around various families and museums over the centuries. We saw his middle finger on display at the Museo Galileo just down the street in Florence.
I could go on. There’s Rossini’s tomb. Artwork by Donatello and other Renaissance masters. Cloisters! Santa Croce was a highlight of my trip to Italy, and one of my favourite places to visit the dead I’ve been to anywhere in the world.
The burials of Santa Croce can be seen with admission to the Basilica. It costs 8Euro for adults, 7Euro for 12-17 or university students, and free for under 11. Audio guides 4 Euro extra. Tickets on site or purchase advance on-line.
The Basilica is open 9:30am to 5:30pm Monday to Saturday. Closed on Jan 1 and Dec 26. See the latest schedules on their site.
This is a big place, allow a few hours! There is also an excellent app that costs a few dollars but well worth it for the detailed explanations.