The woman did not seem particularly remorseful about her blunder. She and her mother were driving around Italy, she told me matter-of-factly, and couldn’t find a highway exit sign for Florence. They kept driving, missing the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s finest art.
Apparently it hadn’t occurred to either of them that the Italians are under no obligation to provide signage in English; in their own language, they call the city Firenze. These American tourists passed many signs along the Autostrade that would have directed them to Firenze, but they were looking for Florence, dammit! That clueless woman’s experience illustrates one more reason to at least have a glance at a guidebook before you travel. Even if she had managed to stumble onto Florence, without guidance she probably would have missed one of its treasures.
I knew about the Uffizi Gallery, of course, with its peerless collection of Italian paintings. The Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands, was already on my must-see list as well. If I hadn’t done some pre-trip research, though, we might have missed Santa Croce (pronounced CRO-chay). It is a basilica built by the Franciscans in the 14th century that became the Florentine version of the Pantheon in Paris, or Westminster Abbey. In other words, it is the final resting place of some world-renowned Italians.
Just inside the front door of Santa Croce, on the right aisle, is the tomb of Michelangelo. Legend has it that he personally selected his burial site, so that when tombs burst open on Judgment Day, the first thing he would see is Brunelleschi’s marvelous Dome. Unfortunately, what Michelangelo would probably see first is the creepy marble sarcophagus that held his mortal remains — it was designed by Giorgio Vasari, whose work blights churches and museums throughout Italy.
Next to Michelangelo’s tomb is a monument to Dante, although he isn’t actually buried here. His remains are in Ravenna, but the Florentines had anticipated relocating him to Santa Croce; in the 1500s they even made a generous contribution (bribe) to the Pope to effect the transfer. Didn’t happen.
A bit farther along the right aisle is the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, a diplomat and philosopher of the 16th century. He is now chiefly remembered for the addition to our language of the adjective Machiavellian, applied to behavior that is unscrupulous and sneaky. On Judgment Day, he’ll be joining a lot of other politicians.
Closer to the altar is the grave of composer Giachino Rossini, who wrote many operas, including The Barber of Seville, and whose William Tell Overture achieved immortality in the 1950s as the theme for a TV show called The Lone Ranger. It’s also possible to see a Rossini tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; he was interred there for about a decade before his remains were relocated to Santa Croce in 1887.
The left wall has tombs of a number of Italians who were once famous but aren’t so much anymore. A notable exception is near the door, opposite Michelangelo: Galileo is buried there. As with Rossini, he had also been entombed elsewhere following his death; it was with some reluctance that Catholic authorities allowed the famous heretic a Christian burial at Santa Croce in 1737.
One of these days I hope to get around to posting some notes about the many other splendors of Florence, but in case you’re headed for Italy soon, I wanted to give you a heads-up about Santa Croce. And if you’re driving, don’t forget — for some reason, the Italians insist on calling it Firenze.