Basilica dei Frari

Phases of Construction


Friars established a church in close proximity to the Arno River and Florence's textile industry. The precise location of this church is not definitively known, although scholars have suggested that it was in the location of what became the Cerchi Chapel, now a part of the Basilica's museum (Rossi 13-15). We found no evidence to conflict with this hypothesis, and have used it as the basis for our model. This church would have been of modest dimensions. The Cerchi Chapel measures approximately 10 meters wide and 22 meters long and originally had a wooden ceiling (Busignani and Bencini 24). It is not known whether the friars appropriated an existing building to make this church or if they built the structure ex novo (Baldini and Nardini 13).



Construction began on a second church. This church was to the north of the proposed location of the first church and was located in what is now the left side of the present church's nave. Remains of this church were found during excations that took place during the restoration of Santa Croce following the disastrous flood of 1966 (Cacciarini). The process and speed of the construction are not known, although it is documented that Innocent IV declared forty days indulgence for those who donated to the construction of the new building (Moise 42). The church, a t-shaped basilica which Goffen compared to the Upper Church in Assisi and the Frari in Venice (4), was considerably larger than the first, measuring about 15 meters wide. It had four apsidal chapels (Paatz, Cacciarini) and presumably a choir and a tramezzo. Again, duration of construction is not known, although we can assume it was completed before the third church was begun. While documentation of this church is scarce, we know of one notable burial. The Blessed Umiliana Cerchi, a member of a prominent Florence family and a lay Franciscan had been buried near the church upon her death in 1246. Her body was later buried in the second church (Davidsohn). In 1267, a chapel was built for the Cerchi family (Paatz). The conventual complex was also likely enlarged during this time; documents mention that land was donated to the friars in 1262, although details on this transaction are vague (Moise). It is likely that the first church was assumed into the growing conventual complex as the second church was completed.



Construction began on a third church, probably under the initial direction of architect Arnolfo di Cambio. On April 8 of that year, the city Commune made a donation of 200 lire to be put toward the foundation of the new church (Heller 9). The first stones were laid May 3, 1295, at the intersection of the transept and right nave. It has been suggested that construction took place simultaneously on both sides of the transept, due to a documented 1295 burial in the crypt under the eastern chapels (Carbonai et al.). Thus church was built on a platform to protect it from flood waters. As a result, its floor level was nearly three meters above that of the second church (Cacciarini).



The apse and eastern chapels were possibly completed by this date, although it seems that the transept was not. By 1304, a wealthy patron, Alberto degli Alberti del Giudice had founded a chapel in the crypt directly underneath the high altar (Heller 91).



By this date, the friars' choir may have been completed. We can assume this on the basis of a document quoted by Gardner, Conti and Davidsohn, which details a partial payment for carpentry work, apparently contractually agreed upon by a man who had died in 1300, that this area of the church was nearly done (Conti) We also know that, in 1299, 100 libre had been given by patron Domina Lap Russi to go toward the completition of the choir (Gardner 391). Construction could have progresed sufficiently down the nave to house the choir or, as we have shown, the choir has been covered with a provisional roof, allowing the friars to use it. Although the transepts may not yet have been roofed, we see from an aerial view that the roof structures of the nave and transepts are separate. Decoration of the Villani Chapel, the southern-most apsidal chapel, may also have begun at this point (Gardner).



The transepts may have been roofed at this time. This is also the date that the Blessed Umiliana de'Cerchi was translated from the second church to the Cerchi Chapel (Davidsohn). We hypothesize that the miracle-working Umiliana would have been buried near the east end of the church - from this we can deduce that some demolition of the second church had probably begun.



Services were held in the new church by this date (Baldini and Nardini). We can consider multiple possibilities for the appearance of the old and new churches at this time. The second church may have functioned as a church completely physically independent from the third, as we have chosen to depict it. It may also have been provisionally connected to the third church. Regardless, once demolition begun, the altar of the second church would probably have been moved forward down the nave.



The Baroncelli Chapel, attached to the right transept, is added (Heller 117).



The transept of the second church was likely demolished by this date, the approximate time of the installation of the tramezzo, which ran across the entire width of the nave of the third church. We have based our reconstruction of the tramezzo on the work of Marcia Hall (1974), who notes that the tramezzo required strong subterranean support in the form of a brick wall and pillars in the fifth bay from the west. Family chapels were added to the tramezzo, and Cimabue's painted Crucifix may have been placed at the center of it.



The Bardi St. Louis Chapel is added to the end of the left transept (Heller 125).



A beam in the fourth bay from the west is painted with the date 1341, leading us to assume that the bay and roof had extended to this point. The second church would therefore exist only as a small nave.



The Salviati Chapel is added, as is the Castellani Chapel (Heller 130-136). The date of 1384 is painted on a beam in the next-to-last bay of the nave - the church must have reached this length by this date, completely assuming the second church.



The Basilica of Santa Croce is consecrated.