The Franciscan friars have had a presence in Florence since the earliest years of their existence. According to legend, two friars arrived in 1209, followed by more - perhaps including St. Francis himself - in 1211 or 1212. They established a small hospice outside of the city walls, moving to their current location around 1221. This location is in the southeastern corner of the city, close to the Arno River and Florence's medieval textile industry.
The first record of a building on the site is a 1228 bull from Pope Gregory IX, which placed the church of Santa Croce under the protection of the papacy. This church was small and simple; it is unknown if it was built by the friars or acquired second-hand. In addition to the church, the friars would have utilized the space in front of it for preaching, attracting the attention of nearby Florentine merchants and workers. The friars would likely have lived in simple structures adjacent to the church. It is possible, but not certain, that a cloister existed.
As the popularity of the friars grew, so did the need for a larger space. By 1252, construction had begun on a large basilica, just north of what was probably the site of the first church. Pope Innocent IV granted an indulgence of forty days to anyone who donated to the construction of the building. this act, as well as the growing trend of association with the mendicants led to much patronage from the citizens of Florence. Little definitive information exists on this church, however, in part due to major floods in the fourteenth and sixteenth centurues that destroyed numerous documents. Its location only became known during restorative excavations following a devastating flood in 1966. Thus, the date of its completion is unknown, although it is logical to assume that construction proceeded quickly - discussion of a third, even larger church must have begun in the 1280's.
Construction on the third church began in 1295. Historically, Arnolfo di Cambio has been called the architect, although the attribution is not definite and the design of the church was altered throughout the 150 year construction process. This church also attracted much attention from patrons, who made donations in exchange for family chapels at the east end of the church and on the tramezzo, and for burial in the church, cloister and crypt. Still, construction progressed slowly, ostensibly from lapses in financial support and from interruptions caused by outbreaks of plague and political turmoil in Florence. During most of the Trecento, the second and third churches would have existed side by side. The second church probably would have continued to function as a church for laymen while the third church gradually grew from east to west, used first by the friars and then by all. Although largely complete by the third quarter of the Trecento, the church was not consecrated until 1444.
Since then, the church has continuously undergone changes, notably Vasari's Cinqucento renovations following the Council of Trent, which revamped the interior by removing the tramezzo and choir stalls and redesignig the side altars of the nave. The cloisters and the conventual complex have also expanded and been altered as the Order has grown and changed.
Our goal here is to present the development of the main building of the church from its earliest stages to its consecration.
The Franciscan Order of friars was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the first decade of the thirteenth century. Francis and his followers were itinerant preachers who traveled Italy and the world to promulgate "the apostolic life" - that is, living in perfect imitation of Christ and the Apostles. The early friars had no permanent homes, no posessions other than ragged robes, and ate only food that they received by begging.
As they traveled and preached, the friars established permanent settlements which quickly became church complexes. Although many friars argued that the construction of large basilicas containing lavish artworks was antithetical to Francis' standards of apostolic poverty, Franciscan churches became civic fixtures. Below is a map containing photographs and dates of a selection of early Franciscan churches throughout Italy. This selection is by no means exhaustive; these churches were chosen because of their survival, location in major cities, or proximity in date to Santa Croce.