The frigid and florid Dante memorial, which was unveiled in 1865 on the six hundredth anniversary of the poet’s birthday, looks gloomily upon what once was a scene of splendour and animation, for in 1469 Piero de’ Medici devised here a tournament in honour of the betrothal of Lorenzo to Clarice Orsini. The Queen of the tournament was Lucrezia Donati, and she awarded the first prize to Lorenzo. The tournament cost 10,000 gold florins and was very splendid, Verrocchio and other artists being called in to design costumes, and it is thought that Pollaiuolo’s terra-cotta of the Young Warrior in the Bargello represents the comely Giuliano de’ Medici as he appeared in his armour in the lists. The piazza was the scene also of that famous tournament given by Lorenzo de’ Medici for Giuliano in 1474, of which the beautiful Simonetta was the Queen of Beauty, and to which, as I have said elsewhere, we owe Botticelli’s two most famous pictures. Difficult to reconstruct in the Piazza any of those glories to-day.
The new facade of S. Croce, endowed not long since by an Englishman, has been much abused, but it is not so bad. As the front of so beautiful and wonderful a church it may be inadequate, but as a structure of black and white marble it will do. To my mind nothing satisfactory can now be done in this medium, which, unless it is centuries old, is always harsh and cuts the sky like a knife, instead of resting against it as architecture should. But when it is old, as at S. Miniato, it is right.
S. Croce is the Westminster Abbey of Florence. Michelangelo lies here, Machiavelli lies here, Galileo lies here; and here Giotto painted, Donatello carved, and Brunelleschi planned. Although outside the church is disappointing, within it is the most beautiful in Florence. It has the boldest arches, the best light at all seasons, the most attractive floor—of gentle red—and an apse almost wholly made of coloured glass. Not a little of its charm comes from the delicate passage-way that runs the whole course of the church high up on the yellow walls. It also has the finest circular window in Florence, over the main entrance, a “Deposition” by Ghiberti.
The lightness was indeed once so intense that no fewer than twenty-two windows had to be closed. The circular window over the altar upon which a new roof seems to be intruding is in reality the interloper: the roof is the original one, and the window was cut later, in defiance of good architecture, by Vasari, who, since he was a pupil of Michelangelo, should have known better. To him was entrusted the restoration of the church in the middle of the sixteenth century.