13 May 2020
Is there a secret Jewish story
behind the Star of David in
Santa Croce in Florence?
The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence was one of a dozen or more churches in my ‘virtual tour’ of Florence last night.
The Basilica, just 800 metres from the Duomo, is the burial place of many Florentines, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo and Rossini. Because of this, it is often known as the Tempio dell’Itale Glorie, the Temple of the Italian Glories. Dante was exiled from Florence and buried in Ravenna, but his statue stands in the wide, open square, in front of the basilica.
Although the basilica dates from 1294 and was consecrated in 1444, its façade remained unfinished for more than three centuries, and the polychrome, marble Gothic façade dates from 1857-1863.
It is said in Florence that the architect, Niccolò Matas (1798-1872) from Ancona, was Jewish and that this explains why he worked the prominent Star of David into his composition when he designed the facade.
The stories go on to say that Matas wanted to be buried with his peers but, because he was Jewish, he was buried outside the main door of the basilica, under the threshold.
I have already written earlier this year [30 January 2020] about a similar story about the Star of David in in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral, and asked whether it was a symbol of Valencia’s lost Sephardic legacy.
Legends in Valencia say that Star of David was the work of anonymous Jewish craftsmen or that window was paid for partly by local Jewish merchants. However, the Menorahwas a more usual mediaeval symbol of Judaism and many mediaeval cathedrals and churches display the star, including the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas in Valencia, and churches or cathedrals in Burgos, Anagni Aquileia, Orvieto, Brandenburg, Stendal and Hanover.
When Santa Croce in Florence was recognised as the Pantheon of Great Italians in the 19th century, attention turned towards completing the building, and the first stone of the façade was laid in 1857 the presence of Pope Pius IX.
The façade was inaugurated on 3 May 1863, and its decoration was completed in 1865, in time for the commemorations marking the sixth centenary of Dante’s birth in Florence. That year, Dante’s statue was unveiled in the square facing the basilica.
The architect of the neo-Gothic façade of Santa Croce, Niccolò Matas, was inspired in his design by a long-lost work by the 15th century Florentine architect Simone del Pollaiolo, known as ‘il Cronaca.’
The very visible Star of David on the façade, the mosaic artwork, and the position of Matas’s tomb outside of the church at the threshold of the entrance has led to suggestions that this was due to the architect’s Jewish family background.
However, the star is also found in Catholic symbolism, and there is a Chi-Rho symbol or Christogram (☧) inside the star. There is another Ch-Rho symbol (☧) on his memorial monument, flanked by the Greek letters Α (Alpha) and Ω (Omega), a reference to Christ in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 1: 8, 21: 6, and 22: 13).
In addition, the wording of the inscription indicates that Matas intended the façade to be his own, extraordinary funeral monument.
So, who was Niccolò Matas? And, did he have a Jewish background?
Niccolò Matas, also known as Nicolò or Nicola Matas, was born in Ancona on 6 December 1798 into the large Jewish community in Ancona and a family of Spanish descent.
The Jewish community of Ancona is one of the oldest and most significant Jewish communities in Italy. The presence of Jews is first recorded in Ancona in the 10th century, and in the centuries that followed the community grew because of the importance of the port and commercial links with the Levant. When Jewish refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal began to settle in Ancona, they changed the composition of the Jewish community in the town. Most of these fugitives came from Sicily and later from Naples and Portugal.
Niccolò Matas was born into this community and from an early age showed artistic talent. The Municipality of Ancona decided to finance his studies. He first studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome and later at the academies of Venice and Vicenza. During those formative years he came into contact with Antonio Canova and Leopoldo Cicognara.
He moved to Florence in 1825, when he was appointed a teacher in the Florence Academy of Fine Arts. A year later, he oversaw the restoration of the Bartolini Baldelli Palace in Florence (1826).
Throughout 1835, Matas was back in Ancona, where he was in charge of designing the decorations of the Teatro delle Muse, the hotel in Piazza Roma and the Bagni Dorico, the first bathing facility in his home town. His design for the Bagni Dorico was a regular octagonal plan, supported on stilts in the sea and inspired by the nearby Lazzaretto, built by Luigi Vanvitelli on an artificial pentagonal island.
Matas supervised other restorations in Ancona, including the bell tower and the dome of the cathedral, for which he designed a new lantern.
But most of his work as an architect was in Florence, where his patron was the rich Russian-born industrialist, Prince Anatoly Demidoff (1813-1870).
Matas became one of the most important architects working in the neo-Gothic style in Tuscany, although he also worked in the classical style, influenced by Tuscan purism. His important commissions include the villa and the park of San Donato for Demidoff (1835), and the Napoleonic Museum (1851) built for Demidoff at the Villa of San Martino on the Island of Elba.
Matas also worked on several other buildings in Florence. He took part in the debate and competition in 1842 for designing the façade of the Duomo which, like Santa Croce, had not been completed. However, the competition was won by Emilio De Fabris. Matas also contributed to the design of the cemetery at San Miniato al Monte (1848-1859). However, the project that made Matas his name was his completion of the façade of Santa Croce.
Matas’s first two proposals for Santa Croce were neo-Gothic but, to harmonise the new facade with the nearby Pazzi Chapel, he developed a third proposal in 1854 that became the definitive design. Matas said that his design was inspired by ‘il Cronaca,’ who was commissioned to design the façade of the church in the 15th century.
The Florentine architect Simone del Pollaiolo (1457-1508), known as ‘il Cronaca’ or the ‘Chronicler,’ was the nephew of the architect brothers Antonio and Piero Benci. He earned his nickname because, at the age of 13, in order to learn more about architecture, he marched to Rome to see the ruins. On his return to Florence, he recorded meticulous, chronicle-like descriptions of his observations.
The façade of Santa Croce was designed by Matas and was built in 1854-1863 in the styles of 15th century Florentine Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Matas worked closely with the sculptor Giovanni Duprè.
His other works include the Dovizi Theatre in Bibbiena and an unrealised project for the restoration of the dome of the Basilica of Loreto (1863). He published many books and brochures, mainly on his own work, including the façade of Santa Croce in Florence and a survey of the cathedral on Ancona. Matas died in Florence on 11 March 1872.
In 1886, 14 years after his death, Matas was buried below the entrance threshold of the Basilica of Santa Croce. The Italian Parliament decided on this honour for the architect who had shaped the façade of what is considered the pantheon of the Italian greats.
The plaque reads:
Niccolò Matas di Ancona
giudicato degno dal Parlamento Nazionale
di riposare tra gli Altri Grandi
in ossequio ai desideri
l’undici Marzo MDCCCLXXII
da lui manifestati morendo
qui nel MDCCCLXXXVI fu deposto
perché la facciata di questo tempio
fosse monumento dell’artefice
Niccolò Matas of Ancona
judged worthy by the National Parliament
to rest among the other Great Ones,
in respect of wishes expressed on
11 March 1872
as he lay dying.
He was buried here in 1886,
where the façade of this church
is the monument to the artist
Although the Star of David that is such a prominent feature on the façade is said to be a tacit homage to his Jewish religion, this is not documented. On the othjer hand, it shuld be noticed that the use of the Chi-Rho sybol on his epitaph could not possibly have been his choice.
According to Yohanna-Miriam Pick Margioles – a local historian and a niece of Samuel Hirsch Margioles (1858-1922), Chief Rabbi of Florence (1890-1922), when Matas’s design was accepted – no-one questioned the design, the six-pointed star was seen as a symbol of Christ, and no-one noticed that in his contract Matas specified that he would not work on Saturdays.
It is said his Jewish background did not become known until after the contract was signed.
However, in their Guida all’Italia Ebraica (‘Guide to Jewish Italy’), Annie Sacerdoti and Luca Fiorentino repeat this story: ‘The work was entrusted to the architect Nicolò Matas, a Jew from Ancona who incorporated the large star as an element of the decoration. No one paid any attention to the architect’s Jewish origins, even after he specified in his contract that he would not work on Saturdays. When he died, he put the Jewish community and the Franciscans in a difficult position by stating in his will his wish to be buried in the basilica. A compromise was finally reached: he was interred in a marble sarcophagus just outside the church under the flight of stairs facing the main entrance.’
The former ghetto of Florence was located in the heart of the old centre of Florence, near the market in an area zone totally destroyed at the end of the 20th century. This area was bordered by today’s Via Brunelleschi, the Piazza della Repubblica, and Via Roma.
Bernardo Buontalento, the grand duke’s architect, was commissioned to design the walled ghetto, with two gates that were closed each evening. Inside, the Jews of Florence were confined to a labyrinth of alleys and courtyards, with two synagogues. Their numbers increased in the 16th and 17th centuries with the arrival of the families of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition.
The ghetto in Florence survived for almost three centuries until it was opened in 1848. Soon after, two small prayer rooms opened in Florence: one followed the liturgy of the Italkim or Italian tradition, the other followed an Ashkenazic liturgy.
Two years after Matas died, work began in 1874 on building an imposing modern synagogue designed in the neo-Moorish style by Marco Treves, assisted by Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli, with a large green dome and matching minarets inspired by Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. The Tiempo Maggiore (Grand Synagogue) opened in 1882, four years before Matas was buried outside Santa Croce.
During World War II, the Nazis used the synagogue as a military garage and tried to dynamite it as they retreated. The synagogue was carefully restored, but was damaged severely by the great flooding of the Arno River in 1966.
The Jewish Museum opened on the second floor in 1981. A large plaque at the museum door commemorates the 248 Jews from Florence who were deported and murdered during the Holocaust.
In the past, the best-known symbol or presence of the Jewish King David on the streets of Florence was Michelangelo’s marble statue of David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created in 1501-1504.
David is 5.17-metres high and was commissioned as one of a series of statues of prophets for the roofline of the east end of the Duomo in Florence. Instead, it was placed in a public square outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of civic government in Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria, where it was unveiled in 1504.
David was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia in 1873, where I have seen the original. It was replaced by a replica at its original location.