Santa Croce in pink
The feminine essence of Florence’s pantheon
One of my passions is to discover the ‘hidden half ’ of well-known cultural treasures. I often look for the ‘feminine side’ of Italy’s monuments, churches and museums, by scouting out art by women in their collections. From this point of view, Florence’s Church of Santa Croce holds many unexpected surprises. Not only can one find art by women in its complex, it also hosts myriad examples of historical women - from all walks of life - whose lives have been honoured by monumental sculptures. Princesses, mystics, philanthropists, artists - I want to share ‘Santa Croce in Pink’ with you - by focusing primarily on one essential artist whose sculpture graces the outdoor loggia: Felicie de Fauveau.
De Fauveau (1801–1886), one of the first female sculptors to make a living from her art, was the first woman to exhibit at the Paris Salon, in 1827, at the age of 26. A Tuscan-born sculptor, she was embraced by the international intellectual community and received many commissions, including from Prince Anatolio Demidoff and Czar Nicholas I. She spent her childhood in Florence and moved to Paris, France in 1826, at the height of the Restoration period when the Bourbons were again in power. It is there she learned first painting, and later, sculpture. It is said that after a single discussion with a craftsman who made religious statues, she stated “I too am a sculptor”. It is not known if she received any formal training in this medium. In France, de Fauveau became a political activist, an ardent, and passionate, legitimist, who believed in the rights of dynastic succession of the elder descendants of the Bourbon monarchy. Through family connections, she became a favourite in the court of Charles X, and of Maria-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile, Duchesse de Berry, who was married to Charles X’s son. Charles X was forced to abdicate in 1830, and Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, became the French monarch by decree of the parliament over Charles’s designated successor. A royalist insurrection movement to regain the crown for the Bourbon monarchy ensued. De Fauveau joined the movement, the Vendee Rebellion, where she disguised herself in a soldier’s uniform and rode across the countryside, at night, to rally support for the uprising. She was captured and imprisoned for six months in Angers, France, and continued to be persecuted there for her participation in the Vendee Rebellion, so she joined her mother in Florence, in 1833, in a self-imposed exile. In Florence, the Neo-gothic style and the Dantesque revival were in vogue and the Grand Duchy was under Leopoldo II’s rule. Her friends included sculptor, Lorenzo Bartolini, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Antonio Marini and Caroline Bonaparte. She was inspired by traditional medieval art and by sculptor, and goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini. Her home and studio on Via degli Serragli, in Florence, in the ex-convent of Santa Elisabetta delle Converite, became an artistic mecca for foreign travellers during their Grand Tour. Befittingly, the studio today hosts a school for artisans and the applied arts.
In 2013, the restoration and maintenance of two funeral marble monuments by de Fauveau were sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) – one in Santa Maria del Carmine of her mother, Anne de la Pierre, and one in Santa Croce. Her sculptures, born from the hand of a revolutionary woman, when high society women could only practice art as an amateur pursuit, and not as an economic enterprise as she did, have struggled to stand the test of time. Her most important Florentine commission defied social convention by creating an exquisitely carved monument, dedicated to 17-year-old West Indian, Louise de Favreau, and is found in Santa Croce.
Originally intended for Santa Croce’s Medici Chapel, the monument (1854) was instead placed in Santa Croce’s subterranean ex-oratory della Compagnia della Maddalena. On November 4, 1966, the fury of the Arno River submerged the Santa Croce district under 22 feet of oil, mud and water, leaving it, and Florence, in a catastrophic state. De Fauveau’s most recognized masterpiece just one of the thousands of works of art gravely damaged by 600,000 tons of floating debris.
The monument’s home for the last fifty years has been the upper loggia of the church’s first cloister. Over the decades, even though it was restored in 1990, its daily exposure to the outdoor elements has caused irregular discolourations on parts of its surface. During AWA’s maintenance project in 2012, first, the grime was removed from the monuments surface and from within the marble’s pores. Next, a wax polish was used to reduce the marble’s lack of moisture, which is an everlasting side effect of its immersion in the ravaging flood waters.
Restorers found that de Fauveau’s sculptural methods differed from those of her contemporaries, who copied Donatello. She used flat and toothed chisels to create linear movement and probably learned her carving techniques by working on medallions. The monument, inspired by a poem the deceased girl wrote, has many intricately carved Christian motifs and elements of realism, which give this moving sculpture decorative qualities. Her
‘metal-working’ techniques can be found in the elaborate bas-relief of Florence in the background at the bottom of the monument. It’s a one-of-a-kind view of the city where the artist spent over fifty years in voluntary exile!
How did Santa Croce become ‘Pink’?
This brief overview of Felicie de Fauveau’s unique story was first published in a book called Croce in Pink: Untold Stories of Women and their
Monuments. In October 2012, I was presenting the restoration of de Fauveau’s monument to the press and the public, in Santa Croce’s stunning Sala del Cenacolo with Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper fresco as the backdrop.
One of the conference’s speakers was Dr. Giuseppe de Micheli, director of the Santa Croce Cathedral Works Complex. Visibly moved by the kneeling nun-patroness who had sponsored Gaddi’s work (depicted in his painting of Tree
of Life, just above his Last Supper), Dr. Micheli extended a special invitation to my foundation, Advancing Women Artists (AWA), inviting us to combine our efforts with theirs by creating a guidebook and tour, focusing on the ‘feminine essence in Santa Croce’, so that Florence and the world, could learn more about another group of ‘invisible’ women, whose lives and works are profoundly connected with the Basilica and cultural and spiritual legacy it represents.
For me, this publication is very special, for my very favourite church in the world is Santa Croce! It is a magical, mystical, place and to be connected with a project here, is very precious to me. From the get-go, the project was affectionately called
Santa Croce in Pink, which became the title of the book and our journey.
The book spotlights 15 protagonists and their compelling stories, beginning with the thirteenth century and its humble spiritual commitments, through celebration of the city’s ‘Grand Tour’ and ending with the political intrigue of Italy’s unification.
As I end this article on the feminine essence of Santa Croce, I’d like to include a poem written by one of our protagonists, Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici, which so aptly characterizes these 15 women.
Since the cradle, it’s true I have loved the Muses And they bestowed talent upon me So I, on the wings of the moment Could soar, bold as ever Making my own will From others’ desires
Above and inset: Monument to Louise de Favreau by De Fauveau
Right: Portrait of Félicie de Fauveau by Ary Scheffer
Above: The beautiful cloister of Santa Croce with de Fauveau’s monument on the left
Inset: Cover of the AWA Foundation’s book on Sante Croce. See www. advancingwomenartists. org for more information