Detail of one of the Agnolo Gaddi frescoes recently restored above the high altar of Santa Croce.  Previous filling of the cracks has been removed and will not be replaced as it damages the fresco further by altering the colours.

Seeing fourteenth century frescoes centimetres away is pretty special, but seeing them many metres up from the ground on the restorers’ scaffolding, and being able to touch the ceiling, is a rare and fascinating experience. In an instant role-reversal, we are no longer merely the spectator but it is easy to imagine being the artist, and we are privy to all the little details that the workshop included, details that are missed when seen from a ‘normal’ viewing point, down below.

Scaffolding for the conservation project of the high altar frescoes
The cleaning and conservation project of the high altar frescoes, covering 900,000 square feet, in the main Franciscan church called Santa Croce in Florence, started in 2005, and scaffolding has blocked entry and viewing since then. This huge undertaking was financed by a private Japanese businessman, Mr. Kamazawa, who donated two million euros.  The restoration was carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a centuries-old Florentine workshop of international repute, devoted to restoration since the nineteenth century. The major part of the work on the frescoes has finished, however the scaffolding will remain until next June whilst the restorers monitor their work. They are also now cleaning and restoring the fourteenth century wooden crucifixion by the Master of Figline which usually hangs above the same high altar. The crucifixion is laid horizontally on a table on one of the many ‘floors’ made from the scaffolding.
Scaffolding surrounding the fourteenth century wooden crucifixion
The Opera di Santa Croce, the administrative body of the Santa Croce church complex, offers guided tours on the scaffolding, in both Italian and English, twice daily to see the frescoes and explain the story that they depict.  Silvia, my guide, talked us brilliantly through the frescoed scenes and answered my endless questions about the recent works. The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes to one hour and, at a cost of 10 euros a person, it is worth every penny. Tours will definitely run until Spring this year and possibly until June, the estimated time when the high altar is planned to be revealed and returned once again to the church.
Restorers’ work station high up in the gods

The Franciscan church is dedicated to the holy cross of Christ, and the high altar frescoes, executed between 1380-90 by the Florentine artisan Agnolo Gaddi and his workshop, depict the history of the cross of Christ, from the very origin of the tree from which the wood of the cross was constructed, to its fate after the crucifixion of Jesus. Saint Francis of Assisi was particularly dedicated to the cross, symbolic of the suffering that Christ endured for the saving of mankind and his life. Francis earned the appellation Alter Christus due to the similarities between his own life and way of being and that of  Christ. He, like Christ, renounced worldly possessions and advocated a life of obedience, chastity and poverty (these virtues are symbolically represented by the three knots in the rope around the waist of the Franciscan habit). In 1224, two years before his death, he was the first Christian to receive the stigmata, the transversal of the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, symbolic of Francis’ elevated faith, holiness and reverence of Christ. Considering the mystical association of Francis and Christ with the stigmata, it is not surprising that a Franciscan church is dedicated to the Holy Cross.

A restorer’s view of Gaddi’s fresco cycle

The story of the wood used to make the cross is wonderfully dramatic. It’s very origins are contemporaneous with the origins of man himself. The history of the cross is narrated, at length, in the bestseller of the mid-thirteenth century, The Golden Legend, by Jacopo della Voragine, the bishop of Genoa and a Dominican friar.  His compilation of religious stories and hagiographies became a ‘must read’ for centuries. 
The first episode at Santa Croce depicts Adam’s death when his third son, Seth, put a branch from the Tree of Good and Evil, given to him by the Archangel Michael, inside the mouth of Adam before burial. This branch grows into a beautiful tree and when King Solomon was building the temple he ordered that the magnificent tree be chopped down so as to use the wood. The wood, however, proved to be too tough to work, and so instead was used to bridge a river. The Queen of Sheba,  crossing this river en route to meet the famous Solomon,  had a vision from God of the future use of the cross and told Solomon when she arrived in Jerusalem. Solomon, knowing that the wood would later be used for the cross of the man who would change the course of history for his people, buried it. Centuries after the crucifixion, Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was determined to find the cross. She succeeded after much searching and more adventures. It would then be stolen, fought over, and returned to Christian hands, divided up and scattered throughout Christendom.
Discovery of the True cross (detail)
The construction of the True Cross
Another elaborate cycle of the cross in Tuscany, frescoed in the following century, is in another Franciscan church, San Francisco, in Arezzo, by the great fifteenth century artist, Piero della Francesca.
Discovery and proof of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in San Francisco, Arezzo. Note the beautiful depiction of Jerusalem beyond the hills which is, in fact, Arezzo with its many coloured buildings enclosed by its walls.