Florence, Santa Croce

Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM (last entrance time is 5:00 pm)
Sundays 2:00PM- 5:30 PM
http://www.santacroceopera.it/

Don’t let the frescos by Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi or the sculptures by Donatello and Henry Moore distract you: Santa Croce is the burial place of many illustrious Florentines and even a few notable non-Florentine Italians: like Girolamo Segato. A visit to this beautiful church is well worth its 6 Euro entrance fee (even though Cassandra is against paying to enter churches) and is a pleasantly ghoulish experience.

A prelude to Santa Croce’s inner ghoulishness is offered by its beautiful façade, so Florentine gothic that it can’t possibly be real Florentine gothic. In fact, it’s Florentine neo-Gothic, completed in 1863 and designed by the architect Niccolo Matas. If you wonder how a large Star of David came to be placed high above the main entrance to a Franciscan basilica it’s because Matas was Jewish. David found his way to the façade, but Matas was not buried inside the basilica as he had hoped: because of his faith he couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. He’s under the portico.

Santa Croce is also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories (Tempio dell’Itale Glorie) after a line from Ugo Foscolo’s 295-hendecasyllabic-verse-long poem Dei Sepolcri, first published in 1807. Napoleon’s edict of Saint-Cloud- stating that all burials take place outside city walls, in monuments all of the same size with epitaphs that had been approved by a commission- had recently been issued. Foscolo, an atheist, was critical of Napoleon’s decree even though he did not believe in life after death. His line of reasoning was that the dead survive in the monuments they have inspired, in turn inspiring new generations. In fact, Foscolo, who died in England in 1827, asked to have his body brought back and buried in Santa Croce. It’ still there, inspiring new generations to hendecasyllables.

There are plenty of monuments and plenty of tombs in Santa Croce and, while it may seem to be nitpicky, it’s important to distinguish between the two. For example, what may seen to be a tomb of Dante outside the church is just a monument to this great Florentine. What may seem to be a tomb of Dante inside the church is also a cenotaph because Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 and the people of Ravenna have always refused to give him back, hiding his bones on more than one occasion when it seemed that the Florentines were coming to get him. And rightly so: Dante had been banished from Florence when he was alive, why want him back after he was dead?

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Inside you have the greats of the Arts, Sciences and Letters through the ages. Just to list some “M” names: Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Marconi. Ring any bells? There’s also Meucci, who many of you may not have heard of, but now will if you’ll bare with Cassandra.

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Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci was born in Florence in 1808 and died in Staten Island in 1889. He was a close personal friend of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s, but is perhaps best unknown for his associations with Alexander Graham Bell.

Meucci studied chemical and mechanical engineering in Florence but had to drop out of school for financial reasons. He found work and his wife, a costume designer, at the Teatro la Pergola as a stage technician where he constructed a type of acoustic telephone to communicate between the stage and control room.

In 1835, Meucci and his wife emigrated to Havana where Meucci worked at the Great Tacón Theater. When his contract expired and his friendship with General  Garibaldi made him a suspect in Cuba, Meucci took a cue from Samuel F. B. Morse and moved to the States to make a living as an inventor.

The Meuccis made their home in Staten Island where they helped and supported exiles committed to the Italian unification movement. Meucci worked on a method of using electric shocks to treat illnesses such as rheumatism. He would link his patients to two copper wires capped with cork and linked in turn to Bunsen batteries (why he wasn’t using fellow Italian Alessandro Volta’s batteries is a good question but a different story.) He also had copper wire conductors linked to the same batteries: Meucci would sit in his laboratory, the Bunsen batteries would sit in a second room and the patients would sit in a third room. In 1849 while treating a patient with a 114V (V is for volt as in Volta) charge, Meucci heard his patient’s scream through the copper wires. This scream was the catalyst for Meucci’s telegrafo parlante, talking telegraph device. It is unclear what fate met the screamer, but Cassandra’s willing to bet he told Meucci that he had been cured, thank you very much.

On the basis of this prototype, Meucci developed more than 30 kinds of telephones. In 1856 he reportedly constructed the first electromagnetic telephone, a way to communicate between his basement laboratory and the second-floor bedroom where his invalid wife lay ailing from rheumatism.

Meucci wanted to develop his prototype but didn’t have the means. In 1860 he asked a friend to look for Italians willing to finance his start-up, but his buddy Garibaldi’s successes had destabilized Italy and nobody was willing to invest. Meucci had to sell his house and live off the kindness of friends, but he continued to experiment.

In 1870 he was able to transmit a human voice for a mile using a copper plate insulated by cotton as a conductor. He called this device the telettrofono. But he was injured in a boiler explosion aboard the Staten Island ferry and things were so bad that his wife sold his drawings and devices to help make ends meet.

On 12 December 1871 Meucci set up an agreement with some fellow Italian Americans to constitute the Telettrofono Company. Meucci wanted to prepare a patent application but couldn’t scrape up the $250 fee, so all that was prepared was a caveat that cost $20. The caveat submitted to the US Patent Office in 1871 was numbered 3335 and titled “Sound Telegraph.” The caveat did not contain a clear description of how the invention would work because supposedly the attorney erased notes that Meucci added in the margins.

In 1872, Meucci went to the American District Telegraph Co. of New York to ask for permission to test his telephone apparatus on the company’s telegraph lines giving a description of his prototype and a copy of his caveat. Nothing kept happening for two years and when Meucci went back for his documents he was told that they had been lost.

On 28 December 1874, Meucci’s Telettrofono patent caveat expired because he couldn’t find the funds to renew it. Bell got his patent in 1876 and began a long series of lawsuits for patent infringement. Too poor to hire a legal team, Meucci was represented by just one lawyer, an orphan whom he treated as his son.

Years of messy legal battles ensued during which evidence was produced and thrown out, mud was slung, attorneys and judges died and/or were accused of corruption. Meucci’s patent caveat was dismissed as describing a ‘lover’s telegraph’ and his case was dropped when he died, a poor and broken man.

In 2002 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution stating, “that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged….If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.” And we would have to get used to getting telettrophone calls.

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Alexander Graham Bell had stolen the telephone, fair and square, and became a very rich man. Meucci got some posthumous pats on the back and a plaque in Santa Croce that reads:

Far from his native land, On the side of the Atlantic, That another Florentine discovered (They’re talking Amerigo Vespuccci here,) This man offered, with his telephone, The instrument that cancels distanceBetween men and peoples.

And, may Cassandra add with a sigh, between men and their lovers too.

Suggested Reading: Eric Chaline, History’s Worst Inventions


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