As in Venice and so many other Italian cities, the two churches of the great medieval preaching orders – the Dominicans’ Santa Maria Novella and the Franciscans’ Santa Croce – became the largest and most prestigious in the city, where wealthy families vied to create the most beautiful chapels and tombs. Santa Maria Novella has the prettier face – the stupendous black and white marble façade is the finest in Florence.
The lower section, with its looping arcades, is Romanesque work in the typical Tuscan mode, finished before 1360. In 1456 Giovanni Rucellai commissioned Alberti to complete it, a remarkably fortunate choice. Alberti’s upper half not only perfectly harmonizes with the original, but perfects it with geometrical harmonies to create a kind of Renaissance sun temple. To Alberti it seemed a logical progression: the original builders had oriented Santa Maria to the south instead of the usual west, so that at noon the sun streams through the 14th-century rose window.
The only symbol Alberti put on the façade is a blazing sun; the unusual sundials, over the arches on the extreme right and left, were added by Cosimo I’s court astronomer Egnazio Danti. Note how the base of the façade is also the base of a right triangle, with Alberti’s sun at the apex. The beautiful frieze depicts the Rucellai emblem (a billowing sail), as on the Palazzo Rucellai. The wall of Gothic recesses to the right, enclosing the old cemetery, are avelli, or family tombs.
1) Masaccio's Trinity; 2) Brunelleschi's pulpit; 3) Cappella Strozzi; 4) Sacristy; 5) Cappella Gondi; 6) Sanctuary; 7) Filippo Strozzi Chapel; 8) Rucellai Chapel; 9) Gothic Tombs; 10) Universal Deluge; 11) Spanish Chapel; 12) Chiostrino dei Morti; 13) Refectory
The interior is vast, lofty and more Gothic in feel than any other church in Florence. No thanks to Vasari, though, who was set loose to remodel the church to 16th-century taste, painting over the original frescoes, removing the rood screen and Dominicans’ choir from the nave, and remodelling the altars. Then in the 1800s restorers did their best to de-Vasari Santa Maria with neo-Gothic details.
Neither party, however, could touch two of the interior’s most distinctive features – the striking stone vaulting of the nave and the perspective created by the columns marching down the aisles, each pair placed a little closer together as they approach the altar. Over the portal is a fresco lunette by Botticelli, as well as an anonymous 14th-century Annunciation in an elaborate ‘Tuscan’ frame, and another Annunciation, one of the last works by Santi di Tito.
Santa Maria Novella’s best-known fresco is over the third altar on the left (although the altar itself has now been removed): Masaccio’s Trinity, painted around 1425, a key work of the Renaissance. This is the first known fresco that makes use of perspective as demonstrated by Brunelleschi: even today you can make out the spot just under the cross where Masaccio stuck a nail into the wall to mark the vanishing point, and the strings he pressed into the plaster to use as guides.
Combined with his pioneering use of architectural elements, derived from Brunelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti, the perspective lends his composition a novel physical and intellectual depth. The flat wall becomes a deeply recessed chapel, calm and classical, enclosed in a coffered barrel vault, dominated by a commanding figure of God the Father; at the foot of the fresco a bleak skeleton decays in its tomb, bearing a favourite Tuscan reminder: IO FUI GIÀ QUEL CHE VOI SIETE E QUEL CHE IO SON VOI ANCOR SARETE‘I was that which you are, you will be that which I am.’ Above this morbid suggestion of physical death kneel the two donors; within the celestially rational inner sanctum the Virgin and St John stand at the foot of the Cross, providing humanity’s link with the mystery of the Trinity.
Brunelleschi designed the pulpit nearby, where Galileo was first denounced by the Inquisition (and whispered his perhaps apocryphal eppur si muove. There is little else to detain you in the aisles, but don’t miss the elevated chapel in the left transept, the Cappella Strozzi.
On the vault pictures of St Thomas Aquinas and the Virtues are echoed in Orcagna’s magnificent altarpiece The Redeemer Donating the Keys to St Peter and the Book of Wisdom to St Thomas Aquinas (1357). On the left wall there’s Nardo's crowded scene of Paradise, with the righteous lined up in a medieval school class photograph. On the right wall, Nardo painted a striking view of Dante’s Inferno, with all of a Tuscan’s special attention to precise map-like detail.
Giotto’s recently restored Crucifix (c. 1300), one of the artist’s first works, hangs very dramatically in the centre of the nave, suspended from the ceiling.
You can compare it, in the Gondi Chapel, to another famous Crucifix, carved in wood by Brunelleschi, which, according to Vasari, so astonished his friend Donatello that when he first set eyes upon it, he dropped all the eggs he was carrying in his apron for their lunch. Donatello apparently admitted Brunelleschi's was far superior to his 'crucified peasant' in Santa Croce, although not all modern viewers will agree.
The charming fresco cycle in the Sanctuary (1485–90), painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio, portrays the Lives of the Virgin, St John the Baptist and the Dominican Saints in magnificent architectural settings; little Michelangelo Buonarroti was among the students who helped him complete it. Nearly all of the bystanders are portraits of Florentine quattrocento VIPs, including the artist himself (in the red hat, in the Expulsion of St Joachim from the Temple), but most prominent are the ladies and gents of the Tornabuoni house.
More excellent frescoes adorn the Filippo Strozzi Chapel, the finest work ever to come from the brush of Filippino Lippi, completed in 1502 near the end of his life; the exaggerated, dark and violent scenes portray the Lives of St Philip (his crucifixion and his subduing of the dragon before the Temple of Mars, which creates such a stench it kills the heathen prince) and of St John the Evangelist (raising Drusiana from the dead and being martyred in boiling oil).
The chapel’s beautifully carved tomb of Filippo Strozzi is by Benedetto da Maiano. The Rucellai Chapel contains a marble statue of the Madonna by Nino Pisano, son of Andrea Pisano and a fine bronze tomb by Ghiberti.
Of the three Gothic tombs nearby in the right transept, one contains the remains of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in the city in 1439 during the Council of Florence.
More great frescoes await in Santa Maria Novella’s cloisters, all recently restored and open as a city museum. The first cloister, the Green Cloister (c. 1440) is one of the masterpieces of Paolo Uccello, deriving its name from the terraverde or green earth pigment used by the artist, which lends the scenes from Genesis their eerie, ghostly quality. Much damaged by time and neglect, they are nevertheless striking for their two Uccellian obsessions – perspective and animals, the latter stealing the scene of the Creation.
His relatively well-preserved Universal Deluge verges on the surreal, a picture framed by not one but two arks (symbolizing the Eastern and Western churches, which were briefly united at the Council of Florence), whose steep walls have the uncanny effect of making the scene race out of its own vanishing point, a vanishing point touched by divine wrath in a searing bolt of lightning.
In between the claustrophobic arks the flood rises, tossing up a desperate ensemble of humanity, waterlogged bodies, naked men bearing clubs, crowded in a jam of flotsam and jetsam and islets rapidly receding in the dark waters.
In the right foreground, amidst the panic and under a dove of peace, stands a tall robed man, recently identified as Cosimo il Vecchio (Florence’s Noah, saving all on the ship of state) while a flood victim seizes him by the ankles. Some of Uccello’s favourite perspective studies were of headgear, especially the wooden hoops called mazzocchi which he puts around the necks and on the heads of his figures like life preservers.
The Spanish Chapel, where the Inquisition had its headquarters in Florence, opens up at the far end of the cloisters and takes its name from the Spanish court followers of Eleonora di Toledo who worshipped here.
This chapel too is famous for its frescoes, the masterpiece of a 14th-century artist named Andrea di Buonaiuto, whose subject was the Dominican cosmology, perhaps not something we have much empathy for these days, but here beautifully portrayed so that even the Hounds of the Lord (a pun on the Order’s name, the ‘Domini canes’) on the right wall seem more like pets than militant bloodhounds sniffing out heresy.
The church behind the scene with the hounds is a fairy pink confection of what Buonaiuto imagined the Duomo would look like when finished; it may well be Arnolfo di Cambio’s original conception. Famous Florentines, including Giotto, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, stand to the right of the dais supporting the pope, emperor and various sour-faced hierophants. Off to the right the artist has portrayed four rather urbane looking Vices with dancing girls, while the Dominicans lead stray sheep back to the fold.
On the left wall, St Thomas Aquinas dominates the portrayal of the Contemplative Life, surrounded by Virtues and Doctors of the Church.
The oldest part of the monastery, the Chiostrino dei Morti (1270s), contains some 14th-century frescoes, while the Great Cloister (the largest in Florence) has recently opened to the public, now that the Carabinieri—the new men in black charged with keeping the Italians orthodox—have vacated the premises. Its arches are filled with frescoes by Alessandro Allori, Santi di Tito, Ludovico Cigoli and Bernardino Poccetti.
Above the cloister are the Papal Apartments where visiting Popes resided (and where Donatello's Marzocco once glared at Pope Martin V, when His Holiness overstayed his welcome). The Popes' Chapel has a stunning lunette of Santa Veronica and the Holy Image by Pontormo.
Off the Green Cloister, the Refectory is a striking hall with cross vaulting and frescoes by Alessandro Allori, now serving as a museum of fresco fragments and bits and pieces from the church.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Entrances are at 4 Piazza della Stazione (entry for holders of the Firenze Card), or via the Cemetery of the 'Avelli' off the south aisle of the Basilica.
Hours Mon-Thurs & Sat 9am-5.30pm; Fri 11am-5.30pm; Sun 12noon-5pm (July-Sept); winter 1-5pm (Oct-June)
Adm €7.5, €5 ages 11-18; under 11 free (cash only).
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Images by: PD Art, MCAD Library, sailko, Mike Pauls, ivan herman