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 Essential Architecture-  Florence

S. Maria Novella


Leon Battista Alberti Original Latin cross plan church by Fra Sisto and Fra Ristoro, 1278 to 1350. Renaissance facade by Alberti, begun 1456. 


Florence, Italy


1456 to 1470


Gothic with Italian Rennaisance facade




  The fašade of Santa Maria Novella, completed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470
  Above- Side view from UnitÓ d'Italia Square
Right- The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as imagined in this hand-coloured engraving by Martin Heemskerck (1498 - 1574), has the "old-fashioned" look of Santa Maria Novella and other Italian quattrocento churches of the previous generation.

Santa Maria Novella is a church in Florence, Italy, situated just across the main railway station which shares its name. Chronologically, it is the first great basilica in Florence

The church and the adjoining cloister and chapterhouse contain a store of art treasures and funerary monuments. They are especially famous for their frescoes by masters of Gothic and early Renaissance. They were financed through the generosity of the most important Florentine families, who ensured themselves of funerary chapels on consecrated ground.

This church was called Novella (New) because it was built on the site of the 9th-century oratory of Santa Maria delle Vigne. When the site was assigned to Dominican Order in 1221, they decided to build a new church and an adjoining cloister. The church was designed by two Dominican friars, Fra Sisto da Firenze and Fra Ristoro da Campi. Building began in the mid-13th century (about 1246), and was finished about 1360 under the supervision of Fra Iacopo Talenti with the completion of the Romanesque-Gothic bell tower and sacristy. At that time, only the lower part of the Tuscan gothic facade was finished. The three portals are spanned by round arches, while the rest of the lower part of the facade is spanned by blind arches, separated by pilasters, with below Gothic pointed arches, striped in green and white, capping noblemen's tombs. This same design continues in the adjoining wall around the old churchyard. The church was consecrated in 1420.

On a commission from Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, a local textile merchant, Leone Battista Alberti designed the upper part of the inlaid black and white marble facade of the church (1456-1470). He was already famous as the architect of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, but even more for his seminal treatise on architecture De Re Aedificatoria, based on the book De Architectura of the classical Roman writer Vitruvius. He brought his proto-renaissance design in harmony with the already existing part of the facade. It consists of a rectangular middle part, with four white-green pilasters and a round window, crowned by a pediment with the Dominican solar emblem, and flanked on both sides by enormous S-curved volutes. The frieze below the pediment carries the name of the patron : IOHAN(N)ES ORICELLARIUS PAU(LI) F(ILIUS) AN(NO) SAL(UTIS) MCCCCLXX (Giovanni Rucellai son of Paolo in the blessed year 1470). The four columns with Corinthian capitals on the lower part of the facvade, the pediment and the frieze are clearly inspired by the antiquity, but the S-curved scrolls in the upper part are new and without precedent in antiquity. The scrolls (or variations of them), found in churches all over Italy, all find their origin here in the design of this church.

The vast interior is based on a basilica plan, designed as a Latin cross and is divided into a nave, two aisles with stained-glass windows and a short transept. The large nave is 100 metres long and gives an impression of austerity. There is a trompe l'oeil-effect by which this nave towards the apse seems longer than its actual length. The slender compound piers between the nave and the aisles are ever closer when you go deeper into the nave. The ceiling in the vault consists pointed arches with the four diagonal buttresses in black and white.

The stained-glass windows date from the 14th and 15th c., such as 15th c. Madonna and Child and St. John and St. Philip (designed by Filippino Lippi), both in the Filippo Strozzi Chapel. Some stained glass windows have been damaged in the course of centuries and had to be replaced. The one on the facade, a depiction of the Coronation of Mary dates from the 14th c., based on a design of Andrea Bonaiuti.

The Trinity by Masaccio
The Trinity by Masaccio

The pulpit, commissioned by the Rucellai family in 1443, was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and executed by his adopted child Andrea Calvalcanti. This pulpit has a particular historical significance, because from this pulpit the first attack came on Galileo Galilei, leading eventually to his indictment.

The Trinity, situated almost halfway in the left aisle, is a pioneering early renaissance work of Masaccio, showing his new ideas about perspective and mathematical proportions. Its meaning for the art of painting can easily be compared by the importance of Brunelleschi for architecture and Donatello for sculpture. The patrons are the kneeling figures of the judge and his wife, members of the Lenzi family. The cadaver tomb below carries the epigram : "I was what you were, and you will be what I was".

Of particular note in the right aisle is the Tomba della Beata Villana, a monument by Bernardo Rossellino in 1451. In the same aisle, you can find the tombs of the Bishop of Fiesole by Tino di Camaino and another one by Nino Pisano.

The Filippo Strozzi Chapel is situated on the right side of the main altar. The Strozzi Chapel was the place were the first tale of the Decamerone by Giovanni Boccaccio began, when seven ladies decided to leave the town, and flee from the Black Plague to the countryside. The series of frescoes from Filippo Lippi depict the life of Philip the Apostle and James the Apostle. They were completed in 1502. On the right wall is the fresco St Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis and in the lunette above it, the Crucifixion of St Philip. On the left wall is the fresco St John the Evangelist Resuscitating Druisana and in the lunette above it The Torture of St John the Evangelist. Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jacob are represented on the ribbed vault. Behind the altar is the tomb of Filippo Strozzi with a sculpture by Benedetto da Maiano (1441).

The bronze crucifix on the main altar is by Giambologna (16th century). The choir (or the Capella Tornabuoni) contains another series of famous frescoes, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his apprentice the young Michelangelo (1485-1490). They represent themes from the life of the Virgin and John the Baptist, situated in Florence of the late 15th c. Several members of important Florentine families were portrayed on these frescoes. The vaults are covered with paintings of the Evangelists. On the back wall are the paintings Saint Dominic burns the Heretical Books and Saint Peter's Martyrdom, the Annunciation, and Saint John goes into the Desert.

The stained-glass windows were made in 1492 by the Florentine artist Alessandro Agolanti, known also as il Bidello, based on cartoons by Ghirlandaio.

The Gondi Chapel, by Giuliano da Sangallo, is situated on the left side of the main altar and dates from the end of the 13th c. Here you can see on the back wall the famous wooden Crucifix by Brunelleschi, one of his very few sculptures. The legend goes that he was so disgusted by the "primitive" Crucifix of Donatello in the Santa Croce church, that he made this one. The vault contains fragments of frescoes by 13th-century Greek painters. The polychrome marble decoration was applied by Giuliano da Sangallo (ca.1503). The stained-glass window is recent and dates from the 20th century.

The Capella Strozzi di Mantova is situated at the end of the left transept. The frescoes were commissioned by Tommasso Strozzi, an ancestor of Filippo Strozzi, to Nardo di Cione (1350-1357). The frescoes are inspired by Dante's Divina Commedia: Last Judgment (on the back wall; including a portrait of Dante), Hell (on the right wall) and paradise (on the left wall). The main altarpiece of The Redeemer with the Madonna and Saints was done by his brother Andrea di Cione, better kwown as Orcagna. The large stained-glass window on the back was made from a cartoon by the brothers Andrea and Nardo di Cione.

The Della Pura Chapel is situated north of the old cemetery. It dates from 1474 and was constructed with Renaissance columns. It was restored in 1841 by Baccani. On the left side there is a lunette with a 14th century fresco Madonna and Child and St. Catherine. There is a wooden crucifix by Baccio da Montelupo (1501) on the front altar.

The Rucellai Chapel, at the end of the right aisle, dates from the 1300s. It houses, besides the tomb of Paolo Rucellai (15th century) and the marble statue of the Madonna and the Child by Nino Pisano, several art treasures such as remains of frescoes by the Maestro di Santa Cecilia (end 13th - beginning 14th century). The panel on the left wall, the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, was painted by Giuliano Bugiardini (with possibly assistance by Michelangelo). The bronze tomb, in the centre of the floor, was made by Ghiberti in 1425.

The Bardi Chapel, the second chapel on the right of the apse, was founded by Riccardo Bardi and dates from early 14th century. The high-relief on a pillar on the right depicts Saint Gregory blessing Riccardo Bardi. The walls show us some early 1300s frescoes attributed to Spinello Aretino. The Madonna del Rosario on the altar is by Giorgio Vasari (1568)

The sacristy, at the end of the left aisle, was built as the Chapel of the Annunciation by the Cavalcanti family in 1380. Now it houses again, after a period of fourtain years of cleaning and renovation, the enormous painted Crucifix with the Madonna and John the Evangelist, an early work by Giotto. He had rediscovered the ideal proportions for the human body, as established by the Roman architect Vitruvius (1st century AD, see also : Vitruvian Man). The sacristy is also embellished by a glazed terra cotta and a marble font, masterpieces by Giovanni della Robbia (1498). The cupboards were designed by Bernardo Buontalenti in 1593. The paintings on the wall are ascribed to Giorgio Vasari and some other comtemporary Florentine painters. The large Gothic window with three mullions at the back wall dates from 1386 and was based on cartoons by Niccol˛ di Pietro Gerini

The Spanish Chapel (or Cappellone degli Spagnoli) is the former chapterhouse of the monastery. It is situated at the north side of the green Cloister (Chiostro Verde). It was commissioned by Mico Guidalotti as his funerary chapel. Construction started c. 1343 and was finished in 1355. It was called "Spanish Chapel", because Cosimo I assigned it to Eleonora of Toledo and her Spanish retinue. The Spanish Chapel contains a smaller Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament. The Spanish Chapel is decorated with 14th century frescoes by Andrea Bonaiuti. The large fresco on the right wall depicts the Allegory of the Active and Triumphant Church and of the Dominican order. It is especially interesting because it shows in the background the original designs of the Duomo of Florence by Arnolfo di Cambio (before Brunelleschi's dome was built). This fresco also contains portraits of pope Benedict IX, cardinal Friar Niccol˛ Albertini, count Guido di Poppi, Arnolfo di Cambio and the poet Petrarca. The frescoes on the other walls represent scenes from the lifes of Christ and Saint Peter, The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Allegory of the Sciences. The five-panelled polyptych on the altar of the Madonna Enthroned With and Child and Four Saints was made by Bernardo Daddi and dates from 1344.

Giorgio Vasari was the architect, commissioned in 1567 by Grand Duke Cosimo I, for the first remodelling of the church, which included removing its original rood screen and loft, and adding six chapels between the columns. An armillary sphere (on the left) and a gnomon (on the right) were added to the end blind arches of the lower facade by Ignazio Danti, astronomer of the High Duke Cosimo I in 1572. The second remodelling was designed by Enrico Romoli, and was carried out between 1858 and 1860.

Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Artists who produced items for the church include:

Baccio D'Agnolo - wood carvings 
Bronzino - the Miracle of Jesus 
Filippo Brunelleschi - The Crucifix (between 1410 and 1425) 
Tino da Camaino - Bust of St. Antoninus (in terra cotta); the Tomb of the Bishop of Fiesole 
Nardo di Cione - frescoes of the Divine Judgment 
Duccio - Rucellai Madonna 
Lorenzo Ghiberti - tombstone of Leonardo Dati (1423) 
Domenico Ghirlandaio - frescoes (late 15th century) in the choir, the stained-glass window 
Filippino Lippi - frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel, depicting the life of Philip the Apostle; stained glass window 
Benedetto da Maiano - the Tomb of Filippo Strozzi (1491) at the backside of the Strozzi Chapel. 
Giacomo Marchetti : Martyrdom of Saint Laurence. 
Masaccio - The Trinity 
Nino Pisano - Madonna with Child (1368) 
Rossellino - Monument to the Beata Villana (1451) 
Santi di Tito : Lazarus raised from Death 
Paolo Uccello - frescoes in the cloisters 
Giorgio Vasari - Madonna of the Rosary (1568) 
The square in front the church was used by Cosimo I for the yearly chariot race (Palio dei Cocchi). This custom existed between 1563 and late in the 19th century. The two obelisks marked the start and the finish of the race. They were set up to imitate an antique Roman circus. The obelisks rest on bronze tortoises, made in 1608 by the sculptor Giambologna.