Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
History and museums
Santa Maria Novella is a church in Florence, Italy, situated just across from the main railway station which shares its name. Chronologically, it is the first great basilica in Florence, and is the city's principal Dominican church.
The church, the adjoining cloister, and chapterhouse contain a store of art treasures and funerary monuments. Especially famous are 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 Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi. Building began in the mid-13th century (about 1246), and was finished about 1360 under the supervision of Friar 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 green marble of Prato, also called "serpentino" 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. Alberti had also designed the facade for the Rucellai Palace in Florence.
Alberti attempted to bring the ideals of humanist architecture, proportion and classically inspired detailing to bear on the design while also creating harmony with the already existing medieval part of the facade. His contribution consists of a broad frieze decorated with squares and everything above it, including the 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 four columns with Corinthian capitals on the lower part of the facade were also added. 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 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 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 of pointed arches with the four diagonal buttresses in black and white.
The interior also contains corinthian columns that were inspired by the Classical era of Greek and Roman times.
The stained-glass windows date from the 14th and 15th century, such as 15th century 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 have been replaced. The one on the facade, a depiction of the Coronation of Mary dates from the 14th century, based on a design of Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze.
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 Holy 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 once what you are, and what I am you will become".
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 where 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 Filippino Lippi depict the lives 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 (1491).
The bronze crucifix on the main altar is by Giambologna (16th century). The choir (or the Cappella 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 century. 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.
This chapel, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is situated on the left side of the main altar and dates from the end of the 13th century. Here, on the back wall, is 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 (c. 1503). The stained-glass window is recent and dates from the 20th century.
The Cappella Strozzi di Mantova is situated at the end of the left transept. The frescoes were commissioned by Tommaso Strozzi, an ancestor of Filippo Strozzi, to Nardo di Cione (1350–1357). The frescoes are inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy: 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 known 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 14th century. 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 14th-century 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 fourteen 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 contemporary Florentine painters. The large Gothic window with three mullions at the back wall dates from 1386 and was based on cartoons by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini
The Spanish Chapel (or Cappellone degli Spagnoli) is the former chapter house of the monastery. It is situated at the north side of the green Cloister (Chiostro Verde). It was commissioned by Buonamico (Mico) Guidalotti as his funerary chapel. Construction started c. 1343 and was finished in 1355. The Guidalotti chapel was later 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 was decorated from 1365 to 1367 by Andrea di Bonaiuto, also known as Andrea da Firenze. 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 in the background it shows a large pink building that may provide some insight into the original designs for the Duomo of Florence by Arnolfo di Cambio (before Brunelleschi's dome was built), although this interpretation is fantastical as the Duomo was never intended to be pink, nor to have the belltower at its back side. This fresco also contains portraits of pope Benedict IX, cardinal Friar Niccolò Albertini, count Guido di Poppi, Arnolfo di Cambio and the poet Petrarch. The frescoes on the other walls represent scenes from the lives of Christ and Saint Peter on the entry wall (mostly ruined due to the later installation of a choir), The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Allegory of Christian Learning on the left wall, and the large "Crucifixion with the Way to Calvalry and the Descent into Limbo" on the archway of the altar wall. The four-part vault contains scenes of Christ's resurrection, the navicella, the ascension, and Pentecost. The five-panelled Gothic polyptych that was probably originally made for the chapel's altar, depicting the Madonna Enthroned With and Child and Four Saints by Bernardo Daddi dates from 1344 and is currently on display in a small museum area accessed through glass doors from the far end of the cloister. Together, the complex iconography of the ceiling vault, walls, and altar combine to communicate the message of Dominicans as guides to salvation.
Giorgio Vasari was the architect, commissioned in 1567 by Grand Duke Cosimo I, for the first remodeling 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 façade by Ignazio Danti, astronomer of Cosimo I, in 1572. The second remodeling was designed by Enrico Romoli, and was carried out between 1858 and 1860.
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 of the Corsa dei Cocchi 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.
Artists who produced items for the church include: