Church of Santa Maria Novella
Widened on many occasions to hold all the faithful arriving to hear the preaching of the Dominican monks, with their monastery in the square, Piazza Santa Maria Novella is one of the biggest squares in the historical center of Florence.
Ever since the Middle Ages it has been used for feasts, tournaments and other events. Here they held the Palio dei Cocchi, as two marble obelisks by Giambologna show. This was a carriage race, fashionable in the mid 19th century, between the Basilica and the Hospital of San Paolo.
Besides the Basilica the square houses other important buildings: the long portico of the Hospital of San Paolo and the adjacent monks' pharmacy, the ancient laboratory for herbs and medicinal plants distilled by monks to cure the sick and the pilgrims.
Church of Santa Maria Novella
The Basilica of the same name with its famous Leon Battista Alberti facade overlooks the square. Alberti, really a scholar, is one of the main Renaissance figures, codifier of perspective principles and author of a series of important theoretical treatises. Santa Maria Novella is one of the first Florentine Basilicas. Its name comes from the substitution of a preceding IX century oratory dedicated to Santa Maria delle Vigne. From 1221, when the entire area was acquired by the Domenican order, they started building the new church under the management of Iacopo Talenti and it was then to become the new, sumptuous seat of the powerful, monastic order.
The Basilica facade is a Renaissance art masterpiece. Here Alberti, framing this first fascia of the mid Trecento in the duotone of the general drawing (strong reference to the XI century Baptistery) used the Renaissance principles, that he himself had codified, of architecture as application of a regular design, ordered by mathematical and geometrical rules. Here architecture is considered a scenario of elements organized in a ratio of balance and harmony, to be looked at as if it were a painting.
Alberti integrates the existing facade fascia into a Roman temple design and invents two side volutes connecting the upper, new and lower parts. Amongst other things, this was a useful way to hide the sloping roof over the side naves. Under the tympanum you can see writing in large letters with the name of Giovanni Paolo Rucellai, the rich Renaissance merchant who financed the completion of the work (unfinished for lack of money) and assigned said work to Alberti.
Inside, the Basilica has one of the early Renaissance masterpieces: the magnificent Trinity done by Masaccio between 1425 and 1427, just before the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Carmine. In a daringly innovative perspective design reproducing a chapel as though it were an extension to the church architecture, Masaccio inserted the imposing figures of Father and Son on the cross. Further forward, to the sides, the Virgin and St John, while in the forefront you see the fresco donor, a member of the Lenzi family, in a Gonfalonier costume (the highest civil position in the Commune of Florence), kneeling with his wife. Just a bit further down there's a skeleton on a tomb with the inscription: 'I am what you were and you will be what I am', alluding to the frailty of life.