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

With its splendid formal purity and unmistakeable design of the beautiful 14th century facade, Santa Maria Novella reconfirms the inestimable value of the city’s artistic patrimony.

Michelangelo used to call it “my bride”, and we can easily guess why: because being both a Gothic and Renaissance architectural masterpiece, the church holds within it works by Giotto, Masaccio, Ghirlandaio and Brunelleschi. In the convent next door, illustrious researchers have toiled over the centuries – even Dante is said to have taken his first steps as a poet here.

As Santa Croce in Florence was the reference point for Franciscan culture, so Santa Maria Novella was the beating heart of another order taking vows of poverty, the Dominicans.

The Dominicans: born together with the Franciscan order, to promote a new kind of preaching based on charity, humility and fundamental Christian values. But above all, it was born to combat the heresy of Catharism, then spreading even in Florence. The Cathars practiced a life of chastity and purity and, according to them, the Roman Church was dedicated to sin and corruption, the incarnation of evil. This was considered medieval heresy at its worst and, to fight it, a special religious court was created, the infamous Inquisition.

In 1219, the first twelve preaching monks arrived in Bologna. A small church outside the walls of the city was assigned to them. This was a Florence that we need to imagine as being much smaller than what we see today. In accordance with the rules of the Order, Dominican buildings were required to have a modest look and dimensions: the walls of the convents couldn’t be longer than 30 meters, church ceilings could not be vaulted. But Dominican sermons, impassioned and captivating, brought together crowds that grew more and more numerous, so large, in fact, that their simple buildings certainly couldn’t hold them. It took special permission from the pope to go against the rules of the order and allow the friars to build a “novella” or “new” church. And any citizen who contributed to the works was even granted an indulgence.

On October 18, 1279, the first stone was solemnly placed. The works were finished well into the first half of the 1300s, under the direction of Iacopo Talenti. A few years later, the large piazza in front of the church was also assigned to it as a crowning touch.

Once completed, it was clear that the new building had nothing in common with the old Dominican structures. The church astounded everyone with the height of its naves, so high, in fact, that they were considered to be the limits of structural possibility. Inside, the spaces melded into one vast hall. The spaces between the columns, shorter as they proceed towards the altar, accentuated the sense of depth. Even if the architectural form was simple and austere, the church exalted in a spectacular way the greatness and power of the Dominican order. The works commissioned by the monks could only add to the prestige. They are masterpieces that have written important chapters of the history of art of all time.

Inside, in the center of the nave, towers Giotto’s famed crucifix that the artist painted when very young, at the end of the 13th century. This work is a milestone of art history and is witness to the absolute modernity of the artist, who went beyond the symbolic style still prevalent in sacred iconography of the period. What’s more, it is the manifesto of a new religiosity with which the Dominicans wanted to oppose the Cathar heresy: in opposition to the bodily censure that the heretics supposedly preached was the exaltation of physicality and humanity. This new sensitivity finds in Giotto’s Christ its highest expression: the great body wracked with pain, arched and pulled downwards, sends a message of intense and profound humanity.

On the left wall, there is another masterpiece of 14th century art: Masaccio’s Trinity. It is the last known work of the artist, who died shortly thereafter, at only 27 years of age. Within the monumental classic architecture, God the father supports Christ’s cross. The figures of the painting’s sponsors kneel at the sides of the scene -an absolute novelty: never before had normal sized profane subjects been painted into sacred scenes.

The language is daring and revolutionary: for the first time the scene is presented with exceptional realism and is inserted into a grandiose painted scenario. The space, created in perspective, hit the eyes of the time as though it were real. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: the wall opened onto a sort of hole, revealing a bleak chapel done in an entirely new and different style. The Renaissance had begun to overtake the Gothic: modern times were knocking at the door.

Halfway through the 15th century, the unfinished facade of the Gothic church finally found both an architect and a sponsor: Giovanni Rucellai is the rich businessman who commissions the work of completion, and the architect is an illustrious example of the new Renaissance school: Leon Battista Alberti.

The facade is one of the principal works of Florentine Renaissance. Alberti creates an exceptional synthesis between new and old, thanks also to the marble decoration, typical of the Florentine Romanic style. Gothic-style elements in the first level of the facade are inserted into a classical scheme, in an organic and balanced whole. The referential design is geometric and perfectly modular, according to Renaissance architectural language. All the elements are connected by geometric proportions of multiples and submultiples: the facade’s baseline, for example, is equal to the height, with which it forms a square.

In line with Renaissance spirit, sacred and profane find their meeting point at the center of the tympanum, where the face of baby Jesus is inserted in the flaming solar disc, symbol of the Dominicans, as well as the Santa Maria Novella quarter. Also, on the upper architrave, there is an inscription with Rucellai’s name - he couldn’t resist being remembered as prodigious benefactor. There is also the year of completion - 1470. Actually, the church’s facade was completed a good 500 years later.

In the long frame in the center of the facade appears the splendid motif of sails filled with wind, the Rucellai family crest –the same as can be found on the palazzo of the same name, in town. But it is probably the two spiral profiles at the sides of the upper area with their exceptionally fine decoration, that are the most characteristic of the entire facade. These two elements are actually not just an elegant decorative invention: they are really Alberti’s brilliant trick to hide the difference in the height of the central nave and that of the side naves which are notably lower.

The two scientific instruments at the sides of the facade are clear references to the triumph of reason and science: to the left we find a marble equinoctial armillary sphere and on the right, an astronomical quadrant in bronze. Both are works of a Dominican monk, Egnatio Danti, astronomer and cartographer during the Granduchy of Tuscany. Thanks to these instruments, the scientist was able to demonstrate the discrepancy between the solar year and the calendar then in use. And he convinced Pope Gregory XIII to promote the new “Gregorian” calendar with which, in the space of a single night, ten days were recouped in one fell swoop!

The story of Santa Maria Novella is enriched by yet another chapter when, in the middle of the 16th century, Cosimo I of the Medici family offered to finance the work of restoring and transforming the church. The brain behind the project was another illustrious name in the history of art: Giorgio Vasari, trusted family architect to the Medicis. Vasari, following the indications of the Council of Trent, drastically transformed the church, giving it its present look: no more chapels or separate spaces given that the new impassioned and captivating sermons needed ample room and total control from the main altar. Not to mention multiple altars for multiple services. The new religious sensibility handed down by the Council was aimed at exalting the Church’s sovereignty -above all.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 25 Jun 2023

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