The Church of Santa Maria Novella | The meeting point
Considered the first great basilica in Florence, the Church of Santa Maria Novella is also the principal Dominican’s basilica (while the Basilica of the Holy Cross is the Franciscan one).
Located in the namesake square, the Church of Santa Maria Novella contains beautiful frescoes from Gothic and Early Renaissance, financed by the most important Florentine families.
The history of the Church of Santa Maria Novella
The Church of Santa Maria Novella is called with the adjective Novella (that means new), because it was built on the site of a 9th century oratory, the oratory of Santa Maria delle Vigne.
In 1221 the site was assigned to the religious order of the Dominican, that decided to build a new church and a cloister.
The architects who designed the new church were two Dominican friars: Fra Ristoro da Campi and Fra Sisto Fiorentino.
The building process started around 1246 and finished only in 1360 when the sacristy and the Romanesque-Gothic bell tower were finished under the supervision of the Friar Iacopo Talenti.
In the 14th century only the lower part of the Tuscan gothic façade was completed, but the church was consecrated only in 1420.
The façade of the Church of Santa Maria Novella
The façade of the Church of Santa Maria Novella is divided in two parts: the lower has three portals spanned by round arches, while the rest is spanned by blind arches separated by pilasters with some Gothic pointed arches striped in green and white on top of the tombs of the nobility.
You can find the same design in the adjoining wall around the old churchyard. In the lower part of the façade there are also four columns with the Corinthian capitals.
The upper part of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, with the inlaid green marble of Prato also called “serpentino”, was designed by the Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti on a commission from a local textile merchant named Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai.
The works lasted for fourteen years, between 1456 and 1470. Leon Battista Alberti brought to the Church of Santa Maria Novella the ideals of “humanist architecture”, as we can see in the proportions of the church and in the harmony with the already existing medieval part of the façade.
He realized a broad frieze decorated with squares, and the full upper part with the four white-green pilasters together with the round window.
The pediment with the Dominican solar emblem and flanked on both sides by enormous S-curved volutes, is the crowning to the Church of Santa Maria Novella. Below the pediment there is a frieze carrying the name of the patron: Giovanni Rucellai.
The interior of the Church of Santa Maria Novella
The Church of Santa Maria Novella has a basilica plan in the form of a Latin cross. It is divided into a nave, two aisles with stained-glass windows and a short transept.
These stained-glass windows were realized between the 14th (the Coronation of Mary based on the design of Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze) and the 15th century (the Madonna and Child made by Filippino Lippi).
The nave gives an impression of austerity due to its lenght: 100 meters. The austerity is also caused by the trompe l’oeil effect by which towards the apse the nave seems longer than is it.
In the vaults of the ceiling there are pointed arches with the diagonal buttresses in black and white. The interior also contains Corinthian columns inspired by Greek and Roman classical models.
In 1443 the Rucellai family commissioned the pulpit tha was designed by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and executed by his adopted son Andrea Cavalcanti. This pulpit has a great importance historically speaking: it was from here that the first verbal attack was made on Galileo Galilei.
Among the masterpieces that you can find in the Church of Santa Maria novella, there is the Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, a pioneering early Renaissance work that shows his ideas about mathematical proportions and perspective.
Its meaning for the art of painting is the same that Brunelleschi’s Donatello had for sculptures.
The guides of the Free Tour Florence – Another Florence association will wait for you nearby the Church of Santa Maria Novella, holding a flag with the Florentine lily.