Tomorrow, those with an interest in history or astrology can print this coupon to visit Santa Maria Novella and observe the spring eclipse and equinox. There will be free lectures (in Italian) that explain the 16th-century astrological tools, both on the church’s facade and inside the basilica, that track the time of year by the placement of the sun. If you can’t make it tomorrow, don’t fret–Santa Maria is also free next weekend for #domenicalmuseo and Easter Sunday.
Due to these happenings, we thought it was a great opportunity to properly introduce Santa Maria Novella. While we’ve taken you to this neighborhood many times before, we’ve yet to explain exactly why this church is so significant, not only to Florence, but also to the history of art and architecture. So kick your feet up on a piazza bench and turn yourself towards the white, green and rose facade–we’ll take it from here!
Santa Maria Novella was built, like many Florentine churches, on the site of an older 9th-century church. In 1219, the Dominicans took control of the space and decide to build a new place of worship, fashioned to their own liking. They broke ground in 1246 and would continue working on it until 1360. Fra Jacopo Talenti, a Dominican Friar, oversaw much of the construction.
The facade was also started when the building neared completion, but it was never finished. Instead, over 100 years later, wealthy parishioner Giovanni Rucellai brought in a heavy hitter to complete the semi-finished front. That man literally wrote the book on Renaissance architecture, Leon Battista Alberti.
What was Alberti dealing with? He was stuck with the bottom half, which featured gothic details, like pointed archways, and the fixed color palette. Well, Alberti is the king of “make it work,” because he used the geometric shapes and proportions already present to build a facade that is perfectly balanced and harmonious. For instance, see those squares on each side of the main door that hold the blind arcade? They’re the same size as the third square that rests at the top. Other shapes, like the circles, are also in mathematical proportion to one another, and the frieze and the scrolls on the sides bring it all together. It’s a perfectionist’s dream, completed in 1470, and it’s considered an important stepping stone in Renaissance architecture. (Want to learn more? Start here.)
But Santa Maria Novella’s beauty isn’t only skin deep. Head inside to find more ground-breaking art that also helped usher in the Renaissance in Florence. First, there’s Giotto’s Crucifix, hanging in the center of the church. Now, if Alberti wrote the rules for Renaissance architecture, then Giotto broke the rules to start Renaissance painting. His crucifix, completed around 1290, is proof of that–the realism in his figures, particularly in Jesus, was new for the time, a departure from the idealized, flat forms of Byzantine art. Since the Dominican order was particularly tied to the concept of Corpus Domini (salvation through Eucharist, which is Christ’s actual body and blood), Giotto’s naturalism helped reinforce the belief and remind the congregation of Jesus’s sacrifice. (If you’d like to read a bit more about this work, click here.)
In fact, work like Giotto’s made it possible for Masaccio to paint the Holy Trinity, a must-know for any art history student. Safe to say, Masaccio was inspired by Giotto’s Crucifix when painting this scene in 1427. Here, we have God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all depicted together, while St. John the Evangelist looks up and Mary looks out to the viewer, making you interact with the scene. The fresco’s patrons are kneeling at either side, and there’s an inscription above a skeleton below that reads “I was once that which you are and that which I am, you shall be.” Chilling, no? Life, death, resurrection and salvation are clearly all at play.
Now, I can’t believe we’re going to run through this so quickly, but as this church is jam-packed with artistic offerings, we’re going to give you a taste of its importance and then hope you head here for a fuller explanation. You see, Masaccio is credited for being the first to use one-point perspective in painting here, creating a fictional 3-D space in the church with the vanishing point at eye level. This, paired with the incredible realism of the figures and fictive setting, would have been arresting for any church-goer to behold.
We could trace perspective diagonals in the Holy Trinity all day, but we have to move on. Fortunately we’re headed to the high chapel, the Tornabuoni Chapel, to see incredible frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The cycle depicts the life of Mary, to whom the basilica is dedicated, and St. John the Baptist. It was completed between 1485-1490. Once you have your fill of this chapel, don’t skip out before stopping in the Filippo Strozzi Chapel, a bit further down the east transept, which features frescoes by the great Filippino Lippi dating back to 1502.
There’s so much more that we could point you to (please, explore more chapels if you’re still standing!). If you’re looking for a change of scenery, however, head out to the cloisters and find the old Dominican chapter house, today known as the Spanish Chapel.
Built around 1346, the vaulted space is fully frescoed. Now, Dominican friars in particular prized intelligence and education. So whereas in the basilica imagery was tailored towards patrons and the congregation, here the walls are filled with complex messaging that would have imparted deep meaning to its more learned audience. Above all, the space is a visual feast, and you should certainly visit Florence’s favorite art expert and blogger Arttrav for a better look at it.
As we previously mentioned, there’s much more to see within the walls of Santa Maria Novella. With centuries worth of history and imagery, it’s impossible to digest it all in one day. Our tips for visiting? Familiarize yourself with this interactive map of the complex, then focus on a few pieces you’d like to really take in. With more than one chance at free entry, you’re welcome to take your time and come back for more later.