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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

What is Santa Maria Novella?

Santa Maria Novella is a charming Dominican church adorned with artworks by famous Renaissance painters.

Santa Maria Novella

Commonists, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Santa Maria Novella History

Santa Maria Novella is the main Dominican church in Florence. With its gorgeous façade of inlaid green and white marble and vast basilica interior, it’s one of the foremost examples of Italian Gothic architecture in Tuscany. The church, which forms part of an active monastery, houses a famous collection of medieval and Early Renaissance artworks, including paintings by Masaccio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Giotto. The site is right next to Florence’s primary railway station, making it a perfect destination for day trippers to the city.

Before the establishment of the monastery in the 13th century, which would become one of the largest and wealthiest in Florence, this site was used as an oratory for a few hundred years. The name of the original church was Santa Maria delle Vigne (or Saint Mary of the Vines), set amongst vineyards beyond the city walls, and it’s from this that the current name is derived. After the land was granted to the Dominican order in the 13th century, they decided to build an entirely new church building and cloister.

The project would continue into the next century, with the church finally consecrated in 1420. Though the project was begun in the medieval period, it was finished in what we now consider to be the Early Renaissance. The iconic marble façade, begun in the 1300s by the Dominican Fra’ Jacopo Talenti, was completed 100 years later by the celebrated Renaissance humanist and polymath Leon Battista Alberti. Thus, the bottom of the façade exhibits earlier ideals of Romanesque design, such as semi-circular arches, and the top reflects later Renaissance ideals of harmony, proportion, and balance. These contrasting features are reflected in Alberti’s geometric design of repeating squares and circles.

The interior is vast and imposing, with an extended nave 100 metres long, which seems even longer owing to a clever architectural trick involving the spacing of the arches. The church is home to many famous artworks, the most notable of which is probably Masaccio’s Holy Trinity. The work is remarkable for its innovative use of geometry and perspective, which marked the end of medieval art and the beginning of the modern age in painting. Another great work of the Early Renaissance housed within Santa Maria is Giotto’s enormous hanging painted crucifix, that takes centre stage and serves as a pertinent reminder of the nature and reality of Christ’s bodily sacrifice.

Also of note are the many chapels dedicated to patrons from the wealthy Florentine families of the period. The Strozzi Chapel is especially worth visiting because of its frescoes by Filippino Lippi, which tell the stories of Saints Philip the Apostle and John the Evangelist. The Tornabuoni Chapel has frescoes by Ghirlandaio, and possibly a very young Michelangelo, depicting the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist (the patron saint of Florence). A hidden delight on the inner wall of the façade, which was revealed after the restoration of the church in the 19th century, is a semi-circular Nativity scene by Sandro Botticelli, creator of the famed Birth of Venus and one of Florence’s most celebrated painters.

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