Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella: What to See in Florence
The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is a beautiful church that greets visitors upon arrival in Florence, right next to the train station of the same name. Often, this architectural masterpiece and all the treasures it holds inside are overlooked in a hurried visit to the city. So, to pique your curiosity, here’s what you should see in this splendid Florentine basilica.
History of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
The history of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella begins in 1219 when twelve Dominican friars arrived from Bologna and settled in the small church of Santa Maria delle Vigne. This church, dating back to the 6th century, was built in response to the Germanic invasions and stood outside the city walls amidst fields and vineyards, hence its name.
Thanks to the Dominicans, spirituality flourished in the city in just a few years. Therefore, in 1279, it became necessary to have a larger church, and thus the construction of the “Novella” church began.
Considering the popular sermons of Fra’ Pietro da Verona, who vehemently spoke out against the Cathar heretics, the new building had to be suitable for the Dominican congregation’s new role. However, at its consecration in 1420 by Pope Martin V, the church was not entirely completed.
1439 the Council of Florence took place, leading to the unification of the Eastern and Western Churches. On this occasion, Pope Eugene IV decided to continue decorating the unfinished facade of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella.
Architecture of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
The architectural styles of this Dominican church are diverse, as it took almost eight centuries to complete. At the time of its consecration, the facade of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella was unfinished, much like many other Florentine churches.
At that time, the marble decorations were placed from the lower level up to the cornice. Later, the construction was halted for a century and resumed after the Council of Florence. Nonetheless, the final touches were completed in 1912.
The Renaissance renewal of the basilica, led by Leon Battista Alberti, was made possible with the contribution of many benefactors, including the wealthy Rucellai family.
Inlaid polychrome marbles and geometric figures now adorn the elaborate facade we see today.
Piazza di Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
The church of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella overlooks the square of the same name, a beautiful paved area with flower beds and modern benches. In the past, however, this space hosted festivities and important events.
The Palio dei Cocchi was one of these events and took place on 23 June, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. It was a chariot race reminiscent of the ancient Roman chariot races at the Circus Maximus.
For this purpose, two giant marble obelisks supported by bronze tortoises were erected to mark the inner area where the chariots raced.
Facade of Santa Maria Novella
The splendid marble facade of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is divided into various levels. With a neo-Gothic-Romanesque appearance, the lower level stands out with its three decorated lunette portals. The central portal is larger than the side and has a classical style with stepped columns. Additionally, six ancient funerary arches, known as “Avella,” influenced the development of the rest of the facade—pointed arches with bicoloured bands crown these decorated tombstones.
Above is a Romanesque-style attic and a striking frieze featuring the heraldic symbol of the benefactor Rucellai family—a sail and fluttering cords.
The large stained glass oculus catches the eye in the middle of the decorated marble wall, flanked by two broad volutes, ornamental geometric spirals.
Completing the facade is a large tympanum with the sun disk at the centre, depicting the face of the Child Jesus, the emblem of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella neighbourhood in Florence.
Astronomical Instruments on the Facade
On the rich facade of the church of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, you will also find two astronomical instruments created by Fra’ Ignazio Danti. He arrived in Florence at the invitation of the Medici, who was known for surrounding themselves with artists, scholars, and scientists to enhance their prestige among other European courts.
The friar’s contribution was significant, including replacing the Julian Calendar with the Gregorian Calendar, which advanced the date by ten days.
The equinoctial armillary sphere is exciting, which was used to determine the two days of the year when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal. The spring equinox also allowed for the precise calculation of Christian Easter.
The armillary sphere consists of two perpendicular bronze circles with a diameter of 1.30 cm. The vertical one represents the meridian and indicates the exact moment when the sun is at its highest point, noon. On the equinox day, these two circles create a cross-shaped shadow, while elongated circle shadows are formed on other days.
The other instrument on the facade is the astronomical marble sundial, which calculates the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the height of the sun, and various time systems used at that time.
Interior of Santa Maria Novella
The interior of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella features Cistercian Gothic elements. It has a T-shaped layout divided into three naves. The ceiling comprises ribbed vaults and pointed arches painted in white and green. The pillars incorporate different styles.
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella houses numerous artistic treasures, although many works are preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna Enthroned with Child.
Masaccio‘s Trinity is a masterpiece of perspective that depicts the Madonna no longer in her youth. In the past, the entrance door was located to the side, directly across from this work, making it highly visible. This door was reopened on the occasion of the Jubilee of 2000.
Originally, cycles of frescoes adorned the walls, but in the 16th century, Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Vasari to restore the church, and eventually, the frescoes were covered.
The central lunette of the counter-façade is very beautiful, with Botticelli‘s Nativity, placed here only in 1860.
One of the most important artistic masterpieces of the basilica is Giotto‘s Crucifix, located in the central nave in front of the main altar. It dates back to 1290 and is slightly inclined forward. With a unique winch, it can be lowered from its 4.5 meters height when needed.
Its artistic value derives from the colours used, the skilful rendering of shading, and the meticulousness of the depicted details.
In the past, an iconostasis, a partition with sacred images, separated the presbytery reserved for the friars from the area of the faithful. Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Vasari to make modifications, although the current Neo-Gothic altar dates back to the 19th century.
Funerary plaques occupy a large part of the flooring of this basilica, while the numerous stained glass windows date back to the 15th century. In the central rose window, among other things, there is the coronation of the Virgin with hosts of angels.
The pulpit features bas-reliefs of stories of Mary, probably the work of Brunelleschi‘s adopted son.
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ALTARS OF SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
The transept is inserted at the end of the aisles, where the chapels commissioned by wealthy Florentine families are located.
The Maggiore or Tornabuoni Chapel is located behind the altar. Domenico Ghirlandaio frescoed it with scenes from the life of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. Michelangelo, an apprentice in Ghirlandaio’s workshop, also worked on the project. Many faces of patrons and Florentine personalities from that time can be seen. Additionally, the precious crucifix by Giambologna is suspended high above.
On both sides of the Maggiore Chapel, the other chapels are distributed.
The Filippo Strozzi Chapel, on the right, displays a cycle of frescoes by Filippino Strozzi, depicting scenes of conflicts between Christians and pagans, reflecting the period of Savonarola.
The Bardi Chapel is dedicated to St. Gregory and preserves the Madonna of the Rosary on the altar.
The Rucellai Chapel is raised and showcases the Madonna with Child marble statue, with the original exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery.
The chapels on the left of the main altar include, among others, the Gondi Chapel, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, which houses Brunelleschi‘s crucifix. This was a response to Donatello‘s crucifix in the Santa Croce church, and the two had a particular competition. When he saw it, Michelangelo found Donatello‘s work crude and simple, so he wanted to create a crucifix with more realistic anatomical details.
On the other hand, the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel is dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas. The frescoes by Nardo and Andrea di Cione depict Paradise and Hell, where Dante appears in the Universal Judgment behind the altar.
Bronzino has adorned the Gaddi Chapel with marble, precious stones, and frescoes.
SAGRESTIA DI SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
The current bookstore is located in what was the sacristy, but in the 14th century, it was the Chapel of the Conception. The architecture and furniture give a good idea of the ancient splendour of this environment.
Large wooden cabinets, designed by Buontalenti, contained vestments and reliquaries. On both sides of the door are two washbasins from different periods. The glazed terracotta and marble one, made by Giovanni della Robbia in the 15th century, is lovely.
CHIOSTRI DI SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
There are three cloisters in Santa Maria Novella. The oldest is the Cloister of the Dead, followed by the Green Cloister, while the largest is the Great Cloister.
CHIOSTRO DEI MORTI
This is practically the oldest nucleus of the Santa Maria Novella complex, located at the beginning of the visitor’s path, entering from Piazza della Stazione.
Previously, an ancient cemetery was located here, which is why it is called the “Cloister of the Dead.” Religious functions continued to be held during the construction of the new basilica.
The disastrous floods of 1333 and 1966 severely damaged the frescoes on the walls. Prominent Florentine families commissioned them from important Florentine painters such as Orcagna and Nardo di Cione.
Archways with lowered ribbed vaults rest on octagonal pillars and support a balcony leading to the dormitory, which is now transformed into the Dominican Library.
In addition to the Chapel of the Annunciation of the Strozzi family, with frescoes depicting the Nativity and the Crucifixion, numerous tombstones and funeral coats of arms can be seen. They are arranged along the walls and the corridor leading to the Green Cloister.
The Green Cloister was built by Fra Jacopo Talenti around 1332. It takes its name from the dominant colour of the frescoes, many of which are attributed to Paolo Uccello and depict episodes from the Old Testament.
The Great Cloister was built following the expansion of the convent in the mid-14th century. It is also the largest cloister in Florence, with 56 round arches painted with alternating black and white stripes. There are also 60 frescoed lunettes and four decorated grotesque corner vaults. Numerous portraits of Dominican friars can be found.
The coats of arms of wealthy Florentine families who contributed to the abbey’s construction can be recognized on the sandstone pillars. The friars’ dormitories were located on the two floors of the abbey, and the north wing housed the apartment for the Pope when he visited Florence or other religious personalities.
During the flood of 1966, the water in the Great Cloister rose to a height of one and a half meters and damaged many frescoes. Over time, they have been restored and mostly depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Dominicans, and the saints. The Carabinieri Non-Commissioned Officers School now owns the Great Cloister and may not always be accessible for visits.
CAPPELLONE DEGLI SPAGNOLI
The Cappellone degli Spagnoli, or Capitulary Hall, dates back to the construction of the new basilica by Jacopo Talenti. Important Florentine and Tuscan painters worked on its marvellous and detailed frescoes, including Andrea Bonaiuto.
During the time of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Spanish court used the Capitulary Hall, which followed his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, hence its name.
This large rectangular hall with the altar recessed into a niche in the wall, called “Scarsella,” is opposite the entrance. The hall features a ribbed vault with coloured ribs and four corner pillars, while the floor displays sepulchral tombs of Spanish personalities.
The altarpiece depicts Saint James being led to martyrdom and healing a person with paralysis, while the cycle of frescoes highlights the Dominican Order’s fight against heresy. They also depict the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.
If you pay attention, you will also notice the appearance of Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Florence Cathedral, according to the design by its architect Arnolfo di Cambio. At that time, Brunelleschi’s dome did not yet exist.
On the side wall, with the “Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” the Dominicans are sent to search for the sheep that have escaped the church’s fold. The “Triumph of Catholic Doctrine” also portrays scenes from the life of Saint Peter.
The ancient refectory, now a museum, houses old precious and liturgical objects, paintings from various areas of the complex, and sinopias, which are preparatory drawings of Orcagna‘s frescoes related to the Tornabuoni Chapel of the basilica.
OFFICINA DEL PROFUMO (Perfume Workshop)
Also known as Antica Spezieria, the Officina del Profumo di Santa Maria Novella (The origins of the historic pharmacy at Santa Maria Novella) has been open for over four centuries and is considered the oldest pharmacy in Europe.
When the Dominicans started producing rose water in 1381, it was primarily used as a disinfectant, especially during epidemics. Over time, they cultivated medicinal plants, distilled herbs and flowers, and created ointments and balms.
The appearance of the current perfume workshop dates back to 1612, but it is no longer considered a pharmacy. Instead, it functions as a perfume and herbalist shop. The furnishings in the various rooms are still antique, and you can see many objects and paintings.
The entrance portal is decorated with the Dominican emblem of a radiant sun. Once inside, you find yourself in the atrium, which opens into two semicircular spaces called “esedre,” housing statues of the deities of health and medicine, Igea and Galen.
The neo-Gothic vestibule features blue and gold decorations, while the sales room occupies what used to be the Chapel of Saint Nicholas of Bari. The vaulted ceilings with frescoes and elaborate walnut cabinets are beautiful.
In the Green Room, there were originally distilling stoves, stoves, and other tools, but it later became a reception room. Guests seated on chairs against the walls were served specialities such as chocolate, alkermes, and china, an alcoholic beverage made from the bark of a plant.
The adjacent museum is also fascinating, displaying scientific objects, thermometers, mortars, scales, glass and ceramic vases, copper and bronze items, alembics, and much more.
A visit to the world’s oldest pharmacy
VIA DEGLI AVELLI IN FLORENCE
The church’s front entrance leads to the lateral courtyard with a lawn dotted with cypress trees. Once, there was a cemetery in this place. The ancient burials, or “avelli,” can still be attached to the walls. These tombs are unique because they are raised and topped with two-tone pointed arches.
They belonged to ancient Florentine families, and the coats of arms displayed on them recall these lineages. Each tomb is also carved with the typical Cross of Florence, with four equally pointed ends.
These burials can also be found outside the enclosure, both on the façade of the basilica and along Via degli Avelli, located between Piazza di Santa Maria Novella and Piazza della Stazione.
In the past, the street was much narrower, and it was not pleasant to pass through this area due to the odours emanating from the cracks in the tombs. For this reason, a famous Tuscan says, “Puzzare come un avello” (To smell like a tomb.
Giovanni Boccaccio set one of the novellas of his Decameron in one of the tombs on the façade of this basilica, while Domenico Ghirlandaio was buried in another ark.
A particularly remarkable chapel is the Chapel of the Pura, which contains the image of the Virgin breastfeeding the Child. This painting initially adorned a tomb in the courtyard.
Following the miraculous events, the Ricasoli family constructed this neoclassical structure to house this 14th-century artwork.
In conclusion, the bell tower of Santa Maria Novella, standing at 68 meters high, dates back to 1333 and was designed by Jacopo Talenti. It features a Romanesque style, twin and triple windows, and Gothic elements from its soaring spire.