This huge Dominican church should be on every list for a daytrip to Florence. The church can be found just to the south of the Santa Maria Novella railway station in the city centre, so it is easy to reach even if you have limited time. It is not just an impressive building, it is also a repository of important art dating from the late thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. Please note that you cannot visit the Santa Maria Novella for free, but the five euro ticket gives access to the entire complex, including the church, the cloisters and the museum. It is well worth the money. Entrance to the Santa Maria Novella is through a door in the old cemetery on the right side of the church.
The church we see today replaced an older religious edifice known as the Santa Maria della Vigne, which may have been constructed in the ninth or tenth century. The old church occupied the area where we now find the transept. From this we can conclude that the old church had an East-West orientation, with the apse facing East. In 1221, the Santa Maria della Vigne was given to the Dominican Order. This fresh new order had only arrived in Florence two years previously, led by Fra Giovanni da Salerno. The brothers began renovating and enlarging the – presumably rather dilapidated – old church around 1246. The Santa Maria della Vigne was later demolished and construction of a new church was started in 1279. The design of the new church – hence the adjective Novella – is attributed to two Dominican friars, Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi. The orientation of the new church was changed, with the apse now facing the North. Construction was completed around the year 1357.
A new campanile was constructed in the 1330s, using the tower of the old church as a base. Since the new tower was frequently struck by lightning, the Dominican friars decided to place a box of relics in the campanile. I honestly do not know whether that worked, but it was sure worth a try. The lightning strikes were, by the way, interpreted by some as a sign that God was not pleased with the church, which was rather extravagant for a religious order based on principles of poverty.
One of the most remarkable exterior features of the Santa Maria Novella is its polychrome facade, which is of great beauty (see the image above). The lower part had been added in 1365, but the facade had then been left incomplete. The job to design and build the upper part was given to the famous architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Alberti had been hired by the wealthy Florentine merchant Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, whose Latin name ORICELLARIVS can be found on the facade just below the triangular pediment (oricello being a purple dye). The text indicates that the work was completed in 1470, two years before Alberti’s death. The most notable elements of the facade are the two scrolls or volutes on the left and right, which cover the roofs of the aisles. These are genuine architectural innovations by Alberti.
The church was one of the locations of the Council of Florence of 1439. This was a council organised by Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) to bring about a reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The council was ultimately a failure, but an important event in Florentine history nonetheless. When the council was in session, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II, died on 10 June 1439. He was buried inside the Santa Maria Novella, where his tomb can be found in the right transept. The theory that he was depicted by Benozzo Gozzoli as the Old King inside the Cappella dei Magi is probably incorrect (see Florence: Palazzo Medici Riccardi). Apart from the white beard there are few similarities between the image of Joseph on the tomb and that of the Old King in the Cappella dei Magi.
In 1565 or 1567, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici ordered his trusted architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) to restore the Santa Maria Novella and give it a Renaissance makeover. This restoration involved the removal of the rood screen, while some of the older frescoes were covered by layers of plaster. The side entrance was closed off, and it was not reopened until 1999. As stated above, this is now the main entrance for tourists. Another restoration took place in the 1850s. The somewhat obscure Enrico Romoli was the architect in charge of this project, which among other things gave the church its present – rather unspectacular – floor.
Exploring the Santa Maria Novella
The Santa Maria Novella is an immense and somewhat dark church. It is about 100 metres from the southern entrance (which is apparently never open, at least not to tourists) to the back of the central Tornabuoni chapel. It is almost impossible not to feast your eyes on the works of art inside the church. To start with, the large crucifix in the centre of the church was painted by a young Giotto (ca. 1266-1337). Giotto expert Francesca Flores d’Arcais gives a date of ca. 1292 and it has certainly been in the church since 1312. It used to be part of the rood screen, which was removed by Vasari during the sixteenth century restoration (see above). The crucifix closely resembles the one in the Ognissanti church, also in Florence and also by Giotto. Another interesting work of art can be found on the inner facade. One of the lunettes contains a very petite fresco of the Nativity which has been attributed to the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510).
One of the most important works of art of the Santa Maria Novella is the Trinity by Masaccio (1401-1428). It is located in the left aisle. The Trinity is famous for its innovative use of perspective. The fresco shows the Holy Trinity comprising Christ on the cross, God the Father behind him (holding the cross arm of the cross) and the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above Christ’s head. Christ is flanked by Mary on the left and Saint John the Evangelist on the right. Two kneeling donors can be seen in the lower part of the fresco. Their identities are somewhat uncertain. An information panels inside the church just calls them “two patrons”, Wikipedia claims they are members of the Lenzi family and another website gives the names of Berto di Bartolomeo del Banderaio and his wife Sandra. Note that there is a so-called cadaver or memento mori tomb in the bottom part of the fresco. It features a skeleton and was only rediscovered in 1952. The text above the tomb is in fifteenth century Italian and reads:
“IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH[‘] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE”
(“I was what you are and what I am you will become”)
Masaccio painted his fresco somewhere between 1425 and 1427. At the time the artist was still working on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel on the other side of the river Arno. Masaccio was only 26 or 27 when he died, but his small oeuvre, including the Trinity, was of immense cultural influence nonetheless.
Cappella Strozzi di Mantova
Among the oldest surviving frescoes in the Santa Maria Novella are those by Nardo di Cione (died ca. 1366) in the Cappella Strozzi di Mantova in the left transept. They were executed around the year 1360. You have to climb a set of stairs to get there. The left wall shows a representation of Paradise, while the right wall shows Purgatory and Hell. The central wall has the Last Judgment as its theme. There is a theory that the frescoes were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which also features Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is certainly possible, and the claim that Dante himself is in the fresco of the Last Judgment is also quite plausible. Dante can presumably be found among the Blessed on the left side of the fresco, among members of the Strozzi family. The people on the right are the Damned. The inclusion of a Last Judgment scene may have been motivated by the terrible casualties caused by the Black Death, which hit Florence in 1348.
The altarpiece in the chapel is by Nardo’s brother Andrea di Cione, also known as Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368). It was executed in 1357. The altarpiece shows Christ in the centre, giving the Keys of Heaven to Saint Peter and a book to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas is introduced to Christ by the Virgin, while Saint John the Baptist is behind Peter. The other saints in the altarpiece are Saints Lawrence and Paul (with the sword) on the extreme right and Saints Michael the Archangel and Catherine of Alexandria (with the breaking wheel) on the extreme left. Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was a Dominican friar, can also be seen in the stained glass window behind the altarpiece, designed by Nardo.
This large chapel behind the main altar is also known as the Cappella Maggiore. It had originally been frescoed by Orcagna, but his work was damaged by a fire in 1358. The chapel was acquired by one Giovanni Tornabuoni (died after 1490), a manager of the de’ Medici bank, in 1485. The Tornabuonis were a very influential family in Florence. Giovanni’s sister Lucrezia Tornabuoni (1427-1482) married Piero de’ Medici – Piero the Gouty – and was Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s mother.
Tornabuoni commissioned the famous painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) and his workshop to decorate the walls with new frescoes. At that time, Ghirlandaio – a prolific and sought-after artist – was still working on the frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the church of Santa Trinita elsewhere in Florence. As soon as work on that chapel was completed, the painter began executing the frescoes in the Santa Maria Novella, which were done between 1485 and 1490. It is quite possible that the young Michelangelo (1475-1564) participated in the project. He had become one of Ghirlandaio’s apprentices in 1488, when he was just thirteen years old.
The Chapel is deservedly famous and it has its own page on Wikipedia. That page contains plenty of detailed information about the frescoes, so I will just give a brief summary here. The left wall has several scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, while the theme of the right wall is the life of Saint John the Baptist (patron saint of Florence). The central wall has more frescoes and here we can also find Giovanni Tornabuoni himself, together with his wife Francesca Pitti. The stained-glass windows were designed by Ghirlandaio, but they are the work of Alessandro Agolanti (1443-1516).
Cappella Filippo Strozzi
This Renaissance chapel is not to be confused with the Gothic Cappella Strozzi di Mantova discussed above. The Cappella Filippo Strozzi is no doubt just as famous as the Cappella Tornabuoni, although it does not have its own page on Wikipedia (yet). It can be found to the right of the latter and was named after the wealthy Florentine banker that purchased it in 1486, Filippo Strozzi the Elder (1428-1491). It seems that the Tomasso Strozzi who owned the Strozzi di Mantova chapel and this Filippo Strozzi were members of the same powerful Strozzi family, although they lived in different centuries.
Filippo Strozzi hired the services of Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) to fresco the walls. Since the chapel was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, the scenes on the left wall are about his life. The lower scene shows the saint resurrecting a woman named Drusiana. Drusiana is mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of John, but the fresco was actually inspired by the tales about John in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), a thirteenth century collection of hagiographies compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230-1298), who was both a chronicler and the archbishop of Genoa. The upper scene shows the torture of Saint John. He is being boiled in a cauldron full of hot oil, while the evil Roman emperor is looking on. The Golden Legend identifies the emperor as Domitianus (81-96). Saint John the Evangelist is one of the few followers of Christ who did not die a martyr’s death, and according to the story the hot oil did not hurt him at all. Domitianus then exiled the saint to the island of Patmos, where tradition dictates John wrote the Book of Revelation.
The stories on the right wall are about Strozzi’s (and – in a way – Lippi’s) namesake Philip the Apostle. The two scenes are also based on the Golden Legend. In the lower scene, we see the apostle chasing away a rather unimpressive dragon, who has nevertheless killed the boy on the right with his toxic fumes. The story is set in a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman god of war Mars, who can be seen in the centre. In the upper scene, the 87-year-old Saint Philip is crucified by the pagans. Lippi completed the fresco cycles in 1502, just two years before his death. In the centre of the chapel is the tomb of Filippo Strozzi. It is the work of the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497).
Cappellone degli Spagnoli
This chapel can be reached through the Green Cloister (see below). It was originally the chapter house, which was built between 1345 and 1355 and is attributed to Jacopo Talenti. Talenti was a Dominican friar who is not to be confused with Francesco Talenti, the man who was chief architect of the Duomo for a while. It is not impossible that the two were related, but we just do not know. In any case, the chapter house was later converted into a chapel and called the Cappellone degli Spagnoli or the Spanish Chapel. The name derives from the fact that it was granted to Eleonora di Toledo (1522-1562), Grand Duke Cosimo’s Spanish wife, and used by the sizeable Spanish community in Florence.
The Spanish Chapel is best known for its impressive fresco cycle by the fourteenth century painter Andrea di Bonaiuto. If you enter the chapel, the first thing you see is the altar wall, which has frescoes of Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo. The frescoes on the right wall glorify the Dominican Order with an Allegory of the Church Militant and Triumphant. The fresco is especially interesting because it shows the Duomo in pink. The cycle was executed between 1365 and 1367, so the real cathedral would have been nearing completion, except for the dome. Work on Brunelleschi’s dome did not commence until 1420, so the much, much smaller dome we see in the fresco is presumably the one that Arnolfo di Cambio, original architect of the Duomo, designed, but which was never built. One wonders whether Andrea di Bonaiuto had ever seen the Duomo, because he painted the campanile (completed in 1359) behind the cathedral.
The fresco on the right wall shows the Dominicans as whippets. This is a reference to the Latin words Domini Canes (the Hounds of the Lord), which is a pun on their name. It is not a funny pun, by the way, because the Dominicans were very much involved in the notorious Inquisition (see Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva). The pope in the centre of the fresco might be Benedictus XI (1303-1304), who was a Dominican. The left wall has a fresco of the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas, while the ceiling shows the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Barque of Saint Peter and the Pentecost.
Construction of the Green Cloister (Chiostro Verde) started in 1330 and it was completed after 1350. The cloister is also attributed to Jacopo Talenti. It is called the Green Cloister because of the use of much green in the frescoes, although one of my travel guides argues that the colour is the result of the 1966 flood that hit Florence very hard. The most famous frescoes here are by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). When I visited the Santa Maria Novella in June 2016, they were undergoing restoration in the old refectory. I especially liked the lunette showing the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in green and red.
A little further to the north is the Cloister of the Dead (Chiostro dei Morti), in which one can find the Chapel of the Annunciation. The name is a bit misleading, because the fresco featuring the Annunciation has not survived. We can still admire the restored frescoes of the Nativity and the Crucifixion, all by Andrea Orcagna and his assistants. Further to the west is another cloister, the Chiostro Grande. It lives up to its name, as it is indeed very large. On the walls of the cloister we find frescoes by painters such as Santi di Tito (1536-1603).
While writing this post, I have made extensive use of the excellent Churches of Florence website, which has a detailed article about the Santa Maria Novella. Additional sources were two travel guides, one by Dorling Kindersley about Florence & Tuscany and one by the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) about Florence. The information panel inside the church and the relevant Wikipedia article were helpful as well.
Updated 16 July 2023.