A square box at the corner of the Via de’ Cerretani and Via de’ Vecchietti. I think that is a fair description of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The church is in fact one of the oldest in Florence. There is probably no truth in the story that it was founded in 580 by Pope Pelagius II (579-590), but on the other hand it is quite plausible that the history of the church goes back to the eighth century. The Santa Maria Maggiore is first mentioned in 931. The present church was built in the Gothic style in the thirteenth century, on the orders of the Cistercians who administered the church and adjacent monastery. In 1521 these were replaced by Carmelites from Mantova. In the seventeenth century the interior of the church was remodelled by the architect Gherardo Silvani (1579-1675), who may have based his work on a design by the more famous Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608). At the beginning of the twentieth century the Baroque interior from the seventeenth and eighteenth century was considered out of fashion. In 1912-1913 an attempt was made to restore something of the original medieval appearance of the church.
The exterior of the church is not that interesting. A plan by the architect Alfonso Parigi the Elder (ca. 1535-1590) to provide the Santa Maria Maggiore with a proper façade was never executed. In the lunette above the main entrance we see a Madonna and Child, a copy of a fourteenth-century sculpture from the Pisan school. The upper part of the medieval bell-tower was amputated in 1630 because of dilapidation. Its replacement was a bell-cot on the church roof, which is still there. On this drawing from 1594 the old bell-tower can still be seen in full glory, with two extra levels. If you are in the Via de’ Cerretani and look up to the remnant of the bell-tower, you will notice a conspicuous element between the two windows, slightly to the left. It is a marble head, probably from a Roman statue. The head is commonly known as La Berta, a name that is also mentioned on the tower itself (on the corner, between the bottom window on the left and the bottom window on the right).
The interior of the church is quite remarkable, with an undecorated nave and richly decorated aisles and chapels. During the renovation at the beginning of the twentieth century frescoes attributed to Mariotto di Nardo (died ca. 1424) were rediscovered on some of the columns. In most cases the frescoes are simple depictions of saints. We for instance see Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Peter, Saint Stephen the Protomartyr and Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedictus. A little bit more elaborate is the fresco of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The saint is tied to a tall pole and down below the executioners are aiming their bows to pierce him with arrows. Above the fresco of Saint Sebastian the prophet Jonah is devoured by a sea monster. In the apse we can furthermore view two rather colourless frescoes by Jacopo di Cione (ca. 1325-1399).
The oddest work of art can be found on the altar of the chapel at the end of the left aisle. The so-called Madonna-reliquiario di Santa Maria Maggiore is a combination of a painted wooden panel and a relief of a Madonna and Child, executed in stucco and also painted and gilded. In the heads of the Madonna and Child relics were kept, in this case pieces of the True Cross. The work is traditionally attributed to the Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276), but this attribution has become controversial after a restoration in 2002, during which the material used was thoroughly examined. The work may have been painted at the end of the twelfth century by an unknown master who worked in the Byzantine style. On the edges of the panel this master painted the twelve apostles. The Madonna and Child are flanked by two angels and below the throne are two Biblical scenes, the Annunciation and the three women encountering an angel at Christ’s empty tomb.
Unfortunately quite a few artworks have disappeared from the Santa Maria Maggiore over the course of time. I was quite surprised to learn that a triptych by Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368), an older brother of the aforementioned Jacopo di Cione, is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Another work that is no longer in the church is the Lamentation of the Dead Christ that was painted around 1495 by the famous Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). This beautiful work is now in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, a charming museum that I happen to have visited.
Further reading: The Churches of Florence – Centre and Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore (Firenze) – Wikipedia