A Dominican church dating back to the mid 13th century, located in a vast bustling piazza which back in the 1500s, was used by Cosimo I for his annual chariot race he held. Look for the 2 Obelisks on bronze tortoises which mark where the chariots would circle around. Named ‘Novella’ (new) as it was built on the site of a 9th century Chapel Santa Maria delle Vigne, hence Santa Maria Novella. The site was assigned to the Dominican Order in 1221, which initiated the construction of a new church and the adjoining cloisters. Only the lower part of the façade was finished at this time, and it wasn’t until 1456 that it was finally redesigned and completed. The interior also saw a remodelling under Grande Duke Cosimo I in 1567, by Giorgio Vasari.
As you enter the church on the right of the nave, you’ll be greeted with the vibrant Crucifix by Giotto. The most prolific artist of the early Renaissance.
This revolutionary piece was created between 1288 to 1289 and was recently restored in 2000. It marked a huge step away from the Byzantine style of art being produced at the time; just notice the natural human figure with its delicate beauty, with softer brush strokes and use of colour. It’s one of the earliest examples where Jesus is portrayed as a human body and is less idealized. You can really sense the emotion and drama Giotto is trying to evoke.
Opposite the entrance (on the far wall) you will see The Holy Trinity by Massaccio. An early Renaissance work, which shows the artists new ideas of perspective and mathematic proportions – and with the haunting quote underneath “I was once what you are and what I am you will become”.
Cappella Tornabuoni – This is the main central chapel of the church and contains frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop (1485 – 1490) and are some of the most spectacular found in Florence (some of my personal favourite).
The walls were originally decorated by Andrea Orcagna but by the late 15th century they were in poor condition. The Sassetti family (bankers of the Medici) had the rights to decorate this altar, whilst the walls and the choir were of the Ricci family. Unfortunately the Ricci family had gone bankrupt so sold off their rights to the Sassetti family. Francesco Sassetti had plans to decorate the newly acquired chapel walls with the story of Saint Francis of Assisi, and to executed by Ghirlandaio. But since being a Dominican church, this was obviously refused. Sassetti moved his commission to the church of Santa Trinita, and the rights were subsequently sold onto Giovanni Tornabuoni.
Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned Ghirlandaio to paint the chapel depicting with the lives of the Virgin (left wall) and Saint John the Baptist (right wall).
The frescoes are across 3 walls and are read from the bottom.
Starting with the left side, The Life of the
- Blessed Virgin;
- The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple
- The Navity of Mary
- Presentation of Mary at the Temple
- The Marriage of the Virgin
- The Annunciation (central wall, mid left)
- The Nativity of Christ
- The Massacre of the Innocents
- The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (lunette)
- The Coronation of the Virgin (lunette on central wall)
- The Apparition of the Angel to Zechariah
- The Vistitation
- The Birth of the Baptist
- Zechariah Writes His Sons Name
- Saint John in the Desert (central wall, mid right)
- The Preaching of the Baptist
- The Baptism of Christ
- The Herods Banquet (lunette)
The other scenes on the upper and lower tiers on the central wall include Saint Dominic Test Books in the fire, The Killing of Saint Peter Martyr, The patron Giovanni Tornabuoni and his wife Francesca Pitti.
You can also see the 4 Evangelists on the vault too; St John the Evangelist (eagle), Saint Matthew (angel and book), Saint Luke (ox) and Saint Mark (lion)
Filippo Strozzi Chapel – Situated on the right side of the main altar with a series of frescoes by Filippino Lippi of the lives of Apostle Philip and Saint James the Great (1502). On the right wall is the fresco of Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis, and above the Crucifixion of Saint Philip.
On the left wall is the fresco of Saint John the Evangelist Resuscitating Druisana and above it The Torture of Saint John the Evangelist. Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jacob are represented in the ribbed vault, and behind the altar is the tomb of Filippo Strozzi.
Spanish Chapel – This was the former Chapter House of the monastery (where large meetings were held), and it’s here you come to gaze at the beautiful frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto. In spaces such as this, the art was more intricate and less easy to understand; due to the fact that it was for an audience of people who came from within the church, and had a high level of understanding of their religious messages. The wall facing you as you enter (north) depicts 3 scenes from the Passion of Christ; The Bearing of the Cross on the bottom left, the Crucifixion in the middle, and the Descent into Hell on the bottom right corner.
On the right wall you will see a depiction of the Triumphant Church, with Dominic, Thomas and Peter Martyr converting people and leading the faithful into heaven. You can also see an early representation on Florence here; the large pink building is said to provide an insight into the original designs on the Cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio, although it was never intended to be pink, or to have the bell tower at the rear! You can also see portraits of pope Benedict IX, Arnolfo di Cambio and Petrarch, as well as a group of black and white dogs fighting against a pack of wolves: This represents the Dominican friars – “Domini canes” whose robes were black and white, fighting evil and unorthodox persons. On the left wall is the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas, with representations of the cardinal virtues and the liberal arts underneath. The wall of the entrance is decorated with the life of Saint Peter Martyr. In the vault is the Resurrection, the Miracle of Pentecost and the Ascension of Christ. It got its name as the Spanish Chapel in 1566 when the Spanish community in Florence were invited to worship here.
Other bits and pieces to see – Gondi Chapel; on the left side of the main altar, on the back wall is a wooden crucifix by Brunelleschi, and the story goes that he was so disgusted by a Crucifix by Donatello in the church of Santa Croce that he made this one (according to Vasari mind you).
Cappella Strozzi di Mantova; at the end of the left transept you’ll come across frescoes by Tommaso Strozzi, which was inspired by Dantes Divide Comedy. Try and spot Dante himself on the back wall within the story of the Last Judgement.
Rucellai Chapel; Right at the end of the right aisle, check out the marble statue of the Madonna and Child by Nino Pisano and the bronze tomb by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Bardi Chapel; second chapel on the right with walls frescoed by Spinello Aretino and the Madonna del Rosario on the altar by Vasari.