Discovering the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
It was the first of the great Florentine basilicas to see the light of day, and is the only one in the city that can boast an authentically Renaissance façade. Come with us on a journey through art and beauty
It was the first of the great Florentine basilicas to see the light of day, and is the only one in the city that can boast an authentically Renaissance façade. Santa Maria Novella was also chosen as the site of the first council that sought to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in 1439, and became a favourite haunt of the popes. But it was also used as Leonardo's workshop for the cartoons for his Battle of Anghiari and has undergone numerous renovations, the last one during the embellishments for Firenze Capitale.
From humble church to magnificent basilica
Santa Maria Novella arose from the ashes of Santa Maria tra le Vigne, an oratory outside the city where the Dominicans settled in the early decades of the 13th century. It is said that it was St Dominic himself who chose it, to the west. Exactly on the opposite side from where the followers of St Francis had settled. Rivalry aside, the arrival of the mendicant orders (so called because the friars renounced all earthly possessions) accompanied the construction of modern, bourgeois and mercantile society. Above all, a city society.
And soon the little church became a sort of citadel within the city. Immense. Today there is only a faint idea of it. But suffice it to say that the area extended beyond the station. Over the centuries, after indulgences were granted to those who supported the monasteries, there was a competition to secure a tomb in the monks' tombs. Sponsoring a chapel soon became a sign of great prestige. And the church was transformed into a treasure trove of art.
The Mendicant Revolution
They were great revolutionaries who, in order to defeat the heretics and gain new followers, used propaganda to invent the Sacred Theatre and fresco the churches with stories of Christ and the saints. But to stage the Passion or the Nativity, to be interpreted in the words of the poor, large spaces were needed. This led to the creation of the hitherto unthinkable squares where people could recite and preach.
A multi-faceted basilica and a masterpiece façade
The church was first built with an East-West orientation, as tradition dictated. And then, since the sermons of Pietro da Verona, a former Catharist, were so popular and crowded that the municipality gave the friars the area towards the Arno. Thus, in the years 1276-77, the construction of the city's first great Gothic church with its cross vaults, its mighty pillars, its stained glass windows and its frescoes was begun. It was now oriented almost perfectly north-south. This is why the façade, designed by Leon Battista Alberti for the Rucellai in 1470, features an armillary sphere, a sundial and two holes commissioned by Ignazio Danti, a Dominican monk who was commissioned by Cosimo I to create the new calendar. A system of sundials, inside, only recently completed, but which allow the calculation of the winter solstice and spring equinox (sun permitting of course). Alberti, as the great architect and town planner that he was, blended the Gothic of the avelli (tombs) with the round Renaissance arches so well that only a careful eye can see the differences, and created the sort of curls at the sides of the main nave to mask the difference in level with the side naves.
The ancient frescoes and the destruction of the Counter-Reformation
We can get an idea of the interior decorations by looking at the Annunciation by Pietro Miniato on the counter-façade. This painter and miniaturist is said to have taken over Giotto's workshop, but did not inherit his artistic technique. In fact, his painting is elegantly Gothic, richly decorated in the manner of courtly art. It was recovered during the restorations at the end of the 19th century as an example of the cycle swept away by Giorgio Vasari, who was commissioned by Cosimo I to reorganise the conventual churches according to the dictates of the Council of Trent. These churches had the space of the friars separate from that of the laity and divided by a wall, the partition, which covered the altar. This was unacceptable to the Counter-Reformation and led Cosimo I, certain of obtaining the title of Grand Duke from the Pope, to adapt immediately. The partitions were removed, as were all the old decorations on the walls. The windows were also shortened to make room for the strictly rectangular panels to emphasise as much as possible the scenes of miracles and martyrs. And so, through the large panels by Naldini, Vasari, Allori, Bugiardini or Santi di Tito, we move gradually towards the new way of conceiving art that wanted to return to Giotto's Bible of the Poor and that would later have its greatest exponent in Caravaggio.
From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
Today, thanks to a careful restoration programme, the frescoes hidden under the panels are also being recovered. After all, the first work to be found by chance at the end of the 19th century was Masaccio's Trinity. Vasari actually saved it by covering it with his Madonna del Rosario, now in the Bardi Chapel. We are in the mid-1520s and Masaccio is the first to recover Giotto by bringing the third dimension into painting. Not only that. He placed man at the centre of the universe and, using the scientific perspective recently discovered by his friend Brunelleschi, he abandoned the system of hierarchical sacredness. The scenes are true to life, as perceived by the human eye. Thus the patrons, for the first time portrayed in a realistic manner, appear larger than the Madonna and St John. But there is more to it than that. They are praying in front of the depiction of the Trinity (inside a chapel that looks like an ancient domus), while we are called by the Madonna to participate in the event, where God supports, and at the same time already raises, the Cross. The Middle Ages thus give way to the Renaissance.
Beyond the choir, among the chapels of the nobility
Even those who could pay for a tomb were not in bad shape, but only the wealthiest could bear the cost of a private chapel, often built to clear themselves of the sin of usury. And here we are in the chapel of the powerful Strozzi family, a branch of Mantua, because that is where they went at the end of the 14th century. The Cione brothers, better known as the Orcagna brothers, worked in the chapel, and for the first time they painted the Inferno and Paradiso, with Tommaso Strozzi and his wife and Dante himself. Unfortunately, the frescoes are ruined, but the altarpiece that sketches a first great Sacred Conversation is perfect with its saints emerging from a luminous gold background. Just take a look at Giovanni della Robbia's Baptismal Font in the Sacristy and then stop in front of Brunelleschi's Crucifix in the Gondi Chapel. Vasari remembers it as the Crucifix of eggs because Donatello, invited by his friend to dinner after a disagreement over his Crucifix for Santa Croce, which Brunelleschi considered too crude, in the presence of such harmony spread his arms and dropped the basket of eggs he was carrying for dinner. Perfect proportions and an ephebic figure. In reality, Brunelleschi had been inspired by the Vitruvian man long before Leonardo.
When business was done in church
And finally, here we are in the Cappella Maggiore. Chapel of the Tornabuoni, a powerful family related to the Medici through Lorenzo's mother, Lucrezia, sister of Giovanni, patron of the chapel. Stories of Mary and of course the Baptist decorate the walls. The greatest fresco painter of the time, Domenico Ghirlandaio, was called in to decorate the place where the merchants hosted relatives and clients. We are in about 1488 in the midst of Neoplatonism. Ghirlandaio interpreted it by frescoing the chapel with scenes of great calmness and refined refinement of details in the Flemish manner. It is the wealth bestowed by Lorenzo, considered the new Augustus. And although the various passages of the stories of Mary from her birth to her death are respected, just as the life of John the Baptist is recounted on the opposite wall up to the dance of Salome, one immediately has the impression that the sacred scenes are only the background to the real story: the life and characters of Florence at the time are perfectly portrayed. From the elite of high society to Ghirlandaio, to the beautiful but unfortunate Ludovica Tornabuoni and Giovanna degli Albizi, portrayed in profile and wearing brocade. But by the time the chapel was completed in 1490, both sisters-in-law had died in childbirth. On the other hand, the Tornabuoni family advertised their fabrics and clothes by having them depicted in full dress.
And Michelangelo was taking his first steps
But there is more. A 15-year-old Michelangelo, taken on as an apprentice by Ghirlndaio, painted some figures on the Baptist wall: the two men leaning back against the parapet in the background of the Visitation in front of Porta San Miniato and perhaps two nudes in the Baptism. It was here that he learned the art of Buon Fresco. And here is the Strozzi Chapel by Filippo Strozzi the one who built the palace. The artist chosen for the stories of St. Philip is Filippino Lippi. We are at the end of the 15th century and Savonarola rules the city. So the ancient is now only a harbinger of sin and death. A dragon with a stinking breath will kill a young man in adulation of a statue of Mars transformed into a satyr. Here Filippino anticipates trompe l'oeil, decorating the chapel with fake marble and columns, and Mannerism.
At the origin of the Renaissance
Before going out into the cloisters, however, we must stop under the great Cross that a young Giotto painted towards the end of the 13th century with naturalness and truthfulness: the belly yielding to gravity, the blood gushing out, the dying face with half-closed lips and eyelids swollen with suffering. Even the complexion is turning a deadly green. How suggestive it must have been hanging on the partition, now indicated by the two steps.
From the Cappellone degli Spagnoli to Paolo Uccello
And here we are in the Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) frescoed by Paolo Uccello with the stories of Genesis, severely damaged by the 1966 flood. The works are in the museum where you can see how Uccello, a friend of Brunelleschi, was so attracted to perspective. But before the museum, where the Last Suppers by Alessandro Allori and Plautilla Nelli stand out, it is worth entering the Sala Capitolare or Cappellone degli Spagnoli, refitted for the relatives of Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I. Here Andrea di Bonaiuto in the second half of the 14th century leaves us, in addition to the description of the theories of Thomas Aquinas, one of the most beautiful comic strips of art: the Militant Church. With Dalmatian dogs (the Dominicans) defending the sheep (humanity) attacked by wolves (the heretics). While a plethora of rulers and bishops are flanked by the famous figures of Florence: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Here Bonaiuto, who took part in the first competition for the Dome of the Cathedral, also leaves us his project with the church designed by Arnolfo di Cambio.