The Santissima Annunziata, the mother church of the Servites (servants of the Virgin), is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The church was built as early as 1234 on the site of a pre-existing monastery. Michelozzo, whose brother was prior here, carried out an extensive renovation of the church and the monastery between 1444 and 1455. The church was, and is, primarily famous for a painting of the Annunciation that was completed by an angel, but more about this painting when we visit the church on the days dedicated to the art of painting. The first inner courtyard, the chiostro dei Voti (Wikipedia), was also designed by Michelozzo and features quite a large number of frescos.
Giovanni Battista Caccini designed the portico on the square between 1559 and 1561. Brunelleschi’s biographer, Antonio Manetti, also collaborated on the portico. His name can be found on the middle arch. If you think away the Baroque layer that was applied in later times, you will see the original work. The interior was built by Michelozzo, Pagno di Lapo Portigiani and Antonio Manetti.
The basilica with three aisles that is customary in Florence (Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce), now becomes a church with side chapels on both sides. Each side chapel has a passageway on either side, enabling the churchgoer to walk towards the crossing along the axis on which the chapels are located (see floorplan). In this regard, the side chapels actually serve as a traditional side aisle. By no means a luxury, considering the large number of visitors who come to light candles and pray at the panel of the Annunciation. This painting was not only miraculously completed by an angel, but is thought to still perform miracles today.
ALberti used the design of this church for his famous Sant’Andrea church in Mantua. The floorplan of the Santissima Annunziata also greatly influenced Baroque architecture. Vignola, for instance, was clearly inspired by this Florentine church when he designed Il Gesu, the first Baroque church in Rome.
The Rotondo of the Santissima Annunziata
After the nave and the crossing, the churchgoer encounters the choir and, to their surprise, discovers a round choir with a cupola, also known as a tribune or rotondo. Something quite different from the choir in the Santa Maria Novella or the Santa Croce. The ideal of a central design arose during the Renaissance.
The construction of the choir of the Santissima Annunziata was a difficult process. Heated debates took place: exactly what form was the choir supposed to have? Michelozzo started building the choir between 1444 and 1453. His design was a round edifice with a dome near the main choir of this church. Michelozzo’s design was based on the classical round temple of Minerva Medica located in Rome.
A heated polemic broke out: the opponents said this shape was not suited for a Christian church, because in antiquity a round building with a dome was exclusively used as a tomb for emperors. A famous example is the Santa Costanza in Rome. So it was not so much the shape, but rather the link with traditional imperial customs that was used as an argument against Michelozzo’s work. In addition, the Rotondo with its dome showed structural weaknesses.
In 1569, when the work had already been halted for 15 years, Ludovico Gonzaga asked Alberti whether he would like to take on the construction of the Rotondo. Gonzaga from Mantua was the man who financed this round building. In his book ‘De re Aedificatoria’, Alberti had already made clear that a circular floor plan was highly preferable because nature has a preference for the round form: “Nature, after all, strives for absolute perfection, she is the best and divine teacher of all things.”
Alberti’s ideas on central design, just like those of later architects, were inspired by classical buildings, although hardly on temples. Renaissance architects believed that many ruins with circular or polygonal floorplans were classical in origin. This also applied to the Santo Stefano Rotondo, the Santa Costanza, the octagonal Lateran Baptistery in Rome and even the Baptistery in Florence. These were classical temples that were only later converted into Christian churches. We find but a few central floorplans among Vitruvius’ designs. And yet, Renaissance architects regarded the central design as classical. Alberti’s ideas hark back to antiquity, and also played an essential role in the design of the Pantheon. Cicero wrote about the perfect form, the circle, as the reflection of the cosmos.
Filarete, who wrote his ‘Trattato di architettura’ after Alberti’s ‘De re Aedificatoria’, explains in his book why he is such a strong proponent of circular buildings: ‘The eye can behold the entire curve, without its view being interrupted or hindered. […] the circle has a calming influence on the human spirit.” Translated from: Wittkower, R., ‘Grondslagen van de architectuur in het tijdperk van het humanisme’, Sun, Nijmegen 1971 (Nederlandse uitgave 1996) p. 16.
“Alberti’s kosmic – philosophical approach to the circle as the perfect form, is supplemented here by Filarete’s psychological and optical approach.” Wittkower p. 6. Alberti was enthusiastic about Michelozzo’s design: a round building all’antica. He takes charge of the construction. We know that Alberti was involved in the project until at least 1477.
De Rotondo is a round hall with a dome supported by a thick wall incorporating eight chapels. This meant the Santissima Annunziata became a church with two totally different forms: a straight and rectangular one connecting to the round form of the choir. Not everybody was enthusiastic about this. Vasari strongly disapproved, because:
“[…] she [Rotondo or tribune] lacks charm, regardless of whether it concerns big things or little things, and can never be beautiful this way. And that this is true of big things is proven by the fact that the huge arch that gives access to the tribune is beautiful when seen from the outside, but when one looks at it from inside the chapel appears to be falling inward, because it had to curve round in conformity with this chapel that is also round, causing it to give an exceptionally cumbersome impression. Perhaps Leon Batista (Alberti) would not have done it this way if, in addition to theoretical knowledge, he had also had practical experience in construction […]” Translated: from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the great painters, sculptors and architects, from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 volume I (original edition 1568) p. 225.