Santa Maria Novella

We head west for the second large basilisk, but this time belonging to the Dominican Mendicant order: the Santa Maria Novella. This church was constructed roughly fifty years prior to the Santa Croce.

Santa Maria Novella           Facade

Santa Maria Novella: facade
photos: Allan Parsons and facade: Diego Delso

The current church is built where an old church stood previously. This old church was surrounded by vineyards and was therefore called the Santa Maria della Vigna. There was a square in front of this church, but it was aimed west. The current church has rotated compared to the Santa Maria della Vigna has an orientation towards the north. The Santa Maria della Vigna became the transept of the new church. This resulted in the new square being situated against two squares. Construction started around 1246 and lasted until 1300. The campanile was completed thirty years later.

The facade of the Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella: facade
photo: Diego Delso
Santa Maria Novella: nave
photos: Diego Delso

Santa Maria Novella       Rib Vaults

For once, the facade does not date back to the nineteenth century, but it was instead one of Alberti’s famous designs, built between 1458 and 1470. The architects of this basilisk were presumably two dominican monks: Fra Sisto and Fra Ristoro da Campi. The layout is overall similar to the later built Santa Croce and is T-shaped. It is nice to know that this type was later exported to Venice (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the San Giovanni e Paolo). The basilisk has three aisles with a transept. It also has a large choir chapel with on each side two smaller square chapels.

What’s striking as you enter this church, like in the Duomo, is that the interior feels so very different from French gothic churches (Senlis 12th century). In France, where Gothicism first arose, they even called the French style: the aisles are clearly separated from the nave. The Santa Maria Novella is different. The high and wide arcades create more of a unity in the three aisles and overall it gives a larger impression. We will have a closer look at this church and the adjacent courtyard with the Spanish chapel on the day we cover painting and sculpting.

Santa Maria Novella        Cappella Maggiore

Santa Maria Novella: interior
photos: Trevor Huxham and Wikipedia

The facade and its proportions 
Youtube proportions facade (4.37 minuten)

The Santa Maria Novella is a gothic church with a facade from the Renaissance. The facade of this church, save for the bottom recesses with their pointed arches, the sarcophagi and the rose window, has little to do with Gothicism.

The facade of the Santa Maria Novella       Bottom recesses

 Santa Maria Novella: facade
photos: Diego Delso; bottom recesses: michael kogan

The problem Alberti struggled with is how he could make a decent transition from the low aisles to the much higher central nave.

Leon Battista Alberti ‘Self-portrait’ c. 1435

He could not fall back for old examples from Antiquity. Alberti’s solution involved two large volutes (the volute on the right was only clad with marble in the nineteenth century) for a smooth transition of the aisles to the central part: the nave. This handy solution was later copied many times by architects. Furthermore, the family name can be read on the frieze directly below the pediment: IOHAN(N)ES ORICELLARIUS PAU(LI) F(ILIUS) AN(NO) SAL(UTIS) MCCCCLXX or Giovanni Rucellai son of Paolo in the blessed year 1470. The entablature is cropped above the columns and the corner pillars. The high frieze is the transition from the bottom part of the facade to the top. The triangular pediment is very similar to the one of the San Miniato al Monte.

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Another problem Alberti dealt with is that he was not allowed to touch the bottom gothic part of the facade with the burial recesses, avelli. The owners of the tombs had paid serious money to have the graves at the facade. Only later did the church allow for graves inside the church, as can be seen in the Santa Croce. And of course, the gothic rose window had to remain intact.

The Gothic part

Santa Maria Novella facade: Gothic part
photo: Steven Zucker

By 1458, the year Alberti started, the bottom part of the facade up to the entablature had already been completed in a style very reminiscent of the Baptistery and the San Miniato al Monte.

Santa Maria Novella: main portal
photos: Rufus46 and semi-columns: Sailko

The main Portal

The ten blind recesses, in a green and white marble Tuscan-Roman style, had already been built. Alberti put serious effort into the bottom part. He removed the blind recesses at the corners, leaving just four on each side of the main entrance. The base of the missing two recesses near the column and corner pillar is still visible. What is new is that Alberti places semi-columns on the corners with adjacent corner pillars. At the entrance, in the centre between two fluted columns on high pedestals, are two fluted pilasters supporting a round arch straight next to the middle-most door. This combination of column and fluted pilaster with a rounded arch is an ‘homage’ to the Pantheon by ‘archaeologist’ Alberti.

The frieze of the entablature that ends the bottom side of the facade is decorated with rounded ship sails: a clear reference to the client, Rucellai. The coat of arms of Rucellai is visible twice, namely at the corners of the frieze

The facade was commissioned by the Rucellai family. Alberti was the architect who designed it. Alberti was the first in over a thousand years who wrote about art. Aside from a work about painting: ‘De Pictura‘, and sculpting: ‘De Statua’, he also authored ‘De re Aedificatoria’, or, treatise about architecture. In his latest book, Alberti puts the work of Vitruvius under scrutiny and he bases himself on two main principles:

  1. A building should be correctly proportioned.
  2. A clear analogy between man and the construction. The human body was built by God in accordance with certain proportions.

L’uomo vitruviano
Leonardo da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’ Translation text


“Beauty stems from the beautiful shape and a conformity between the sum and the parts, between the mutual parts, and then between the parts and the sum; so that the building appears an intact and complete body, with each section being in harmony with all others and all sections are needed to for perfection.” Alberti in ‘DE re Aedificatoria’

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’

Alberti stuck with his own (above) quoted words and with the symmetria of Vitruvius. The entire facade fits within one large square. In other words, we have a fixed proportion (module) used as the foundation for various parts of the facade. The bottom part of the facade is exactly half the square. The top centre part with the pediment is in turn exactly half the size of the bottom, so one-fourth of the entire facade. The ratio of the bottom part of the facade versus the top part is 1:2, which is called an octave in music theory. That same ratio, 1:2, appears in smaller units of the separate floors. For instance, the centre bay of the top floor (with the rose window) is a perfect square, the side of which being equal to half of the total width of the floor of the nave. The triangular pediment with the top-most entablature is exactly half the size of the top floor. The proportions of the entrance bay: height of the portal is 1.5 its width and the ratio width-height is thus 2-3, something called a fifth in music theory.

Santa Maria Novella facade: Blind recesses with round arches
photos: Steven Zucker

Blind recesses with round arches

Finally, the dark square incrustations of the attic are one-third of the total height of the attic, so 1:3. The incrustation squares have a ratio of 2:1 versus the diameter of the column, another octave. The entire facade has these kinds of geometric patterns with continuous doubling or vice-versa, or a continuous halving of ratios. Alberti succeeded in creating a harmony between the gothic parts (avelli) and the Tuscan Roman parts (blind recesses with rounded arches) with his new additions. A successful effort to reconcile the old with the new. The result is something completely novel: a renaissance facade, that has stood as the prototype for many other facades for centuries.

Continuation Florence day 1: Palazzo Davanzati