Santa Maria Novella ★★

This Florentine church puts painting in perspective—literally, as home to some of the most groundbreaking frescoes of the early Renaissance

The church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. (Photo by Georges Jansoone)
Santa Maria Novella was begun in 1246 and completed in 1360, but the famous green-and-white marble facade—though it looks like a single, felicitous example of architecture—was actually built in two eras and two very different styles.

Alberti's facade

The facade's lower half was done in a Tuscan Romanesque style by Fra' Jacopo Talenti, but the upper half was added in 1456–70 by the great Renaissance architectural theorist Leon Battista Alberti, who managed to stamp it firmly with his exacting Neoclassical ideals while still managing to meld it seamlessly to the Romanesque bottom half.

Why am I going on about a facade that looks like a thousand other church facades out there? Because this was the original, the blueprint upon which those thousands of others were all modeled (it helped that Alberti coded his ideas and theories in widely-read architectural handbooks).

Note in particular Alberti's innovation of using large, curved triangular spaces decorated with oversized scrolls to bridge the gaps from the high roof of the central nave to the lower roofs of the side aisles.

The interior

Ghirlandaio fresco of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in the Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella church in Florence
Ghirlandaio frescoed a cycle on the Life of the Virgin Mary—including this Birth of the Virgin—in the Tornabuoni Chapel behind the main altar. The frescoes also read as a catalogue of daily Florentine life, dress, and customs in late 15th century Florence. Read more below.
This cavernous Gothic interior was built to accommodate the masses who had come to hear the Word of God as delivered by the Dominicans.

The only problem was that the vast majority of the worshippers couldn't understand those all-important words, since the mass was entirely in Latin.

To make sure the less educated received at least some of the basic moral lessons and church teachings, the friars did what every good Italian church did back then: they filled the walls with the medieval version of a comic-book, translating Bible stories into cycles of frescoes that are some of the most important in all of Florence—a claim not to be taken lightly.

Masaccio's Trinità and Galileo's heresy

The birth of perspective
Until Masaccio's Trinità, painting had frequently used foreshortening to show depth, taking lines that in real life would be parallel (say, the top and bottom of a wall) and painting them instead to appear as if they were converging as they "receded."

This gave a decent illusion of distance and three-dimensionality, but until Masaccio, foreshortening was always done a bit haphazardly, with the artists merely eyeballing things and painting each instance of foreshortening according to its own internal logic.

Most artists of the early Renaissance era were constantly striving to add more naturalism to their work, and Masaccio provided them with the key. In the Trinità, all of the foreshortening lines are drawn to converge at to a single vanishing point at the back of the painted "vault" which contains the scene.

These days, kids get taught that in sixth grade art class, but at the time it was revolutionary. Renaissance artists flocked to study the new technique and apply it to make their scenes ever more realistic. Some, however, did an early Picasso and mastered perspective only to warp it as a storytelling, as did Paolo Uccello in the greenish frescoes of Noah in the adjacent cloisters.

(The impulse to paint ever-more naturalistically dogged art for centuries, through the baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic movements and right up to the photorealists of the 20th century. Interestingly, it wasn't until when photography came along that artists felt truly free from having to strive to record reality flawlessly. This opened up new opportunities for Impressionists, Expressionists, and abstract artists. Some even turned perspective on its head. Picasso went back to basics with foreshortening but then galloped in the other direction with it, away from naturalism and toward subjectivism, turning the old medieval mutiple-angle foreshortening into a brand-new painting style called Cubism.)
Masaccio's Trinità (Trinity) fresco in Santa Maria Novella church in Florence.
Masaccio's Trinità (Trinity) fresco in Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, painted in 1428.
Let's start right off with the good stuff. In the left aisle near the main entrance is the church's real show-stopper, Masaccio's 1428 fresco of the Trinity.

This is credited as the first painting in the history of art to use perfect linear mathematical perspective. It also cleverly continues the architecture of the into the painting itself, seeming to set the action in a virtual additional wing of the church. See the sidebar on the right for details.

(Notice I said that this was the first painting to use true perspective, not the first work of art. Masaccio was actually applying to the flat medium of fresco some of the insights Donatello had already made in sculpture when he pioneered a kind of single-point perspective in his schiacciato low-relief carvings, of which you can see some in the Bargello though the best examples are in the Siena cathedral's baptistery and museum.)

Near the Trinity is a 15th-century pulpit designed by Brunelleschi, most famous for being the spot from which Galileo was denounced for his heretical theory that the Earth revolved around the sun.

More frescoes around the church

In the Cappella Maggiore (Main Chapel, a.k.a. Cappella Tornabuoni) behind the main altar and its bronze crucifix by Giambologna, Domenico Ghirlandaio created a fresco cycle supposedly depicting the Lives of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, when in fact what we see is a dazzling illustration of what life was like and how people dressed during the golden days of Renaissance Florence.

It's sprinkled with snapshot vignettes of daily life, examples of all the top fashion styles of the day, and loads of local personalities, including a number of faces belonging to the Tornabuoni family, who commissioned the work.

In the Cappella Filippo Strozzi, to the right of this, are frescoes by Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo Lippi and a pupil of his father's famous student, Botticelli) after his return from Rome—which helps explain his painterly allusions to classical styles, which would begin to dominate the High Renaissance style.

Literature fans will note that this was the spot where the group of youngsters in Boccaccio's Decameron meet and decide to escape the city and wait out the Great Plague of 1348 at a country villa, where they swap stories to pass the time.

To the right of this chapel is the Cappella dei Bardi, covered with 14th-century frescoes; its lunette frescoes of the Madonna are believed to be by Cimabue (ca. 1285), Giotto's teacher.

To the left of the Cappella Maggiore is the Cappella Gondi and a 15th-century crucifix by Brunelleschi, his only work in wood. And to the extreme left is the Cappella Gaddi, with frescoes by Nardo di Cione (1357); the altarpiece is by Nardo's brother, Orcagna. The chapel awaits the return of Giotto's 13th-century Crucifix, now at the restorer.

Adjacent is the sacristy, worth a peek for the delicate glazed terra-cotta lavabo (sink where priests would wash their hands) by Giovanni della Robbia.

The adjacent Museo di Santa Maria Novella

If you're not yet frescoed out, exit the church and turn right to visit the "Museum of Santa Maria Novella," which is composed of the frescoed cloisters and chapels of the attached convent.

The Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) took its name from the prevalent green tinge of Paolo Uccello's 15th-century fresco cycle depicting scenes from the story of Noah and the Flood. (Ironically, these frescoes were themselves heavily damaged in the 1966 Arno flood.)

The Cappellone degli Spagnoli in the church of Santa Maria Novella.
The Cappellone degli Spagnoli in the church of Santa Maria Novella. (Photo by Sailko)
Opening off the cloisters is the Cappellone degli Spagnoli (Big Spanish Chapel), which got its name from the nostalgic Eleonora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo de' Medici, who permitted her fellow Spaniards to be buried here.

The chapel's captivating series of early Renaissance frescoes (recently restored) by Andrea de Bonaiuto glorify the history of the Dominican church.

In the fresco, the images of black-and-white spotted dogs represent Dominicans, who wore black robes over white shifts and were known as the "Hounds of the Lord," both for their zealous adherence to—and application of—doctrinal law as well as because it made a nifty Latin pun on the name of their order. (Domini means lord, canes means dogs, hence: Domini-canes. This, in the Middle Ages, passed for humor.)

Tips & links


Piazza S. Maria Novella (just south of train station)
tel. +39-055-219-257


Mon–Thurs 9am–5:30pm, Fri 11am–5:30pm, Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1-5pm (also Oct-Jun)



With Firenze Card: Free


Bus: 6, 11, 22, C1, C2
Hop-on/hop-off: Barbetti (A), Curtatone (B)

How long does Santa Maria Novella take?

Planning your day: You'll likely spend 30–40 minutes inside the church, maybe another 30–40 minutes in the museum. The ticket office closes 45 minutes early.

» Florence itineraries

Santa Maria Novella tours

Take a guided tour of Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella with one of our partners:

Attending mass

You can attend mass: Sundays at 10:30am, noon (except July-Sept), and 6pm; Mon-Fri at 7:30am (except July-Sept) and 6pm; Sat at 7:30am (except July-Sept) and 6:30pm.

Use the Firenze Card

Santa Maria Novella is covered by the Firenze Card—free admission, no waiting in line. » more


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Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella

Piazza S. Maria Novella (just south of train station)
tel. +39-055-215-918


Mon–Thurs 9am–5:30pm, Fri 11am–5:30pm, Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1-5pm (open from noon Oct-Jun)



Firenze Card: Yes


Bus: 6, 11, 22, C1, C2
Hop-on/hop-off: Barbetti (A), Curtatone (B)


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