Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella ★★

Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy (Photo by Allan Parsons)

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

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

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

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 Decameronmeet 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.)

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.)

Photo gallery
  • , Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo by Allan Parsons)
  • The nave, Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple
  • The Cappella Gondi, Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Tornabuoni Chapel, frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his in 1486–1490, Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo by Karatecoop)
  • The Chiostro Verde, or Green Cloister, Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo by Thomas Roessler)
  • Detail from the 1365–67 frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto in the Cappellone degli Spagnoli, Santa Maria Novella, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into Santa Maria Novella for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

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How long does Santa Maria Novella take?

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.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).



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