Santa Maria Novella Church is a hidden gem in Florence with splendid facades, frescoes and peaceful cloisters.
Situated just outside the train station and overlooking a busy square, this exquisite complex has one of the best looking facades of all Florentine churches. Filled with splendid frescoes, including the ones in the 14th century cloister, it has become a place of pilgrimage for art enthusiasts.
Santa Maria Novella Church – The splendid facade
The facade is a striking example of the Renaissance quest for harmony through geometric proportions. It was built by Leon Battista Alberti, one of the greatest architects of the time and theorist of Renaissance principles. He worked on a pre-existent romanesque-gothic structure and reinterpreted the space and the ornamentation with a more modern aesthetic. You’ll see the lower section with the Gothic arches is continued above with typical Renaissance sensibility.
What to see in Santa Maria Novella Church
“Trinity” by Masaccio – This is a painting that heralded a new style of painting. The first of its kind to use linear perspective. It caused such a stir when it was first unveiled in Florence, Florentine citizens and artists flooded in to see the fresco when it was unveiled, many remarking on how it seemed to create a chapel out of a flat wall. It is considered by many to be Masaccio’s masterwork. It was devised by Massaccio though probably with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself. To transfer the perspective lines from the sketch to the plaster, the young artist inserted a nail at the vanishing point under the base of the cross and attached strings to it. The marks of the preparatory work are still visible.
The Giotto Crucifix – Close by is the splendid crucifix by Giotto that marked a break from Byzantine tradition. The crucifix has a more realistic feel than other work of the time and indeed dominates the space at the front of the chapel.
Tornabuoni Chapel – A highlight of Santa Maria Novella Church. This chapel features frescoes by Ghirlandaio, that show crowd scenes featuring famous Florentines of the day. Dressed in contemporary costumes they are shown taking part in Biblical events.
Filippo Strozzi Chapel -This chapel is covered with frescoes by Filippino Lippi late 15th century Amongst others, the scenes feature Drusiana raised from the dead and St. Philip slaying a dragon.
Strozzi di Mantova Chapel – By 14th century Nardo di Cione, it shows the Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno of Dante. He is of course in Paradise together with members of the Strozzi Family.
Crucifix by Brunelleschi – This is the only wooden work by him, completed in 1410-5 in competition with Donatello that did one for Santa Croce. Brunelleschi called the other “a contadino” or peasant farmer, and wanted to do better.
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella Church
The Green Cloister – With the ticket for Santa Maria Novella Church, you can also visit the 14th century Green Cloister. It takes its name from the green tinge seen on the frescoes caused by the 1966 flood. Ironically one of the frescoes features the story of Noah. Next to it is the atmospheric if gloomy “Cloisters of the Dead”
The Spanish Chapel – Cosimo I’s wife was from Toledo, and the chapel become an usual meeting point for her compatriots who followed her to Florence. The interesting and busy frescoes by Andrea Bonaiuto celebrate the victory of the church over heresy. The dogs represent the Dominicans “the hounds of God” (cani del signore) who were sent to search and redeem lost souls.
Tickets cost 5 Euro and there’s no need to pre-book. If you have a Firenze card it’s included.
Now that you’ve explored Santa Maria Novella, let’s discover more about the other beautiful Florentine churches!