Santa Maria Novella - The Dominican Church of Florence

The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the most important churches in the city of Florence and if you happen to be sojourning there via train you're in luck as it is literally right across from Florence's train station. The church is the principal church of the Dominican order in Florence and it is an excellent example of the overlapping of earlier Renaissance and gothic styles in the region. 

The church is called "New St. Mary's" (Santa Maria Novella) because the original church founded on this site in the ninth century was also dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary before the Dominican friars were given possession of it early in the 1200's and determined to build the present structure with its adjoining cloister garden. 

The new church was designed by the Dominican friars Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi, taking eighty years to build in the main -- though further architectural interventions would happen after this as is so often the case. 

As mentioned the structure is a confluence of medieval and Renaissance styles and this is perhaps nowhere better shown that on the facade of the basilica which combines a lower medieval portion and an upper one dating to the Renaissance. The facade is done in beautiful polychrome marbles in a style that is typical to the region of Tuscany -- the most famous example of which is surely the Duomo of Siena. 

The main door of the church puts one to mind of many of the venerable basilicas of Rome and above it is a portrait of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. 

However, as one looks past this magnificent facade with its very Renaissance feel, one will clearly see the medieval origins of the basilica. 

In fact, from the back one could be forgiven for thinking it an entirely different structure:

As mentioned Santa Maria Novella also includes a cloister garden:

The cloister is not only beautiful for reason of its architecture and natural beauty, but also the many frescoes that adorn its walls:

Turning our attention to the interior, the gothic bones of the structure are in full evidence with its vaulted ceilings and pointed arches that continue the polychrome ornamentation we saw also on the exterior facade.  Interestingly, a trompe l'oeil illusion was utilized in the design by virtue of the fact that the arches and columns are not equidistant but rather get progressively closer as they approach the presbytery thereby giving the illusion that the basilica is longer than it actually is. 

Walking up that nave toward the high altar, one is greeted by a beautiful, monumental crucifix by Giotto. (Originally the church also contained a rood screen and loft, but this was removed in the sixteenth century under a remodelling commissioned by Cosimo de Medici.) 

The choir and sanctuary is covered in a series of frescoes, the colour of which is set off further by the high altar -- itself modern, dating to the nineteenth century. The fresco cycle was done by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the late 1400's and portrays scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist (the patron saint of the city of Florence). 


The vaulting above the altar, depicting the Four Evangelists. 

As is so often the case within Italy, behind the main altar is the choir where the Divine Office would be recited by the friars. Its layout is fairly typical, including a monumental lectern centrally that would support the choir books surrounded by the choir stalls for the friars. 

These choir stalls themselves contain incredibly beautiful inlay work, such as these examples showing St. Lawrence and St. John the Baptist:

St. Lawrence

St. John the Baptist 

Being a preaching order, we would be remiss to not show the pulpit of the basilica which was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi -- who is of course most renowned in the city for the great dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

It goes without saying that the basilica also contains a number of chapels and side altars, but I think our readers would be more interested in having the veil lifted ever so slightly to see some of the collection of relics and vestments in the possession of Santa Maria Novella. Their reliquary cupboard (both the relics and the cupboard itself) is quite impressive:

If you choose to make a visit, you'll also be treated to an impressive display of sacred vestments in the old refectory. 

It is likely worth noting that the basilica in question also historically had an astronomical function as well. Under Cosimo I de Medici, objects were installed one the exterior and interior of the basilica with the purpose of assisting in calculating the solar year. The resultant calcualtions were brought to Rome and presented to Pope Gregory XIII and were influential in assisting in the establishment of the new Gregorian calendar. 

The Meridian Line

An "armillary sphere" used for calculating the vernal equinox.

A sundial for telling time.

The addition of these elements to the basilica are a perfect characterization of the Florentine spirit of innovation and advancement during the Renaissance. 

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