Santa Maria Novella ranks just behind Santa Croce as Florence’s most important church. The mother church of the city’s Dominican order, it was begun in 1246, replacing an earlier 11th-century church on the site. Both the facade and interior are outstanding, the latter home to a trio of captivating fresco cycles and one of the most influential paintings of the early Renaissance.
Santa Maria’s interior was completed in 1360, although its Romanesque facade remained half-finished until 1456, when Giovanni Rucellai, a textile merchant, commissioned Leon Battisti Alberti to complete the frontage in a more modern, classical-influenced style. A Latinized version of Rucellai’s name—Iohanes Oricellarius—is stamped across the facade, together with his family emblem, the billowing sail of Fortune. Inside, the church’s overriding impressions are of size and sobriety. Note how the columns of the aisles become progressively closer, a trick designed to confuse your sense of perspective.
Another triumph of perspective lies halfway down the nave on the left. Masaccio’s fresco of the “Trinity” (1427) was one of the first Renaissance works in which the new ideas of mathematical proportion were successfully employed. Florentines lined up for days in 1427 to share in the miracle of a picture that apparently created a three-dimensional space in a solid wall. Note the skeleton with its chilling epigram: “I was that which you are, you will be that which I am.”
Santa Maria’s first fresco cycle lies in the Cappella di Filippo Strozzi, the chapel immediately to the right of the chancel, the area around the high altar. Sponsored by the banker Filippo Strozzi, the paintings (1489-1502) are the work of Filippino Lippi and deal with episodes from the life of Strozzi’s namesake, St. Filippo the Apostle (Filippo is Philip). At the rear of the chapel stands the banker’s tomb (1491-95), an accomplished work by Benedetto da Maiano.
The church’s second, and most important cycle, a work by Domenico Ghirlandaio, is ranged around the chancel. It, too, was commissioned by a banker— Giovanni Tornabuoni. Here the themes are the “Life of John the Baptist” (right wall) and the “Life of the Virgin” (1485-1490), although the cycle is crammed with numerous portraits—including members of the Tornabuoni family —and a wealth of insights into the daily life of 15th-century Florence.
The third cycle lies in the Cappella Strozzi, the raised chapel in the north transept. Its paintings (1350-57) were paid for by Tommaso Strozzi, a banking ancestor of Filippo Strozzi. They are the work of Nardo di Cione (died 1366), brother of the more celebrated Orcagna (Andrea di Cione), who was responsible for the chapel’s main altarpiece. The principal frescoes depict “Paradiso” (left wall) and a pictorial version of Dante’s “Inferno” (right wall).
Almost immediately inside Santa Maria’s museum (entered to The frescoes (1425-1430) are the work of Paolo Uccello and depict “Stories from Genesis.” The most famous panel is “The Flood” on the right (east) wall, with its twin depictions of the ark before and after the deluge.
Leading off the cloister is the Cappellone degli Spagnuoli or Spanish Chapel, most of whose interior is adorned with magnificent frescoes (1367-69) by the little-known painter Andrea da Firenze (active 1343-1377): Those on the left wall portray “The Triumph of Divine Wisdom,” those on the right wall “The Mission, Work, and Triumph of the Dominican Order.”