The church of Santa Maria della Vigne had stood in this site, on marshy ground on the road out of town, since before 1094, the year that the enlarged and newly-named church of Santa Maria Novella was consecrated, replacing an unsafe building. The church was given to thirteen Dominicans in1221, led by John of Salerno, who had been sent to Florence two years before by Saint Dominic himself. The Dominicans (who called themselves the Order of Preachers) were one of the original four 13th century mendicant (begging) orders, along with the Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites, all of whom founded large churches in Florence radiating out far from the centre. Prior to its inhabitation by the Dominicans the area had been 'a place of great filth' according to contemporary Gerardo di Fracher in his Vitae Fratrum, with a brothel nearby, which was also a 'house of demons' from which howls and screams of displeasure had been heard when the Dominicans arrived. The site of the old church corresponds to the current church's transept, and when the Dominicans began expanding and rebuilding around 1246 (two years after the arrival here of Fra Pietro di Verona, aka Saint Peter Martyr) this east-west orientation was retained for the transept, the church itself being orientated north-south. Work on the bigger church, with its nave and two aisles, began in 1279. Santa Maria della Vigne was demolished at the time and the larger church acquired its rotated orientation towards the new piazza, laid out around 1288. The first stone was laid by Cardinal Latino Malabranca, who was painted (wearing a red hat) among the Dominican Blessed by Fra Angelico in the outer right hand panel of the altarpiece he painted for San Domenico Fiesole, now in the London National Gallery. The gothic design of the church is tentatively ascribed to two lay brothers Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi, with five more friars succeeding them in directing the work, until it was declared finished in 1357. The grandeur of this church built by an order committed to humility was controversial, and repeated lightning strikes on the campanile seemed to provide divine substantiation for these accusations. The Dominicans tried to solve this problem by putting a box of relics up in the campanile in 1359.
In the late 13th century, as the church was being built, Duccio painted an altarpiece for the Companga del Laudesi di Maria Virgine, now called the Rucellai Madonna, it is now in the Uffizi. A few years later Giotto (whose father was a blacksmith with a workshopnearby) painted the wooden Crucifix still to be found here, roughly in the same position it would have occupied over the now-demolished rood screen.
Vasari's restoration of 1567 saw, like the one carried out at Santa Croce, the removal of a massive two tier screen. This was prompted by the Council of Trent's decree that the laity should have a clear view of the altar and be able to clearly hear the sermon. It also resulted here in the bricking-up of the much-used old (East) side door, frescoes being covered and the windows made more Renaissance in style. Between 1857 and 1861 further alteration, by Enrico Romoli, in a neo-gothic style, saw new stained glass windows and the floor relayed in grey and white. 20th-century restorations saw Orcagna's paintings outside the main chapel revealed in 1940-41 and the lower part of Masaccio's Trinità revealed. Work begun in 1962 saw the original painted decoration of the arches revealed, which had been covered in the 19th century with the painted imitation of semi-precious stone. In 1999 a millennial project saw the reopening of the side entrance that had been bricked up by Vasari, through which visitors now enter.
The façade was completed 1439-42 to designs by Alberti, unusual amongst the façades of the major Florentine churches for not being added centuries after the church itself. The lower section had been built in 1365 and Alberti added the frieze of 15 squares and the temple-front with scrolls above, using funds provided by Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, who gets his name, and that of his father, in large letters under the topmost pediment. The work, including the doorway, was completed 1458-70 by Giovanni di Bertino, using Alberti's designs. The burial niches (avelli) in the façade, along the wall flanking the entrance to the convent to the left, and in the walls around the cemetery to the right provided ninety-four tombs to which wealthy locals could subscribe. Their uniform design meant that only the options of carved coats of arms and arch-topped fresco panels on the back wall was available for personalisation.
A nave and two aisles separated by compound pillars, with stripy cross-vaulting. The distances between the pillars are mysteriously irregular, following no obvious pattern, but the six bays are wide, with gently pointed arches. The position of the original rood screen (ponte) removed by Vasari, is marked by the steps raising the pavement level just before the door in the Chiostro Verde.
The removal of these screens is traditionally said to have been prompted by the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent's decree that the laity should have a clear view of the altar and be able to clearly hear the sermon, but recent research has lead to the appreciation of more factors, many more aesthetic than liturgical, and a longer timescale.
The nave has bare walls and is dominated by 16th-century paintings generally. Alessandro Allori painted the somewhat congested Vision of Saint Hyacinth in the sixth bay on the left in 1567, Jesus at the Well with the Samaritan Woman in the second bay in 1575, and the refectory in 1590.The somewhat minimal Adoration of the Magi, with members of the Medici Family of c.1475 by Botticelli on the inner façade over the door was discovered in 1860 over an altar on the east wall. Also on the inner façade (to the right of the door, in emulation of the famed miracle-working Annunciation at Santissima Annunziata) is a lovely late-trecento fresco of the Annunciation by Pietro di Miniato.
Masaccio's monumental fresco of the Trinity painted in the third bay in the left aisle between 1425 and 1428, its frame may be by Brunelleschi. The donor has recently been identified as Berto di Bartolomeo, a master mason who had worked on the cupola. This fresco had been covered over by Vasari in 1570 with the Madonna of the Rosary, which is now in the Bardi Chapel. During work in the 19th century it was found to be in good condition and was detached and sited on the East wall opposite. The discovery of the skeleton at the base in 1952 saw the fresco restored to its original position. It is supposedly positioned so as to be striking when entering the side door opposite.
Giotto's fine (and very early) Crucifix of c.1290 has hung in various positions but its original siting is not known. By Vasari's time it was on the inner façade but more recently was to be found in the sacristy (see old photo right). It was hung in its current position, roughly where it would have hung on the old (ponte) screen, since 2000, following twenty years in restoration. Giotto is documented as living nearby around the (contested) time of its painting, but its attribution to Giotto is not universally accepted - Italian scholars are, as usual, more convinced than those from other countries. Although one might regret it not being at eye-height on a well-lit gallery wall, it is one of his few works to be found in the location for which it was created. It is widely credited as a crucial early marker in the development of the renaissance in its realism, and the way Christ hangs out from the cross is said to be because of it being painted to be tilted forward on the old screen, and viewed from below.
The joys of this church are in the transept chapels and the apse, the ceiling of the transept, like that of the nave, being undecorated. Starting on the left...
In 1380 Andrea di Jacopo Acciaiuoli built a chapel to the west of the old church to house a tomb for her husband Mainardo Cavalcanti. This vaulted gothic hall later became The Sacristy, with the tomb's plaque at its entrance. It's now a shop. To the right is the entrance to the recently-accessible Capella di Ognissanti, a very small space containing some anonymous early-14th century frescoes, but dominated by an iron spiral staircase.
Reached unusually by climbing a flight of eight steps from the left transept, the highlight Strozzi Chapel's faded frescoes are the work of Nardo di Cione, with Giovanni del Biondo responsible for the paintings in the vaults, all the work dating to the 1360s. This is a very rare total survival of a Trecento fresco cycle. Nardo's work is seen as something of a return to the compressed after Giotto's sparser crowds and more natural forms. The altarpiece (see right) is the original by Orcagna, Nardo's elder brother, signed and dated 1357 and commissioned as an act of atonement by Tommaso, son of Rosello Strozzi who had been found guilty of usury. It is said to be the first altarpiece in Florence to feature a unified field - with no painted or carpentry pillars between the saints. The chapel was dedicated to Thomas Aquinas, the name saint of the commissioner. The saint is represented on the altarpiece being given a book by the central figure of Christ, as well as being featured in three scenes from his life in the predella below. The Last Judgement fresco on the back wall is split by stained glass window showing the Virgin and Child and Saint Thomas Aquinas, also designed by Nardo. A relic of the saint's index finger was here from at least 1368, maybe making the chapel into a site of pilgrimage. The Last Judgement is an unusual subject for a family chapel, being more common on the entrance wall of churches, and may have been inspired by Dante's Inferno. It could also be explained by the chapel's being painted just after the Black Death of 1348, widely seen as a divine punishment. Paradise is on the left, with Hell on the right as usual, our right being at the left hand of Jesus. The faces of the couple being led by the Archangel Michael to Paradise look to be portraits, and various members of the Strozzi clan have been suggested.
The first chapel left of the choir is the Gaddi Chapel, endowed in 1446 by Angelo Gaddi the grandson of the painter Taddeo. The tomb of a later cardinal in the family, also named Taddeo, is on the right wall. The chapel has an altarpiece by Bronzino, said to be his last work, depicting the Resurrection of the Daughter of Jairus and a ceiling by Allori.
The Choir (see above right) had been frescoed by Andrea di Cione (Orcagna) in 1348, but in 1358 they were damaged by a fire caused by lightning. Vasari adds Nardo di Cione's name as helping and says that the cycles depicted the lives of the Virgin and John the Baptist. Fragments of this original fresco decoration, thirty-five Busts of Prophets and Saints, from the transverse arches and vaulting ribs were found in the 1940s and 50s and can now be seen on display in the museum here. Giovanni Tornabuoni was the manager of the Medici bank's Rome branch and Lorenzo de' Medici's uncle. He acquired the chapel in 1485 in competition with the Ricci family and Francesco Sassetti (the latter the previous patron of the chapel) and commissioned a cycle of frescoes from the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. This studio also included Domenico's brothers Davide and Benedetto as well as Sebastiano Mainardi and Michelangelo. The frescoes, begun in 1486, right after Ghirlandaio had finished his work in Santa Trinita and finished in 1490, contain many portraits of contemporary residents of Florence, especially members of the Tornabuoni family and the artist's colleagues. The left wall contain seven scenes from the life of the Virgin, the right wall has seven scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The narrative on each wall begins at the bottom, each tier reading from the nave towards the back wall, and works upwards. The back wall has stained glass windows made by Alessandro Agolanti to designs by Ghirlandaio and more frescoes by him, level with the central wall panels and continuing their stories. Upon completion of the fresco work Ghirlandaio began work on the high altarpiece - see Lost art below.
The (other) Strozzi Chapel, just to the right of the apse, was bought by Filippo Strozzi from the Boni family in 1486. He had to retain the chapel's dedication to St John the Evangelist so he commissioned frescoes from Filippino Lippi showing the life of St John, and his own name saint Philip the Apostle, finished in 1502.
In the right end of the transept are the small Bardi and large Rucellai chapels, most famous for having both housed the Duccio Rucellai Madonna (see Lost Art below)
A miracle story suggests that there was a very early painting depicting Saint Dominic's martyrdom here, painted less than a decade after his death in 1221. It is long lost and our only idea as to its appearance is provided by later prints.
Duccio's large Madonna and Child enthroned with six Angels (The Rucellai Madonna) (see right) of 1285, is the earliest documented painting by him to survive, the only other securely datable work by him being his Maesta for the Siena Duomo. The Rucellai Madonna was commissioned by the Laudesi confraternity, probably for their own chapel here. The painting's original siting is the subject of much academic debate and disagreement - somewhere in or off the south transept here is all that's agreed. To further complicate debate recent research into the function of tremezzi (rood screens) has resulted in suggestions that it may have been mounted on the tremezzo here, to one side of Giotto's Crucifix. It is now in the Uffizi, where it's part of the spectacular Cimabue/Giotto/Duccio trio on display in room 2. It has been there since 1948 and is called the Rucellai Madonna because it was moved to that family's chapel here in 1627 and this was its last location - the family being unconnected with the original commission or location. Vasari thought that it was by Cimabue and hence it formed the crucial starting point of his story of Florence's domination of the whole renaissance. That it was actually by Duccio, from Siena, has lead to it's perceived importance waning, since the correct attribution became accepted during the 19th century, for those who still see the renaissance through Vasari's eyes. The roundels in the frame depict, with Christ at the apex, the twelve apostles down the left side and twelve Old Testament prophets down the right. Along the base are post-biblical saints, including the Dominicans Dominic and Peter Martyr.
Ugolino di Nerio, another Sienese artist, had by 1320 painted a high altarpiece for Santa Maria Novella, commissioned by friar Baro Sassetti and now lost.
An embroidered altar frontal by Jacopo di Cambio from 1336 is in the Accademia. It is one of 23 altar frontals mentioned in a later inventory of this church.
Bernardo Daddi's dark Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece (c.1345), moved from the church to the convent by Vasari, is now in the Accademia. A Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints dated 1375 by Agnolo Gaddi, and his earliest surviving altarpiece, was probably originally painted for here. It's now in the Parma Galleria Nazionale. An altarpiece of The Annunciation and Saints by Giovanni del Biondo, dating from1380/85 is now in the Accademia.
Three panels from wooden tabernacles by Fra Angelico, painted between 1425 and 1434, are in the San Marco Museum, with a forth in the Gardner Museum in Boston. All four panels were cleaned for an exhibition - Fra Angelico: Heaven and Hell - held there in 2018. They would have been stored in the cabinets in the sacristy here and brought out and put on altars for special feast days.
Sandro Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi (1475) was commissioned by broker Guasparre del Lama for his tomb to the right on the inner façade here. It was replaced in the 16th century with the Annunciation by Santi di Tito, and has been in the Uffizi since 1796. It contains the portraits of several members of the Medici family - the then-deceased Cosimo il Vecchio (kneeling) and his sons Piero and Giovanni are the Three Kings; Lorenzo il Magnifico and Giuliano are there too, as are Botticelli and Guasparre del Lama.
Domenico Ghirlandaio's high altarpiece of Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Dominic, Michael, John the Baptist and Thomas (The Pala Tornabuoni) (1490-94) (see right) was left unfinished at Ghirlandaio's death, but finished by his workshop. It is said that its Netherlandish elements might result from it's having been finished by his brother Benedetto, who had just returned from a stay in France. The framework, by Baccio d'Agnolo was lost when the altarpiece was dismantled in 1804. It was cut up and all eight panels sold by Tornabuoni descendants in 1809. The central panel (see far below right) is now in the Munich Alte Pinakothek, along with side panels depicting Saint Lawrence (seen to the left in the mock up right) and Saint Catherine of Siena (from the reverse). The other standing saint on the front right was Saint Stephen, now in Budapest. The central panel on the reverse was the Resurrection of Christ, now in Berlin, flanked by Saint Peter Martyr, now in Parma, and Saint Vincent Ferrer. The latter, and a side-panel depicting Saint Antoninus were in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin and lost in a fire in the Flackturm fire in 1945.
A tondo of The Eternal Father by Vasari has recently been restored in the convent here and awaits a suitable exhibition location.
A sculpted bust of Christ the Redeemer by Giovanni Battista Caccini (c.1598) which once topped the Benedetto family tabernacle here is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The tabernacle was dismantled around 1859 during the major renovations mentioned above. It also included Lodovico Cignoli's painting of The Martyrdom of St Peter, which is still here.
A Carrara marble cantoria made in 1485 by Baccio d’Agnolo, who was also responsible for the intarsia-work choir stalls around the high altar. It has, since 1859, been in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Built c.1330, designed by Giovanni da Campi, using as its base the medieval lookout tower from the old church. It has five bells. In 1358 Fra Pietro Strozzi placed a casket of relics on the campanile as a lightning conductor, as it had often been struck. Some Florentines interpreted this as a criticism of the pomp and wealth of the new monastery.
September 2018 Update The campanile is covered in scaffolding, and has been since at least October 2016.
Santa Maria Novella housed five miracle-working images during the renaissance period, all of which are still to be found in the church. The Madonna del Sangue was a half-length fresco of the Madonna and Child above a door in the Chiostro Verde painted around 1330 by the Sienese Lippo Memmi or a Florentine influenced by Sienese painting. In 1344 the fresco was stabbed in the neck, according to a Dominican writing later, by an unlucky gambler resulting in a flowing of blood. The gambler was caught and hanged in the piazza outside the church. In 1356 the door was blocked off and an altar installed underneath the fresco.
The second, and most prominent, cult developed around a fresco on an exterior wall called the Madonna della Pura which was moved to the Ricasoli Chapel in 1473. This image was said to have spoken to boys from the Ricasoli family playing nearby with friends, asking him to use his leafy stick to clear cobwebs and dust from her image. The image was later installed in a purpose-built tabernacle in a chapel which also housed another miracle-working image, a polychrome sculpted crucifix this time, of possibly English manufacture.
The other images were the Madonna delle Peste, which was reputed to have been most effective during times of plague, and a fresco of The Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr, unique amongst miracle-working images in Florence for not being a depiction of the Virgin or a Crucifix. A young man of heretical beliefs, upon seeing the painting of the martyrdom, was said to have been heard to boast that he himself would have attacked the saint even more vigorously. He was struck dumb and only got the power of speech back after repenting and begging forgiveness of the saint.
The church in art
Alfred Stevens, the Dorset-born sculptor and artist copied many frescoes in Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and other churches in the 1830s, for study purposes and to sell to tourists. The British Museum have 38 of them. In a late 19th century Fabio Borbottoni painted several views of Santa Maria Novella, inside (before restoration) and out.
Ruskin wrote, in Mornings in Florence
...that the Ghirlandaio frescoes are 'simply good for nothing'. He goes on to compare two of Ghirlandaio's scenes with a similar pair, that he says are by Giotto, in the Cloister of the Dead. His dismissal of Ghirlandaio's refinement in the face of the simple piety of the Trecento 'Giotto' frescoes is positively Pre-Raphaelite!
Of the lovely late-14th-century Annunciation fresco on the inner façade, mentioned above, he says that it is visible enough because well preserved, though in the dark, and extremely pretty in its way - of the decorated and ornamental school following Giotto - I can't guess by whom, nor does it much matter. He then goes on to contrast it with the frescoes in the Spanish Chapel, which he also admires, although he thinks them to be by Simon Memmi.
Boccaccio's Decameron begins here with seven women attending a mass on a Tuesday in the year 1348 , the church being almost deserted due to the ravages of Black Death. There being seven of them is said to be for them to represent the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude) plus the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, Love). The choice of this church is said to have been because the word novella's association with the telling of a story.
In October 1503 Leonardo da Vinci began work on his huge cartoon for The Battle of Anghiari mural, planned for the Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio, in the ramshackle refectory (or Sala Grande) here. In 1505 the cartoon was exhibited here to great popular acclaim, but the fresco itself was never finished.
Monday - Friday
April to September 9.00 - 19.00
October to March 9.00 - 17.30
Friday from 11.00
Saturday and religious pre-holidays
September to June 9.00-17.30
July and August 9.00 - 18.30
Sunday and religious holidays
September to June 13.00 - 17.30
July and August 12.00 - 18.30
Tickets cost €7.50
for adults, €5.00 for students and seniors.
Work on the
(Chiostro Verde) began
c.1332, to designs by Giovanni Bracchetti da Campi, and was completed after 1350 by Jacopo Talenti, who
also designed the Chapter House
entered to the north, built between 1345 and 1355.
The benefactor responsible was Mico di Lapo Guidalotti and this chapter
house, in which he was buried in a Dominican habit, was then decorated
with frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto from 30 December 1365 and taking two
years. Andrea is an artist whose reputation rests largely on his work in
this chapel, although in 1366/7 he also advised on the building of the
Duomo, which may explain its representation in the frescoes here, but
taken from Arnolfo's original plans, not as built. It later
became known as The Spanish Chapel
as in 1566 it was granted to Grand
Duchess Eleanor of Toledo (memorably painted by Bronzino, she was the wife of Cosimo I) as a place of worship
for the Spanish community in Florence which had grown considerably since
her marriage. The monumental frescoes (detail right) are unusually
narrative for a Dominican space. They celebrate the Dominican order and
the lives and achievements of its saints.
The Chiostro Grande (Large Cloister), (see above) is sometimes called the second cloister as it was built after the Green Cloister, between 1340 and 1360. It was from 1920 the Carabinieri Officers' School. After an open day in October 2016 to celebrate the Carabinieri moving out it was opened to the public in 2018. It has fresco panels along each side, 53 in all, some depicting the life of Christ, but most the life of Saint Dominic and other Dominican saints, notably Anthony and Catherine of Siena. All are 16th-century, mostly painted between 1570 and 1590. They vary much in vividness and amount of damage, and only one is by a major name - an Entombment by Alessandro Allori (see below). The refectory off the north loggia is open too and is a handsome long space, with sandy-grey coloured cross vaulting. On the first floor, above the refectory, is the Capella del Papa.
Oltrarno :: Fiesole