The New Saint Mary

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

Santa Maria Novella

When speaking of Florence and saying the words “Santa Maria Novella,” there’s a chance that you’ll be referring to the city’s main railway station, but I shall tell you only of the church that is its namesake. Built on the site of a ninth century oratory (Santa Maria delle Vigne), the “new” Saint Mary was consecrated in 1420, after eighty years of construction.


Its façade was the design of Leon Battista Alberti, an author, architect, linguist, philosopher, and cryptographer — in other words, further proof that the “Renaissance Man” really did exist in the wild. It was commissioned by Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, a wealthy Florentine wool merchant for whom Alberti also designed a palazzo. He combined white and green marble, and guided himself by the ideals of the humanist architecture that was so in vogue at the time, while still maintaining harmony with the existing medieval building.

The church proper was designed by two Dominican friars, Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi, with work being finished on the bell tower and sacristy under Fra Iacopo Talenti.

Cappella Tornabuoni

The most well-known chapel in Santa Maria Novella, the Tornabuoni Chapel, is famous for the fresco cycle that decorates its walls. Completed by Domenico Ghirlandaio (teacher to Michelangelo) in the late 15th-century, the cycle was commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, a Florentine merchant, banker, and patron of the arts — and grandfather to Lorenzo il Magnifico.

The frescoes depict scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, the latter of which was the patron of Tornabuoni and the city of Florence.

Strozzi Chapel

Commissioned by Filippo Strozzi in 1502, the frescoes in this chapel were completed by Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo Lippi). They depict the lives of Apostle Saint James the Great and Apostle Philip (yes, Filippo in Italian). History has no mercy.

Cappella Strozzi di Mantova

Commissioned by an ancestor of Filippo Strozzi (Tommaso, this time), the frescoes in this chapel are the work of Nardo di Cione, and were completed in 1350-1357. Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, the cycle is comprised of scenes depicting the Last Judgment, Hell, and Paradise.

Cappella Bardi

Dating from the early 13th century, the Bardi Chapel was commissioned by Riccardo Bardi. The frescoes, completed by Duccio di Buoninsegna, depict scenes from the life of Saint Gregory the Great, who served as Pope Gregory I in the late sixth century. In the 18th century, the chapel was re-dedicated to Saint Dominic, though only the ceiling remains from the renovation work undertaken and the walls shown today are as they were completed by Buoninsegna.

Holy Trinity by Masaccio

The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors, known more simply as just the Holy Trinity, is a fresco completed by Masaccio sometime between 1425-1427. This work was temporarily lost when Giorgio Vasari completed renovations in the church at the behest of Cosimo I, Duke of Florence, though he had appreciation and foresight enough to create his own replacement for this piece in such a way that the original work was protected behind a screen. Vasari’s own work has by now been moved (today it sits in the Bardi Chapel), and Masaccio’s fresco is on display in its original location. The work itself is significant because it is believed to be the first instance of the use of linear perspective, with a vanishing point at the viewer’s eye level. This technique went on to be used extensively, and was instrumental in creating works of art that seem to exist in realistic space.

Cloister of the Dead

So called because it served for many years as a cemetery, the Cloister of the Dead is one of the oldest parts of the church complex, and was probably used to hold mass while the church above (this sits below the level of the church transept) was being built. In 1333, it flooded, and was later rebuilt by Fra Iacopo Talenti.

Cappellone degli Spagnoli

The former chapter house of the convent, this is also the work of Fra Iacopo Talenti, and was funded by Buonamico Guidalotti. The frescoes were completed by Andrea di Bonaiuto, also known as Andrea da Firenze. Its name changed to Spanish Chapel in 1566, when it was granted to Eleonora di Toledo for use in religious services for her fellow countrymen. The tombs inside the room all belong to Spaniards, with the exception of Guidalotti, who was buried here as was his due as original patron.

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