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Santa Maria Novella (Florence)


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Santa Maria Novella, Florence's Dominican Basilica, is the most walked past and least visited of the major Florence churches.  It's also the only one with a decent facade (designed in part by the polymath (all round genius) Leon Battista Alberti), and sadly the only one with a no photography rule inside (which is aggressively enforced) and a very ordinary bunch of postcards / guides which do not compensate for this.  As a consequence most of the internal pics below have had to be harvested.   


The soaring gothic space inside is a seriously uplifting experience.  The old church on this site, taken over in 1219 by a group of Dominicans led by Fra Giovanni da Salerno, was called Santa Maria della Vigne (the nearby Duomo was Santa Maria del Fiore - oh that there were a few vines and flowers around now!).  The foundation stone of the present church was laid in October 1279, and the church was finally consecrated 140 years later in September 1420.



Above:  The Masaccio masterpiece "Trinita" (it can be seen on the left wall of the nave pictured further up)  was restored in time for his 600th birthday anniversary in 2002.  You can see what is going on a bit more clearly on the right, but the version above is a more accurate colour reproduction.


Masaccio (1400 - 1428) was the first to use Brunelleschi's laws of centralized perspective in a major fresco - this was painted  between 1425 and 1427.  The chapel and the sarcophagus have a common vanishing point at the eye of the viewer (as long as he or she is at least 5 meters back from the fresco).





The Duccio Madonna on the right, now in the Uffizi, was originally in Santa Maria Novella.







Above:  To the bottom left of the "Angel Appearing to Zacharias" fresco (1486-1490) by Ghirlandaio (below left) are four of Florence's leading philosophers - Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Agnolo Poliziano and Gentile de' Becci (probably).



The Capella Maggiore (Main Chapel) contains, amongst many other treasures, fresco cycles on the Life of Saint John the Baptist (right hand side) and the Life of the Virgin (left hand side).  Two of the scenes in the former are shown above. 


The paintings were by the master of narrative frescoing, Domenico Ghirlandaio, with help from others in his workshop including a fourteen year old Michelangelo. 


The faces are of the good citizens of Florence (men on the right, women on the left), as are the clothes and urban landscapes - plus, of course, the obligatory Renaissance showing off of the ability to paint walls etc in perspective and also draped clothing!  The elegant young lady (above and below right) is Giovanna Tornabuoni who, like too many women of her day, died in childbirth aged only 20. 





Another of Ghirlandaio's young beauties in his SMN frescos - her  identity is not known.


The astute visitor will have noticed that this image is different to the one above.  In fact it is an oil painting of Giovanna by Domenico Ghirlandaio which is one of the flagship exhibits in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.




Not one of Ghirlandaio's glam virgins, but none-the-less an arresting Annunciation in the Tornabuoni chapel .




The magnificent SMN chapter house (above) was built between 1345 and 1355 (interrupted by the Black Death in 1348).  Many of the frescos were painted by Andrea Buonaiuto about ten years later.   Left above "The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant", and right "The Passion". 


200 years later the chapter house was taken over by Eleanor of Toledo (wife of Cosimo I) and its function changed from a morning meeting room for friars to a meeting place for Spanish women living in Florence (and it consequently became known as the Capellone degli Spagnoli).


Amongst the other old convent rooms, the refectory is a not always open museum - one of its frescos is a last supper (Venetian style) by Alessandro Allori.  One of the most magnificent rooms is the old friar's dormitory (right), which sadly is now a Carabinere cafeteria and thus inaccessible, unless you can persuade one of them to buy you a coffee there!






The main convent cloister is part of a Carabiniere training school and not open to visitors.  It has been kept in much much better repair than the smaller cloister next to the church, which is the one that visitors are allowed into.



Visualizations of purgatory and hell (as in this detail from a chapter house fresco) always seem to be much more interesting than those of Heaven!



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