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. 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 orientation was retained, facing East towards the current Piazza dell'Unità Italiana. 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 priests 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 for what was to become the Bardi Chapel, whilst he was living in the parish. This painting is now known as the Rucellai Madonna, now in the Uffizi. A few years later Giotto (whose father was a blacksmith working nearby) 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 side (East) door, frescoes being covered and the windows made more Renaissance classical 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 Massaccio's Trinità. 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 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.
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. Masaccio's supreme fresco of the Trinità painted in the third bay in the left aisle between 1426 and 1428, its frame may be by Brunelleschi. The identity of the depicted donors is uncertain, which is ironic given that the reason for commissioning such works was to immortalise the family name and achieve eternal salvation. They are believed to be Berto di Bartolomeo del Banderaio and his wife Sandra. 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. The somewhat minimal Nativity of 1475 by Botticelli on the inner façade over the door was discovered in 1860 over an altar on the east wall.
The nave is very bare and dominated by 16th Century paintings generally, and Baldini in particular. Alessandro Allori painted the somewhat congested Vision of St 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.
Giotto's fine (and very early) Crucifix of c.1289 has hung in various positions (see photo right for one of them, the sacristy) but was hung in its current position, roughly where it would have hung on the old screen, since 2000, following twenty years in restoration. Giotto is documented as living nearby around the time of its painting. It is one of his few works to be still found in its original location.
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 a sacristy, with the tomb's plaque at it entrance. It's now a shop.
Reached unusually by climbing a flight of eight steps from the left transept, the 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. Nardo's work is seen as something of a return to the compressed after Giotto's sparser crowds and more natural forms. The altarpiece 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 name saint of the commissioner, Thomas Aquinas, 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 apse is the Gaddi chapel, named for a cardinal confusingly named Taddeo Gaddi. His tomb 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 apse had been frescoed by Orcagna in 1348, but in 1358 these were damaged by a fire that caused by lightning. 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 and commissioned a cycle of frescoes from the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. This studio also included his brothers Davide and Benedetto as well as, at this time, 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.
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)
Work on the
Green Cloister began in 1330, to designs by Giovanni Bracchetti da Campi, and was completed after 1350 by Jacopo Talenti, who
also designed the chapter house 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 (the wife of Cosimo II) as a place of worship
for the Spanish community in Florence which had grown considerably since
her marriage. The monumental frescoes (detail right) celebrate the Dominican order and
the lives of its saints with scenes of the stations on the road to
salvation. They also feature pack of aggressive black and white dogs,
seemingly in acceptance of the punning identification of the Dominicans as
the Domini canes - Hounds of the Lord.
Duccio's large Rucellai Madonna (see right), the earliest documented painting by him to survive, commissioned by the Laudesi confraternity for their altar in what is now the Bardi Chapel in 1285, 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.
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.
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. 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.
Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi painted for Santa Maria Novella around 1475 (it contains the portraits of several members of the Medici family) has been in the Uffizi since 1796.
Domenico Ghirlandaio's Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints altarpiece (The Pala Tornabuoni) (1493-5) painted for the high altar here was left unfinished at Ghirlandaio's death, but finished by his studio by 1496. It is said that it's Netherlandish elements might result from it's having been finished by his brother Benedetto, who had just returned from a stay in France. It was cut up and sold by Tornabuoni descendants in 1809 and the sections that were in Berlin were destroyed during WWII. The central panel (see far right) is now in the Munich Alte Pinakotek, with other bits in Budapest and Parma.
A tondo of The Eternal Father by Vasari has recently been restored in the convent 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 marble cantoira by Baccio d’Agnolo made in 1485. Has, since 1859, been in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Tickets cost €5 for
adults, €3.50 for students and seniors.
News - October 2016 The previously rarely-accessible Great Cloister, which belonged to the Carabinieri, has now been vacated by them. The Caserma (barracks) is to be used as increased museum space.
Oltrarno :: Fiesole