After so many posts on so many different subjects, we realized we had yet to tell you about our most illustrious neighbor, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. For this very purpose, today I went to visit it.
In 1121 it was already a monastery for Dominican friars; in 1470 it was expanded to its current appearance when Leon Battista Alberti completed the facade’s upper part. Though alterations have been made to the interiors over the centuries, a great many masterpieces are still there.
The church is entered through the Avelli cemetery to the complex’s right. An interesting detail about this courtyard (that doesn’t have to do with art) is that its cypresses are home to thousands of starlings who take shelter here at night in the cold months. Should you happen to be in Piazza Santa Maria Novella at dusk or dawn, look skyward and you can admire the movements of these flying “commuters” who go on their hunt in the mornings in the Florentine countryside and come back at sunset to sleep in the warmth of the city.
Coming into the Basilica’s main structure, at first I was a bit disappointed by how dark it was, but as I got closer to the altar light started to spread from the gorgeous stained glass windows in the apse. Walking up the naves, we come across masterpieces by timeless masters like Giotto, Duccio da Buoninsegna, Masaccio, Orcagna, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio and many others. The part of the Basilica that most fascinated me is hidden behind the main altar. This is where the Tornabuoni Chapel is located. At its base there is a semi-circle of wooden pews typical of monasteries and a great carved lectern; the walls and ceiling feature magnificent frescoes by Ghirlandaio. A gorgeous stained glass window creates a magical atmosphere. The small, magnificently decorated sacristy has a little shop selling mostly guides and pictures of the basilica and holy images. Here you won’t see the junk too often sold in Florence’s souvenir shops.
Because taking pictures of the church interior is forbidden, the interior pictures are stock footage.
Once outside of the church, we go into the museum, which has many cloisters and rooms.
The first we come to is the Green Cloister at the center of the complex. It’s a true pity that only a few of the frescoes adorning its walls are still in good condition.
From this cloister we go into the beautiful Spanish Chapel, entirely frescoed with religious scenes. Taking the long corridor adorned with many stone plaques, we come to the small Cloister of the Dead, whose main function was for funerals.
Another corridor leads both to the Ubriachi Chapel and the Great Chapel. The Great Chapel is closed to the public because it is part of the school of Marshals and Brigadiers of the Carabinieri; it opens only for special occasions. I have to say that is a shame because the frescoes we can see in the distance depicting the story of St. Dominic seem marvelous.
The Ubriachi Chapel is not named for the Italian word for “drunkards”, as one might think, but for the illustrious Florentine Ubriachi family who commissioned it. This chapel and the refectory are the site of a truly beautiful exhibition of sacred vestments, reliquaries and other sacred objects. Some frescoes were relocated here to protect them from the elements.
During my visit I saw that a restoration site had been set up with several works waiting to be returned to their former glory.
There is much more to say about the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, but I’ll hold back so you can come to Florence and discover them yourselves. You won’t be disappointed.
Check its hours at the site www.chiesasantamarianovella.it.
English translation by Miriam Hurley