The Façade of Santa Maria Novella

I was recently in one of my favorite cities, Florence, Italy and went back to visit the exquisite church of Santa Maria Novella.  After my visit to the church I came away with a lot of new inspiration for future art history blog posts!

The Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the most well known examples of early Renaissance architecture in Italy.  This in large part is due to the façade created by architect Leon Battista Alberti in the mid 15th century.  Alberti designed both the top section of the façade and the main doorway from 1456-70.  The lower half (with the green columns) was begun in 1300 and completed by 1360.  

The church itself was built much earlier and was redesigned in the 13th century.  It is a very large brick structure with a Latin cross plan interior.  Today the church has been opened up into a single level elevation with a high ceiling, but during the 15th century when Alberti was alive, the interior was broken up into two levels.  There was an upper level for the friars and a lower level for the general congregation. 

The Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The new addition of the façade was financed by the wealthy Florentine Rucellai family.  The patron, Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, chose the architect Alberti to create the new façade.  Several years earlier Alberti had created the elegant and harmonious façade for the family palazzo, and still today the Palazzo Rucellai  is seen as another example of the early Renaissance and a turning point in architecture.  The two buildings are quite different from one another in appearance, but both use a perfectly proportioned façade to tie together various elements of an earlier architectural style.


One problem that Alberti had to solve in his design for Santa Maria Novella was the fact that the two levels of the church were of quite different heights.  He solved this by tying them together visually with the use of the ornate scrolls on either end.  The façade that Alberti added is a perfect example of the harmony found in the arts in the early Italian Renaissance. 

Compare Santa Maria Novella with French Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame in Paris. Typically the architectural element that would be placed where the scrolls are would be twin bell towers.  Gothic Cathedrals were also beautiful buildings, however the bell towers add an entirely different effect. 

 Renaissance Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Leon Battista Alberti, 1456-70



The bottom register of the marble façade contains a row of ships with sails, this was the heraldic symbol of the Rucellai family.  Continuing up Alberti has inlaid dark green squares of marble into a white marble background.  Combining green and white porphyry marble was widely used in Medieval Tuscan architecture, such as the Duomo in both Siena and Florence, the Campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo in Florence and also the Baptistery as well as the church of San Miniato in Florence.  Alberti's use of what was referred to as "zebra-striping" (as the green marble was often so dark it appeared black) in architecture assured that the new top portion of the façade would tie into the church's interior.  The work fits together seamlessly with the original bottom half, but considers the mathematical proportions of each shape and its relation to each part of the whole. 

At first glance there is a simplicity in each of the strong geometric shapes, but upon closer inspection one can see that there are intricate designs inlaid in each of the squares, circles, rectangles and triangles.  This can also be compared to Gothic architecture where a church was covered in sculptures representing biblical figures, there is very little symbolism or imagery in Alberti's design.

The exterior zebra striped pilasters tie in with the interior, the perfectly round rose window is reflected in the circles in the scrolls.  The window is aligned with the new main door, which is given a new sense of grandeur when it is topped with a large arch.  In that way too Alberti uses the shapes in the Medieval construction to reflect his new proportions.

The design is topped with a note in Latin crediting not Alberti, but his patron for the work and states the year it was completed.  The triangular pediment at the top ties together all of the shapes, adds height to the structure and pays homage to the ancient Greeks who were then thought of as the original creators of harmonious architecture through the use of mathematical equations.  The very top of the design contains one of the only representational images, that of the sun.  The use of the sun on a church façade can also be found in other earlier examples of Tuscan architecture including the Duomo of Siena.

 In addition to working as an architect, Alberti wrote several books including his important work, On Painting, which describes the use of perspective.  His many works changed the direction of Italian Renaissance art.

Additional Reading
Visit the website for Santa Maria Novella
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting (several translations are available)

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