Here’s my guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, one of Florence’s most important and beautiful churches. I tell you everything you need to see outside and inside the historic church.
Santa Maria Novella is Florence’s only Renaissance-style church facade, boasting prefect geometry. Santa Maria Novella is an architectural gem, inspired in part by Florence’s Church of San Miniato al Monte.
Santa Maria Novella was founded in 1279 by a Dominican order. The Dominican order was similar to the Franciscan order, adopting poverty, charity, and preaching as its motto. Except that the Dominicans were less crunchy granola and tree hugging than the Franciscans. They were rather severe vigilantes whose avowed mission was to preach and stamp out heresy.
Santa Maria Novella has a striking polychrome and white marble facade. The austere interior is a treasure house of early Florentine Renaissance art. Once past the green and white facade, you enter an art filled complex.
The art is didactic and somewhat dark, befitting a Dominican church. It holds one of the world’s most famous paintings, the Holy Trinity, by Masaccio. There are also other beautiful art works by other early Renaissance luminaries such as Ghirlandaio, Brunelleschi, and Lippi. And the Spanish Chapel is world famous.
What To See At Santa Maria Novella
Here are the top things you can’t miss inside the Church of Santa Maria Novella and its museum-convent. Founded in the early 20th century, the museum includes two cloisters, the Spanish Chapel, and a huge refectory with a Last Supper painting.
The beautiful facade was designed by the great Renaissance architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti. The project began in 1458 and was completed around 1470. The patron was a wealthy merchant named Giovanni Rucellai, a close ally of the ruling Medici family. His Latin name is emblazoned on the base of the top pediment.
The facade is the only Renaissance facade in a Renaissance city, which may be rather surprising. The facades of Florence’s other churches are mostly Gothic in style.
For a long time, the facade was “undressed,” in raw exposed brownstone like the Basilica of San Lorenzo. By the time Alberti was on the scene, the lowest level of pointed arches was already complete, added by Fra Jacopo Talenti. This Talenti is not to be confused with the architect Talenti who worked on Florence’s Duomo.
But Alberti didn’t demolish the Gothic elements. Instead, he ingeniously incorporated the pre-existing green and white Gothic band of arches into his own architecture. One reason Alberti didn’t do away with it altogether is because the arches rest on sarcophagi that held legally purchased family tombs. You can’t destroy something like that.
The overall arrangement of the Alberti facade is brilliant. The height and width are in a perfect 1:1 ratio. Alberti combines the two most iconic elements of Roman architecture: the triumphal arch and the temple.
The lower half consists of a horizontal shape divided vertically into three bays with three doors and 8 semi circular arches atop the Gothic arches. The bays are flanked by green Corinthian columns and bookended with massive striped volutes.
The central door has green bronze doors. In the relief beneath the arch, you’ll see a frieze with an allusion to Piero “the Gouty” Medici, who was then the head of Florence.
Above this middle level is an “attic,” an extended band with green squares. It’s a mezzanine or transitional level between the lower and upper portions of the facade. It acts as a podium to the upper level. At each end is a shield with the Rucellai coat of arms.
Alberti’s most important addition was the S shaped scrolls that surmount the decorative circles on both sides of the upper story. Alberti didn’t get this element from antiquity. He invented it himself, to soften the transition from the wide lower floor to the narrower upper floor. This element was subsequently copied frequently by other architects.
The upper portion is inspired by a Greek or Roman temple. Atop is a triangular pediment with a large sun in the center.
The church itself is much older than the facade. A majority of the church was constructed beginning in the year 1279. It’s a rare building in Florence that’s not attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (it pre-dates him).
Santa Maria Novella is a basilica plan church. There’s a nave, two aisles with stained glass windows, and a short transept. The large nave is about 330 feet long.
The somewhat dark interior has Corinthian columns inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman era. The pulpit was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and executed by his adopted son.
In the 16th century, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici ordered the architect Giorgio Vasari to give the church a Renaissance makeover. Among other things, the sky high rood screen (separating the clergy and the laity) was removed and some decaying frescos were plastered over.
3. Filippo Strozzi Chapel
The Medici banished the Strozzi family from Florence twice in 1434 and again in 1458. They returned in 1466. To help restore the Strozzi’s tarnished reputation, they engaged in some building projects.
The Filippo Strozzi Chapel is one of the church’s major chapels, just to the right of the main altar. The chapel contains precious frescos by Filippino Lippi, an early Renaissance luminary.
He painted them between late 1480s and 1502. Their completion was delayed because Lippi was called to Rome to work on the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
The frescos depict the life of the apostles Philip and James. The bronze crucifix on the main altar is by the sculptor Giambologna. The stained glass windows were created in 1492 by Alessandro Agolanti, based on cartoons by Ghirlandaio.
4. Tournabouni Chapel
Behind the main altar is the Tournabuoni Chapel. It was commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, uncle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed il Magnifico. The chapel has a series of frescos created in 1485-90 by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop. That workshop may have included Ghirlandaio’s young apprentice Michelangelo.
The left wall shows the life of the Virgin. The Birth of the Virgin is especially luminous, and the best known scene from the chapel. The right wall shows the life of St. John the Baptist, a patron of Florence.
The frescoes on the central rear wall are portraits of Tournabuoni and his wife Francesca Pitti. The three young lads with their backs to the viewer in the bottom scene in Mary Visits Saint Elizabeth are reputedly by Michelangelo.
The Tournabuoni portraits were intended to convey the prestige of the family. At the time, they weren’t viewed as a thinly-disguised vainglorious monuments to themselves. Rather, they were considered a virtuous public service.
The Tourbuoni frescos are the most famous and most celebrated work of Ghirlandaio. The frescoes were recently restored in the 1990s.
5. Strozzi of Mantua Chapel
The other Strozzi Chapel is dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s a transept end chapel, to the left of the altar up a flight of stairs. This chapel belonged to another branch of the Strozzi family, from the beautiful northern Italian town of Mantua.
This chapel was decorated in the middle of the 14th century by a pair of brothers, Andrea and Nardo di Cione. The best known was Andrea di Cione, nicknamed Orcagna. The first work that will capture your attention is the free standing altar painting. The walls are also decorated with frescos depicting paradise and hell.
The altar painting screams high Gothic. It’s divided into five pointy arches edged in gold. Christ looks more divine than human, rendered in a Byzantine style.
Andrea’s brother Nardi designed the stained glass in the tall skinny lancet window. The subject of the wall mural is the Last Judgment. Angels sound trumpets and carry the instruments of the passion of Christ.
Mary is dressed in white, flanked by 6 apostles. John the Baptist is flanked by another 6. Below them, the damned and the saved are separated.
6. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity
Masaccio was an early Renaissance superhero, who died tragically young of malaria at only 27. Masaccio was the first artist, in art history, to incorporate single point linear perspective into his art. His Holy Trinity was a groundbreaking masterpiece, emphatically announcing the arrival of the Renaissance.
In it, Masaccio married piety and science. He created an illusion of 3D space within a 2D painting. He made The Holy Trinity look like a recess in the chapel.
The painting’s depth sensation and architectural details are remarkable. Masaccio used many forms of ancient Roman architecture — coffers, columns, a barrel vault, capitals, and a triumphal arch. The realism of the Christ figure was also revolutionary.
In 1952, the Death (or skeleton) at the bottom of the Holy Trinity fresco was discovered underneath plaster. The skeleton may represent Christ or everyman.
On the ghoulish skeleton, you can see words, which translate to “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be.” This message warns the viewer of his or her own mortality and future death.
In 1570, Giorgio Vasari was commissioned by the Medici to cover up The Holy Trinity with his own panel, Madonna of the Rosary. Vasari refused to destroy the fresco.
Instead, Vasari secretly built a thin wall in front of the Masaccio painting and then put his own tabernacle in front. The Masaccio painting was discovered in the 18th century. Some historians argue that Vasari did the same thing to preserve a Leonardo da Vinci fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
7. Crucifixes By Giotto and Brunelleschi
High in the center of the nave near the apse is a large painted crucifix by Giotto. It’s an early work from around 1280. It’s the oldest major artwork in the church. It was formerly on the rood screen that Vasari removed.
In the Gondi Chapel is a wooden Crucifix by Brunelleschi. The architect rarely worked in this genre. But it has a funny backstory. According to Vasari, Brunelleschi was enraged when he saw Donatello’s Crucifix in the Basilica of Santa Croce, calling it a “peasant on the cross.”
Donatello challenged him to create something superior. Brunelleschi carved an idealized Christ in perfect perspective and with correct proportions. According to legend, Donatello dropped the eggs he was carrying when he saw the amazing sculpture the first time, stunned at Brunelleschi’s virtuosity.
8. Spanish Chapel in the Green Cloister of the Museum
Built around 1350, the Chapter House is called the Spanish Chapel. It’s located in the Green Cloister and is one of the most underrated hidden gems in Florence. A Chapter House was the “boardroom” for the monks where they discussed internal affairs or had collective confessions.
This Chapter House was also the scene for the trial of 14th century celebrity, St. Catherine of Siena. She was a famous adherent of St. Francis of Assisi. She’s credited with helping to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon.
Because St. Catherine purported to have divine visions and work on God’s behest, she was accused of heresy. But she was absolved at trial. She’s depicted in one of the frescos in her Franciscan habit.
The Spanish Chapel was commissioned by Mico (Buonamico) Guadalotti. He was a wealthy patron living near the church. In his will, he left money for the construction and decoration of the Spanish Chapel.
The stunning chapel was painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto in 1365-68. Bonaiuto was so famous that he was known as Andrea da Firenze.
Some scholars think the Spanish Chapel is emblematic of the post Black death style of painting. That style had a pessimistic and dark POV and often depicted violence. Bonaiuto’s frescos are threatening, but they at least have a bright jewel color scheme and are beautifully rendered.
The frescos are a sort of Dominican propaganda vehicle, packed with religious information and teachings. They show the life, death, passion, and resurrection of Christ. The cycle celebrates the spiritual and intellectual achievements of the Dominican order.
The overall theme is salvation through Christ, with the aid and knowledge of the Dominicans. Black and white clad Dominican preach and lead mankind away from evil and up toward St. Peter and the pearly gates of heaven.
In the arch of the altar, you see the largest crucifixion painting in art history. There’s a gory triple execution, with Jesus in the center, surrounded by a throng of witnesses.
Allegories and narratives unfold in the frescos. The Descent into Limbo is a creepy scene. Jesus steps through a door while a demon looks up at him. Adam and Eve are there. Adam has a long white beard, as if he’s been there for quite some time.
On the ceiling, you’ll see the Resurrection and the famous Don’t Touch Me. The triangular vault space above the door shows the Ascension of Jesus.
At the bottom of certain scenes, you can see black and white dogs, a visual pun on the Dominicans. The “Domini canes” were the dogs of God, an appropriate analogy since the Dominicans were fearsome defenders of Catholicism. Indeed, they became dreaded inquisitors in the witch hunts of medieval Europe.
9. Great Cloister in the Museum
This is Florence’s largest cloister. The 14th century Great Cloister is named for its 56 semi-circular arches.
It was built between 1340 and 1360 with the contribution of several prominent Florentine families. Their emblems are carved on the pillars of the loggia.
The cloister is home to a 16th century fresco cycle in the arches painted by the Florentine Academy, including Alessandro Allori, Santi di Tito, and Il Poccetti. The frescos were recently restored.
On the first floor are the papal apartments in the Chapel of the Pope. They were frescoed by Mannerist painter Pontormo. The chapel was also recently restored in 2021.
10. Plautilla Nelli’s The Last Supper in the Museum
Dominican nun Plautilla Nelli created a ground breaking addition to the Last Supper genre. Way ahead of her time, Nelli was a self-taught painter and innovator who ran an all woman artists’ workshop out of the Santa Caterina convent.
In 1568, she embarked on her most ambitious project, a monumental The Last Supper painting featuring life size depictions of Jesus and the twelve apostles. She was likely the first woman in the world history to paint this iconic scene.
Nelli’s large canvas is remarkable for its challenging composition, powerful brushstrokes, and adept treatment of anatomy at a time when women were banned from studying the scientific field. Her painting was likely a workshop collaboration, with Nelli executing the drawings and painting the heads shown in 3/4 profile.
In 2015, Nelli’s work was painstaking restored over four years. In 2019, it was unveiled in public for the first time in 450 years. The work hangs in the museum alongside masterpieces by Masaccio, Brunelleschi, and Ghirlandaio.
11. Allesandro Allori’s The Last Supper in the Museum Refectory
This dynamic Last Supper was created by Alessandro Allori. He was the pupil and adopted son of Bronzino and an admirer of Michelangelo.
Allori was one of the last notable exponents of Mannerism, painting in a style that had become almost outmoded by the time of his death. Allori’s unique work served to inspire other artists of the late 16th century to experiment with new styles of art. This is the final depiction of the Last Supper in a Florentine church.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Santa Maria Novella
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Novella 18
Hours: In summer (April to September) the church is open every day of the week from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm (weekend) or 6:00 pm (weekdays).
Entry fee: 7.50 euros
Pro tip: You’ll need 60-90 minutes to explore the complex.
I hope you’ve enjoy my guide to the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. You may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:
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