Florence, Italy is one of my favorite places in the world, and its art is one of the main reasons. Florence was the first place I fell in love with as a traveler, and after having studied its art in three art history courses, I know quite a bit about the rich history and art of Florence.
As a student of art history, I studied a lot of churches, but Santa Maria Novella in Florence always stood out as one that I just had to see because of the importance that our professor placed on the art inside. So when I arrived in Italy (in 1995!) for a study abroad in the Italian Renaissance, I was eager to visit this church. It’s in the historical center of Florence, about a block from the train station. You can see me in the below picture, so tiny against the massive façade, throwing my arm up in excitement.
This church is one of Florence’s treasures because of the variety of art held inside; for me the three most interesting things about this place are the façade, Masaccio’s Trinity, and Ghirlandaio’s fresco series.
The façade of Santa Maria Novella
The façade is beautiful. It’s typical of many Italian churches– marble fronts with beautiful colors and patterns that contrast sharply with the plain brown stone of the rest of the outside. This one is from 1470 and includes the rounded and geometric shapes that the Renaissance emulated from Roman times, in contrast to everything pointy from the previous Medieval period. Now let’s see some of the art inside the church:
“The Trinity” by Masaccio
Santa Maria Novella houses the landmark fresco of the early Renaissance, “The Trinity” by Masaccio from 1427-28, a year before he died at the age of just 26 or 27 (see the fresco on the left wall in the above picture). Despite its large size (about 25’x10′), this is not on the list of “pretty” art, but it’s certainly on the list of influential pieces because of its revolutionary use of perspective.
Linear perspective was invented in the early 1400’s by the master architect of Florence’s dome, Filippo Brunelleschi, and thereafter revolutionized art by allowing artists to depict realistic space. Masaccio’s fresco followed Brunelleschi’s model of perspective so closely, even down to the way the fingers were painted, that many actually attributed the fresco to the latter. Instead, it’s an example of influence or even collaboration of 2 great artists working in Florence at the same time.
This piece demonstrates a few interesting characteristics of painting during that era.
1. It’s a fresco, which was the most common method of painting before the Renaissance. All art was for religious purposes, so artists either painted on wood for altarpieces or painted frescoes to decorate church walls. It wasn’t until a few decades later that artists started creating “indulgent” paintings to decorate villas of the rich (e.g. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus). But frescoes are really hard to make– the artist actually slabs on wet cement and then paints on it until it begins to dry; as a result, it allows for virtually no mistakes.
2. It shows the strong role of patronage and the desire of the rich to have their way paid for and painted into heaven, so to speak. The piece was commissioned by the people buried behind it, and we know who they are– look at the 2 figures at the bottom looking into the image.
3. The inscription. This fresco has an unusual addition: at the bottom, the skeleton in its sarcophagus and the accompanying eerie message, which says in Latin, “I was once that which you are, and what I am you also will be.”
Last but not least, Masaccio was a ground-breaking artist in his time– even though he did not reach full potential because he died so young– and this is his final work and one of his best (along with the Brancacci Chapel frescoes, also in Florence). His work represents the artistic developments of the early Renaissance and was studied by many later Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo.
The Tornabuoni Chapel by Ghirlandaio
My favorite art in Santa Maria Novella is the fresco cycle of the lives of Mary and St. John the Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Why do I love it so much? First, it is great to see art in the space for which it was intended (instead of in a museum).
Second, it’s huge! The frescoes fill 3 sides of the chancel of the church, 4 scenes tall that rise above your head. Try to stand there and not be moved. In fact, the size of the commission meant that Ghirlandaio enlisted his workshop to help, and it is believed that Michelangelo, who was just 13 and a student of Ghirlandaio’s, was one of the painters. The workshop would have painted much of the upper scenes, which are harder to see, while Ghirlandaio probably painted the lower scenes since they are close to the viewers.
Also, the frescoes are beautifully painted. Ghirlandaio always paid great attention to wonderful little details— the wisps of hair, the folds in the robes, the furniture, the decorative details of clothing…
Finally, the refinement of this work contrasts with the above Trinity and shows the level of achievement that the Renaissance had reached in those 60 years. Ghirlandaio was one of the best painters of the time, and seeing this fresco cycle was a memorable moment in my travels.
Do you have a favorite place to see art in Florence?