The Santa Maria Novella complex is reunited again, with the church and frescoed cloisters all visitable on one admission ticket. (Although, confusingly, there are two separate entrances, through the church’s garden and via the tourist office at the rear, on Piazza della Stazione.)
Of all Florence’s major churches, the home of the Dominicans is the only one with an original facade ★★ that matches its era of greatest importance. The lower Romanesque half was started in the 14th century by architect Fra’ Jacopo Talenti, who had just finished building the church itself (begun in 1246). Renaissance architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti finished the facade, adding a classically inspired Renaissance top that not only went seamlessly with the lower half but also created a Cartesian plane of perfect geometry.
Inside, on the left wall, is Masaccio’s “Trinità” (ca. 1425), the first painting ever to use perfect linear mathematical perspective. Florentine citizens and artists flooded in to see the fresco when it was unveiled, many remarking in awe that it seemed to punch a hole back into space, creating a chapel out of a flat wall. The transept is filled with frescoed chapels by Filippino Lippi and others. The Sanctuary behind the main altar was frescoed after 1485 by Domenico Ghirlandaio with the help of his assistants and apprentices, probably including a young Michelangelo. The left wall is covered with a cycle on the “Life of the Virgin” and the right wall with a “Life of St. John the Baptist.” (Read from the bottom upward; there are boards that explain the scenes.) The works are not just biblical stories but also snapshots of the era’s fashions and personages, full of portraits of the Tornabuoni family who commissioned them. The Cappella Gondi to the left of the high altar contains a Crucifix carved by Brunelleschi around 1415.
The Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) was partly frescoed between 1431 and 1446 by Paolo Uccello, a Florentine painter who became increasingly obsessed with the mathematics behind perspective. His Old Testament scenes include an “Inundation,” which ironically was badly damaged by the Great Arno Flood of 1966. Off the cloister, the Spanish Chapel is a complex piece of Dominican propaganda, frescoed in the 1360s by Andrea di Bonaiuto. The reopened Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead) is one of the oldest parts of the convent, dating to the 1200s, and was another area badly damaged in 1966. Its low-slung vaults and chapels were decorated by Andrea Orcagna, Nardo di Cione, and others. It is especially atmospheric early in the morning, with the cloister empty and birdsong at full volume.