Alberti, Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence


Alberti, Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1470.
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Additional resources:

Architecture in Renaissance Italy on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”santamarianovellafacade,”]

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the piazza in front of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and we’re looking at a façade that was redesigned by Alberti, the great Renaissance architect.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] Santa Maria Novella is an important Gothic church here in Florence.

Dr. Zucker: [0:17] One of the two mendicant churches in the city.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] By that, we mean churches founded by the begging orders: the orders of monks who begged for a living, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, and Santa Maria Novella is a Dominican church.

[0:30] Now, Alberti is coming here in the mid-15th century. His patron is Giovanni Rucellai, for whom he also designed a palace a few blocks away. Rucellai inherited the patronage rights to this church, but he inherited it from a family that had already begun to design the façade.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] Alberti had some serious problems here because he was a classicist. That is, he wanted his architecture to conform to what he believed to be the ideals of classical beauty, which were based on perfect geometry and rational order and proportion.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] Copying of the rules of architecture handed down from ancient Rome via the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] The problem is that this was a Gothic church, and Gothic is anything but orderly.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] He took this Gothic church and on it put a classical façade that also recalls the Romanesque tradition of Italy, specifically the Baptistery of Florence, and also the Church of San Miniato al Monte, which is just outside the center of the city of Florence.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] We can see that especially in the linear geometric patterns that we see, the alternating of the white marble and this green stone. So Alberti had an issue. Not only was he dealing with a Gothic church, but there was a preexisting façade that was only partially complete. We’re not sure how much of it was there, but we think that a number of tombs had already been put in place, of which six remain.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] As modern viewers, we hardly recognize that those niches are in fact tombs, but that’s what they are.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] Just above them we see those Gothic arches, which we also think predate Alberti.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] What Alberti does with this lower story is that he frames it. On each end, he gives us a column accompanied by a pier. The column has a Corinthian capital. In the center, he gives us a doorway modeled on the Pantheon. What had been there before was a small doorway, and Alberti gives us a magnificent entryway.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] In fact, it’s easy to picture what that original doorway would have looked like, because two earlier doorways still exist.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] He defines the edges of the building for us. He defines the center with pilasters with Corinthian capitals, a coffered vault over the entrance. We see these references to ancient Roman architecture, but we also see a reference at the top to an ancient Greek temple front.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] It is clearly a temple front. We have a pediment like we would expect to see on the Parthenon in ancient Greece. And we see squared attached columns — pilasters — supporting it.

[2:58] That Greek temple front caused a problem for Alberti. If you look at the four pilasters that support the pediment above it, those four pilasters are not aligned with pilasters below them, as would be appropriate in a classical building.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] Of course, Alberti was all about following the rules of classical architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] What he does is he wants to distract us.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] He does that really well. He creates this attic zone, and he fills it with this decorative pattern of squares.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] With patterned circles within them. It creates a zone of isolation between the top and the bottom.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] There is a sense of rigor and geometric order here, aside from that one deviation. In fact, the whole façade fits into a square.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] That square can be subdivided into additional squares. If you look at the bottom zone of the church, you see that you have two of those squares, and then above that, a single, centered square.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] He’s got yet another problem to solve, which is that he’s got this very tall nave inside the church and then the shorter aisles on either side, so how to unify those two? He comes up with an ingenious solution, and that is to use these S-shaped scrolls to unify the top and bottom stories.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] Now, he hadn’t invented the idea of the scroll. This time he’s borrowing it from the lantern of Brunelleschi’s dome, which is a couple of blocks away.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] Then he also puts a rosette inside that scroll, so it echoes the round window in the center of the building. That roundel is also repeated above in the pediment, where we see a child’s face in the middle of a sunburst, communicating the idea of the Resurrection, of the afterlife.

Dr. Zucker: [4:35] Lest we forget who was paying for all of this, just below that sun we see Giovanni Rucellai’s name as patron.

Dr. Harris: [4:42] We also see his family insignia in the wind-blown sails that decorate the frieze.

Dr. Zucker: [4:49] Those sails are meant to reference the idea that he hoped that through his faith, he might sail to salvation.

Dr. Harris: [4:55] The Rucellai were a very wealthy family in Florence, but the Rucellai were not as wealthy and powerful as the Medici family. We see the Medici crest — the diamond with three feathers emerging from it — right over the central doorway of the church.

Dr. Zucker: [5:08] We can see expression of the Rucellai’s loyalty to the Medici here.

Dr. Harris: [5:12] It’s so easy to walk by this church and miss all of this, but the 15th century is alive here in Santa Maria Novella, in Florence.

[5:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Alberti, Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence," in Smarthistory, October 23, 2016, accessed July 13, 2024,