Florence is full of amazing art, but much of it is NOT housed in a museum.
One way to experience the art of Florence is to see it in the exact place where it was made and intended for. The church of Santa Maria Novella offers such an experience.
Santa Maria Novella is in the historical center of Florence, just about a block from the train station. Its facade is 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 in the previous Medieval period.
The art treasures are located inside the church, and visitors have to pay a modest entrance fee of 3.5 euro. The first is on the left aisle-- 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. This large fresco is important and interesting for a few reasons. First, it was revolutionary in its time because of Masaccio’s use of linear perspective, which was invented by the master architect of Florene’s dome, Filippo Brunelleschi, shortly before. Perspective allowed artists to depict real space, and you can see that all the way down to the way the fingers were painted. Also, this fresco 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 paid for by the people buried behind it, and we know who they are– look at the 2 figures at the bottom looking into the image. Finally, 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.”
A wonderful example of Renaissance 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 say wonderful? First, it’s huge! The frescoes fill 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. 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, decorative details of clothing… And these details give you an idea what Renaissance clothing and furniture really looked like. Finally, the refinement of this work shows the level of achievement that the Renaissance had reached in the 60 years between this cycle and Masaccio'sTrinity. Ghirlandaio was one of the best painters of the time, and seeing this fresco cycle was a memorable moment in my travels.
I hope you have the chance to enjoy it, too.
Written and contributed by Jenna Francisco