Florence 1: Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella, Florence. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, Santa Maria Novella graces its eponymous plaza in Florence, right next to the Grand Hotel Minerva near the western edge of the historic city center. Its white and green marble facade, designed by Leon Alberti, was built between 1458 and 1470. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

After our brief trip to Paris, Perrie and I returned to Florence for the remainder of our expedition.

Known to locals as Firenze, Florence sits north of Rome right at the knee joint of Italy’s boot. The city of about 370,000 (metro 1.5 million) is the capital of both the province of Florence and the greater Tuscany region. The historic center of the city is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, annually hosting about 1.7 million visitors, two more if you count Perrie and me.

While Perrie spent most of her time talking about placentology at the Palazzo dei Congressi (convention center), I criss-crossed the city center on foot, exploring the multitude of sites Florence has to offer until I was overwhelmed several times over. Some locations I was unable or simply chose not to photograph. Others I photographed on more than one occasion. To make things easier for my faithful readers, I think it will be best to sort these posts by location rather than chronologically. This, of course, required that I edit all of my photos first, thus the lengthy delay in writing about our time in Italy. I will, however, try to keep some sense of chronology to tie things together and for my own memories. The weather got better throughout our trip, so you might be able to use that as a bit of a guide too.

Before we get to the main subject of this post, some background. Perrie and I flew from Paris direct to Florence on the afternoon of Mar. 25. A 20-minute cab ride through the moderately chaotic traffic of Florence (which included our driver backing into a motorcyclist as she tried to give space for a car to park in front of us) brought us to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Minerva. The rather nice, 3-star hotel (in Florence you have to pay a city tax of €1 per star, per person, per night) is located on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, immediately adjacent to the plaza’s namesake church and within walking distance of practically everything you could want to see in Florence.

(Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
View of the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella from the Grand Hotel Minerva. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

After checking in, unpacking and cleaning up, we enjoyed a meal at the hotel’s restaurant. At 7:30, we were the only people in the restaurant, but we were too hungry to wait any longer.

We were back at the restaurant the next morning (and every morning thereafter) for their excellent and complimentary breakfast. I walked with Perrie to the Palazzo dei Congressi and then had some running around to do: first, to the tourist information center in the train station to pick up my Firenze Card (too early, not open), find someplace to get a SIM card for Perrie’s phone (a supposedly Europe-compatible loaner which Verizon sent us for this trip, which didn’t work even with a local SIM card, thanks Verizon), tea in a cafe, then somewhere else to get my Firenze Card (more on that in a later post), and generally getting myself oriented, before meeting up with Perrie again for lunch. I spent the afternoon poking around the city, crossing the Arno, and then back to the Piazza Santa Maria Novella and the hotel for a rest.

I didn’t officially visit the Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella until a couple of days later, and I wish that I had gotten there earlier in the day. After visiting a number of other sites, I didn’t get to Santa Maria Novella until about an hour before it closed, so I had to rush through my visit. Nevertheless, it was worthwhile.

Construction on the Dominican church started in 1279, and it was largely completed by about 1360, although the facade wasn’t finished until about 1470. For perspective, consider that at that time, Christopher Columbus was not yet old enough to buy alcohol in the United States.

Cloister of the Dead, Santa Maria Novella. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
Cloister of the Dead, Santa Maria Novella. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

The tour route—at least the way I went—starts with the Cloister of the Dead, where numerous dead people are buried, followed by the Green Cloister, where there is some greenery.* (Actually, it seems the cloister is not named for the grass within, but for the general hue of the frescoes that adorn its walls.) The frescoes in the Green Cloister were painted by Paolo Uccello in the 15th century.

After quickly viewing the cloisters, I moved into what felt like a basement area, with the requisite collection of relics (actual fingers and other body parts supposedly from long-expired saints encased in ornate carriages) and a more interesting collection of medieval vestments from various priests, bishops and popes. The latter includes, surprisingly, a vestment of St. Thomas of Canterbury which the internet suggests is from the 16th century; my information says Thomas Becket lived in the 12th century, so I’m not sure how that reconciles. Nevertheless, interesting. But I didn’t have time to study the matter further while I was there, nor now.

On to the main building: the Tornabuoni Chapel. In a lot of ways, it is a very typical Catholic church: a cruciform plan with associated chapels, sacristy, prayer candles, icons and crucifixes everywhere, and even the requisite gift shop. However, this is Florence, so everything is very old, and the artwork was done by a selection of the most famous artists that ever lived.

(Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
Frescoes by Ghirlandaio adorn the walls around the main altar at Santa Maria Novella. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

The frescoes in the chapel were originally painted by Orcagna in the mid-1300s. However, the chapel walls were seriously damaged by fire (probably caused by lightning) in 1357, and lack of maintenance and restoration left the paintings in decay. So, Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to create his own works in the chapel in 1485. These remain today. (Ghirlandaio was, of course, aided in this endeavor by numerous assistants including, briefly, a young Michelangelo.)

Orgcagna’s touch was not completely eradicated. Among other works is a 1357 altarpiece called “Christ Enthroned with Saints” now in the Strozzi Chapel. And there are notable works by other luminaries as Giotto and Brunelleschi.

In a building as old as Santa Maria Novella (which means “new St. Mary’s,” by the by), there is a continual need for renovation, so many parts of the church are relatively new. The altar, for instance, was just renovated in 1860. If it lasts as long as the first, it should be good for another 350 years or so.

After admiring the main chapel and sacristy for as long as I could, I sensed that viewing hours were just about up. I followed the last remaining tourists out the door to find myself standing in the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, right outside my hotel door.

Click on the thumbnails below to see additional photographs of Santa Maria Novella.


*As an aside, I should note that Florence is not a particularly green city. Walking around the historic center, one sees hardly any trees or lawn at all, just endless walls of stone, brick, and stucco merging seamlessly with the cobblestone roads and sidewalks. Though most of the larger buildings have internal courtyards with at least a bit of greenery for the occupants, the peasantry and other folk walking the streets are safely protected from exposure to such unnatural natural elements.