As an atheist, the following statement sounds strange, but, I really have a favorite church in Florence. It is the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. This church is often overlooked, but definitely worth a visit.
Santa Maria Novella was built by, and to be the home of, the Dominican order of the Catholic Church, starting in 1246 and finishing in 1360. The designation “novella,” or new, comes from the fact that there was already a Santa Maria church on the site, that was torn down so this one could be built. This new church was built in the Renaissance-Gothic style, with a rounded bell tower at the center of the church. Its facade is decorated with white and green marble.
My love of Santa Maria Novella goes back to my first visit to Florence, twenty-two years ago. The Amazing Ms. D and I stayed near this beautiful church because it was also near Florence’s main train station. In the evenings, the piazza in front of the church was a gathering place for families of African immigrants. As the sun went down and temperatures cooled off, parents would bring their children down to play, while they visited with their friends.
Today the piazza has a different vibe. It was rebuilt in the early 2000’s, and benches were moved from the edges to the center of the square. Like much of Florence, tourists are showing up in the piazza in large groups, especially at lunch time. Yet, there are still many locals who come out to enjoy an al fresco meal, or just some time in the sun.
The church itself is designed in the shape of an Egyptian Cross, which is t-shaped. Originally, its walls were covered with frescoes painted by many major artists of the time. Of special note is the work “Holy Trinity” by Masaccio. Painted around 1426, it represents a changing style of perspective. It was covered by a canvas painting and a new altar in 1570. In 1869, during a major renovation it was rediscovered and moved to a space where it would be seen at all times.
While the art is impressive, what I really like about Santa Maria Novella are the spaces created for the attached convent. Two large, beautiful courtyards are surrounded porticoed walkways. One had been decorated with frescoes depicting stories of the Book of Genesis. Some of the frescoes were damaged during the floods of 1966. Many of these have been restored and are now on display in the church’s museum. While the artwork is great to see, it is the space itself that draws me back. You can sit along the wall of the courtyard, or walk along the paths and imagine how the nuns used them for contemplation for centuries.
When you visit the church make sure to leave time to see the Apothecary of Santa Maria Novella. This perfumery has been in existence for over 400 years, selling essential oils, perfume, and other fragrant products. Originally using herb and flowers grown in the convent, today they use other sources, but maintains the same quality. The store has kept many of its original fixtures, cabinets and has old equipment on display. There is also a tea-room that serves delicious pastries and sandwiches along with teas and even botanical liqueurs.
Distillation Tower from the 16th Century
If I had to choose one church in Florence not to miss, it would be Santa Maria Novella. Beautiful art, lovely spaces and a fantastic place for some splurge purchases.