The Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Davanzatie and the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Santa Maria Novella La Veduta della Catena
Piazza Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella La Veduta della Catena

We head west for the second large basilisk, but this time belonging to the Dominican Mendicant order: the Santa Maria Novella. This church was constructed roughly fifty years prior to the Santa Croce.

The current church is built where an old church stood previously41. This old church was surrounded by vineyards and was therefore called the Santa Maria della Vigna. There was a square in front of this church, but it was aimed west. The current church has rotated compared to the Santa Maria della Vigna has an orientation towards the north. The Santa Maria della Vigna became the transept of the new church. This resulted in the new square being situated against two squares. Construction started around 1246 and lasted until 1300. The campanile was completed thirty years later. For once, the facade does not date back to the nineteenth century, but it was instead one of Alberti’s famous designs, built between 1458 and 1470. The architects of this basilisk were presumably two dominican monks: Fra Sisto and Fra Ristoro da Campi. The layout is overall similar to the later built Santa Croce and is T-shaped. It is nice to know that this type was later exported to Venice (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the San Giovanni e Paolo). The basilisk has three aisles with a transept. It also has a large choir chapel with on each side two smaller square chapels.

Santa Maria Novella nave and choir
Santa Maria Novella nave choir Florence

What’s striking as you enter this church, like in the Duomo, is that the interior feels so very different from French gothic churches. In France, where Gothicism first arose, they even called the French style: the aisles are clearly separated from the nave. The Santa Maria Novella is different. The high and wide arcades create more of a unity in the three aisles and overall it gives a larger impression. We will have a closer look at this church and the adjacent courtyard with the Spanish chapel on the day we cover painting and sculpting.

Facade of the  Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella facade Florence

Foto: tewhiufoto

The Santa Maria Novella is a gothic church with a facade from the Renaissance.42 The facade of this church, save for the bottom recesses with their pointed arches, the sarcophagi and the rose window, has little to do with Gothicism.

Alberti facade of the  Santa Maria Novella
Youtube Khan Academy (5.30 minutes   Youtube proportions facade (4.37 minutes)
facade of the Santa Maria Novella Alberti Florence

picures: idlelight and Sean Munson

This facade belongs to the Renaissance and was commissioned by the Rucellai family. Alberti was the architect who designed it. Alberti was the first in over a thousand years who wrote about art. Aside from a work about painting: ‘De Pictura’, and sculpting: ‘De Statua’, he also authored ‘De re Aedificatoria’, or, treatise about architecture. In his latest book, Alberti puts the work of Vitruvius under scrutiny and he bases himself on two main principles:

  1. A building should be correctly proportioned.
  2. A clear analogy between man and the construction. The human body was built by God in accordance with certain proportions.

As Alberti put it:

‘Beauty stems from the beautiful shape and a conformity between the sum and the parts, between the mutual parts, and then between the parts and the sum; so that the building appears an intact and complete body, with each section being in harmony with all others and all sections are needed to for perfection. ’43

This is still in alignment with Vitruvius and his ‘symmetria’ as described earlier and which can be read here (be sure to scroll down). The problem Alberti dealt with is that he was not allowed to touch the bottom gothic part of the facade with the burial recesses, avelli. The owners of the tombs had paid serious money to have the graves at the facade. Only later did the church allow for graves inside the church, as can be seen in the Santa Croce. And of course, the gothic rose window had to remain intact

Alberti facade of the  Santa Maria Novella
Youtube Khan Academy (5.30 minutes)   Youtube proportions facade (4.37 minutes)
 detail bottom part of the facade Santa Maria Novella Alberti Florence

picture: Wolfsraum

By 1458, the year Alberti started, the bottom part of the facade up to the entablature had already been completed in a style very reminiscent of the Baptistery and the San Miniato al Monte. The ten blind recesses, in a green and white marble Tuscan-Roman style, had already been built. Alberti put serious effort into the bottom part. He removed the blind recesses at the corners, leaving just four on each side of the main entrance. The base of the missing two recesses near the column and corner pillar is still visible. What is new is that Alberti places semi-columns on the corners with adjacent corner pillars. At the entrance, in the centre between two fluted columns on high pedestals, are two fluted pilasters supporting a round arch straight next to the middle-most door. This combination of column and fluted pilaster with a rounded arch is an ‘homage’ to the Pantheon by ‘archaeologist’ Alberti.44

the rounded sails of ships  and coat of arms
façade coat of arms Rucellai Santa Maria Novella Alberti

The frieze of the entablature that ends the bottom side of the facade is decorated with rounded ship sails: a clear reference to the client, Rucellai. The coat of arms of Rucellai is visible twice, namely at the corners of the frieze.

façade upper part Santa Maria Novella Alberti Florence

picture: Xavier de Jauréguiberry

Francesco Salviati ‘Portrait Rucellai’
Francesco Salviati 'Portrait Rucellai'

The problem Alberti struggled with is how he could make a decent transition from the low aisles to the much higher central nave. He could not fall back for old examples from Antiquity. Alberti’s solution involved two large volutes (the volute on the right was only clad with marble in the nineteenth century) for a smooth transition of the aisles to the central part: the nave. This handy solution was later copied many times by architects. Furthermore, the family name can be read on the frieze directly below the pediment: IOHAN(N)ES ORICELLARIUS PAU(LI) F(ILIUS) AN(NO) SAL(UTIS) MCCCCLXX or Giovanni Rucellai son of Paolo in the blessed year 1470. The entablature is cropped above the columns and the corner pillars. The high frieze is the transition from the bottom part of the facade to the top. The triangular pediment is very similar to the one of the San Miniato al Monte.

Proportions in the facade of the Santa Maria Novella

Alberti stuck with his own (above) quoted words and with the symmetria of Vitruvius. The entire facade fits within one large square. In other words, we have a fixed proportion (module) used as the foundation for various parts of the facade. The bottom part of the facade is exactly half the square. The top centre part with the pediment is in turn exactly half the size of the bottom, so one-fourth of the entire facade. The ratio of the bottom part of the facade versus the top part is 1:2, which is called an octave in music theory. That same ratio, 1:2, appears in smaller units of the separate floors. For instance, the centre bay of the top floor (with the rose window) is a perfect square, the side of which being equal to half of the total width of the floor of the nave. The triangular pediment with the top-most entablature is exactly half the size of the top floor. The proportions of the entrance bay: height of the portal is 1.5 its width and the ratio width-height is thus 2-3, something called a fifth in music theory.

Youtube proportions facade (4.37 minutes)
façade main door Santa Maria Novella Alberti Florence

Finally, the dark square incrustations of the attic are one-third of the total height of the attic, so 1:3. The incrustation squares have a ratio of 2:1 versus the diameter of the column, another octave. The entire facade has these kinds of geometric patterns with continuous doubling or vice-versa, or a continuous halving of ratios.45  Alberti succeeded in creating a harmony between the gothic parts (avelli) and the Tuscan Roman parts (blind recesses with rounded arches) with his new additions. A successful effort to reconcile the old with the new. The result is something completely novel: a renaissance facade, that has stood as the prototype for many other facades for centuries.

The development of Palazzi in Florence: Davanzati, Medici-Riccardi, Strozzi and Rucella

Timetable Entrance Address

The Palazzo Davanzati is currently a museum. A typical medieval palace that was built in 1330 for the Davizzi family. In the fifteenth century, the palazzo fell into the hands of the Davanzati family, hence its current name. In Medieval times, people settled for the plot and its shape dictated the layout (of the Davanzati), so there was no room for symmetry.46

courtyard of the Davanzati
courtyard of the Davanzati Florence

picture: Abuja

The cortile, the courtyard, is not entirely centralised and feels somewhat messy. The lower arches of the three entrances at the facade are somewhat pointed. It shows that we are dealing with a gothic palazzo. Typical for Florence are the rustication and floors that successively decrease in height and are clearly separate. The fifth floor was added later and was nothing new for Florence. Louis Couperus once wrote favourable words about this gothic palace. Speaking about the courtyard, this Dutch writer had the following to say:

‘The courtyard is of a pure, harmonic beauty: light, noble and elegant in proportion, intimate in atmosphere. Five octagonal columns support the construction on capitals, crowned by what resemble portraits of the first inhabitants; the Davizzi, who resided here before the Davanzati. Stone consoles support the three galleries of the staircase, bearing the coats of arms of the Davizzi, sculpted in granite. The walls have antique windows with iron fencing and small, cosy recesses: those enjoyable Medieval wall cabinets, to store something or lock something away. In several places, channels protrude with their narrow mouths.

Palazzo Davanzati Florence binnenhof Florence

Currently, this courtyard has a glass roof, but this is a new addition. Imagine for a moment, this curious, beautiful courtyard on a very rainy day, back in the old days. Where the flooding swells up as if filling a well, the water short thereafter drains away just as easily through the narrow, far-protruding channels that are now more like fountains; the water gushes and splashes; the entire courtyard a spectacle of water, with inhabitants looking on as the liquid jets race for the fast draining streams; they watch safely under the arcades; chuckling as they ascend the stairs; […]’

Louis Couperus, ‘Uit blanke steden onder blauwe lucht Florence’, Veen, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1986 p. 58. [Translated from Dutch]

While not fully authentic, the interior has a gothic style. The piano nobile in particular – the beautiful first floor – offers many fourteenth century furniture pieces.

Piano Nobile
Piano Nobile Palazzo Davanzati Florence
Sala dei Pappagalli
 Sala dei Pappagalli Palazzo Davanzati Florence
interior Palazzo Davanzati Florence

pictures: dvdbramhall

However medieval this palazzo may be, the intent traces back to classical times. This is especially evident in Ostia, the old port city of Rome. Homes in Roman times also had higher doors on the ground floor to allow horse carts inside to load or unload their goods. The ground floor was used for stores, offices and storage. The mezzanino above the three wide doors [It: semi-floors], too, can be seen in Ostia. All in all, it was a rather modest palace, with just twelve rooms, very different from let’s say the Palazzo Pitti.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Timetable Entrance Address

In 1434, after returning as an exile from Venice, Cosimo wanted to construct a new palace. Brunelleschi likely produced a design for it. The new palazzo would be situated directly in front of and on the same axis as the San Lorenzo.47 Cosimo, who had already quite clearly turned the San Lorenzo into a Medici church, presumably found the location and the spacious design too much of a good thing. Standing out and showing off too much was not the way, Cosimo felt. According to Antonio Billi, who wrote a vita about Filippo Brunelleschi in the early sixteenth century, Cosimo backed out and commissioned Michelozzo to construct a more modest palace near the San Lorenzo.48 When Filippo learned of this, if we are to believe Billi, he became so angry that he smashed his own model in front of the palazzo. This may explain why Brunelleschi afterwards no longer involved himself with the construction of ‘the Medici church’, the San Lorenzo.

The palace might not be placed on the same axis as the San Lorenzo, you can still see it as you walk out of the San Lorenzo on your left-hand side: at the Via Larga (currently the Via Cavour), a rather wide street for that time as the name would imply.

Giovanni Strada Via Larga and the Palazzo Medici
current  Via Larga and the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Video Via larga 1.29 minutes
Via Larga Palazzo Medici Florence G.Stradano

Cosimo did not like Brunelleschi’s design: it was too majestic and over the top. The influence of the franciscans who preached frugality and simplicity definitely made it all the way to the other palazzi of wealthy families. Still, in order to make way for the Medici palace, some twenty houses were demolished and the palazzo has forty rooms, twenty-eight more than the Davanzati. When the Riccardi family purchases the palace in 1655, the front side, at the Via Cavour, receives a hefty expansion.49 The original cube shape is lost. An impressive seven bays and one entrance door are added. This uneven number was taken to preserve the symmetry.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi marks a shift: it clearly stands out from medieval palazzi like the Davanzati, Spini or the Antinori. Michelozzo had clearly been influenced by Alberti and Brunelleschi. Still, Michelozzo’s style remains faithful to Florentine tradition. For instance, there is a clear division in three of the floors, with the height of each subsequent floor decreasing. It also uses: rustication, benches at the exterior, cornices that also function as window sills, bifore windows and a strongly protruding cornice. New elements include the layout and the symmetrical structure of the facade.

Fra Angelico ‘Michelozzo’ detail from Crucifixtion
 Fra Angelico 'Michelozzo' detail from Crucifixtion
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi details of the facade 
façade Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence

picture: Hari Seldon

Day one continuation-6