Santa Maria Novella

Florence, c. 1458-70

Architect:  Alberti





In the fourteenth century, a façade had been begun and abandoned for the Gothic Church of Santa Maria Novella, located on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence.


Patronage Rights

The Rucellai family arranged patronage rights for Santa Maria Novella in 1458, agreeing to sponsor the construction of a new façade.


The terms of the Rucellai family's patronage agreement with the Church stipulated that the portion of the façade already constructed would remain in place.


The Project

Giovanni Rucellai asked Alberti to design the new façade.


The task of designing a façade in the new style was daunting due to not only the church's basilican shape but also its pre-existing features.


This façade was the only large-scale church front constructed in Florence during this period.  (Decorative detail had not been applied to the façades of Brunelleschi's two basilicas, and that of San Lorenzo remains blank.)






The pre-existing features of the façade included a rose window, six niche-tombs (also called avelli), three portals, and an undetermined part of the wall above them.


The niches and side portals were spanned by Gothic arches and decorated by white and green marble in a striped pattern, which was also used on arcaded wings and other parts of the complex.


Non-Classical Aspects

The design of the completed parts of the façade is not in keeping with classical precepts in several ways.


Encrusted polychrome marble.  The decoration using encrusted polychrome marble, which is typical of Italian Romanesque and Gothic architecture, was two-dimensional, making it substantially different from the carved relief typical of ancient Roman and Renaissance architecture. 


Pointed arches.  As hallmarks of the Gothic style, pointed arches, especially those formed of light and dark voussoirs, were antithetical to classical architecture, which employed round arches with matching voussoirs in combination with the orders.


Off-center side portals.  The off-center placement of the side portals, which are not centered between the nave arcade and the outer wall, introduces an element of irregularity to the lower level of the façade. 





Minimization of Impact of Older Work

Part of Alberti's approach to reconciling the older work with a contemporary façade was to minimize the visual impact of the existing parts.  To do this, Alberti employed a two-part approach of adding more patterned marble and transferring the façade's focus to a new classical framework.


Extension of patterned marble.  To maintain continuity with the older work, Alberti extended the pattern of light-and-dark encrusted marble in the Tuscan-Romanesque style to the rest of the façade.  The existing encrustation was visually absorbed into the linear mesh created by covering such a broad expanse with a relatively small-scale pattern.  (This topic is discussed below under "TUSCAN-ROMANESQUE FEATURES.")


Imposition of classical framework.  To distract attention from the encrusted pattern and imbue the façade with a classical character, Alberti created the appearance of a classical framework based on the orders, which provides the viewer with a new way to visually organize the parts of the façade.  Because of the large scale and solid, contrasting color of the classical members, the viewer perceives them more readily than the small-scale encrusted pattern.  (This topic is discussed further under "CLASSICAL FRAMEWORK.") 


Integration of Forms and Patterns by Proportions

To integrate the classical framework with the encrusted marble patterns, Alberti coordinated both elements within a larger system of whole-number proportions.  (This topic is discussed further under "PROPORTIONS.")





San Miniato and Cathedral Baptistery as Models

The influence of Tuscan-Romanesque buildings like San Miniato al Monte and the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral is reflected by several features of the façade of Santa Maria Novella.  Alberti greatly admired both of these buildings and, like others of his time, believed them to be closer to the Roman tradition than they actually were.


Temple Front

The suggestion of a temple front on the upper level of the façade of Santa Maria Novella is precisely defined by pilasters, an entablature, and a pediment, whereas on San Miniato, the suggestion is only rudimentary.


Blind Arcade

There is disagreement over whether Alberti designed the blind arcade at Santa Maria Novella, which is similar to the cathedral baptistery and San Miniato.


Engaged Columns

Story-high engaged columns decorate the lower level of both San Miniato and Santa Maria Novella, but their loads differ.  Those of San Miniato carry an arcade whereas those of Santa Maria Novella carry an entablature.


Banded Pilasters

Although they are detailed as pilasters by the presence of capitals, the large banded corner pillars are similar to the banded corner pillars used on the baptistery.






A number of large-scale features add a classical framework that dominates the façade visually.


Temple Front

A classical temple-front was formed at the upper level by pilasters carrying an entablature and a pediment.


Due to the width of the medieval rose window over the portal, the space between the centermost pilasters on the upper façade had to be wider than the spaces between the outer ones unless the upper part of the façade was made considerably wider.  The width of the upper façade already exceeded that of the structure behind it.


Because the medieval side portals had been placed near the nave arcade, the temple front's outer pilasters were located over them, and consequently, there could be no corresponding members on the lower story.  The resulting arrangement violates the classical principle calling for supports over supports and openings over openings and increases the difficulty of unifying the upper and lower levels visually.


Scroll Shapes Covering Side-Aisle Roofs

Alberti's most influential innovation at Santa Maria Novella was the use of an S-curved scroll motif to screen the sloping roofs of the side aisles.


Although small-scale scrolls had been used as consoles in classical architecture, Alberti's inspiration was probably the volutes on the lantern of Florence Cathedral, which were designed by Brunelleschi in 1436 and begun in 1446.


The scroll motif was repeated on several late fifteenth-century church façades in Rome like Sant'Agostino, which shows Alberti's influence on other features as well.  In the sixteenth century, scrolling fins were used on the late sixteenth-century Roman church Il Gesù, which became a prototype for many Baroque churches.



An attic separates the upper and lower levels.


The division of the lower portion into an attic and ground story contributes to the lower tier's resemblance to a triumphal arch.


Pilasters on Corners

The surface of light-and-dark stripes is not classical, but the detailing of the corner members as pilasters does suggest a classicizing intent.


Terminating a colonnade or arcade with story-high pilasters has precedent in Brunelleschi's Foundling Hospital loggia, whose original outer bays were trimmed by pilasters.


Engaged Columns Carrying Entablature

The engaged columns, which carry an entablature, are emphatic in having solid, dark-green coloring, rounded projection, and huge size.


Arched Portal

The portal, which includes a prominent coffered arch, is conceived along the lines of Roman monumental architecture.





Integrating Pattern with Orders

The two forms of decoration on the façade, the encrustation with patterned marble and the application of the orders, were fused into a harmonious whole by a system of simple geometric shapes governed by simple proportions.  The belief that numbers were related to visual harmony is rooted in the awareness that numbers governed musical harmony, a concept known as harmonic proportion.


Specific Proportions

Simple, whole-number ratios like 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3 were expressed by the dimensions of the main features of the façade.


Height to width.  The height equals the width, and the whole can be inscribed within a square. 


Lower level to whole.  The lowest zone, a rectangle having a 1:2 ratio, is half the size of the outer square. 


Temple front to whole.  The temple front of the upper zone can be inscribed within a square that is one fourth of the whole and equal to the squares contained in the lower rectangle. 


Internal squares to whole.  The area between the engaged columns on each side of the lower façade forms a square whose breadth equals the height of the columns (with pedestals).  Each square is one third the width/height of the whole.  



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