The Basilica Santa Maria Novella is the largest Dominican church in the city. The foundations of the basilica were laid in the 13th century, during the time when the Dominican Order was becoming one of the most popular religious fraternities in Florence. Construction took over a century to complete. The architect of most of the monastic complex, including the bell tower, was Friar Iacopo Talenti. By the time of his death, only the lower part of the Tuscan gothic façade was finished. Some years later in the mid-15th century, the Rucellai family paid the architect Leon Battista Alberti to expand and update this façade. It was Alberti that completed the second tier of the façade, and who was also responsible for the beautiful patterns in white and dark-green marble. The result was thus a fascinating pastiche of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. Just above the main entrance you will see a Latin inscription, which praises the principal benefactor of the basilica, Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai. In the 16th century the interiors were updated, this time by the famous Florentine architect, artist and historian Giorgio Vasari. Vasari restored the two side altars and the gothic windows, and removed the choir screen and added six new chapels to the sides of the nave.
The basilica is laid out in the form of the Egyptian Cross, and the walls are punctuated by stained-glass windows designed by Andrea di Bonaiuto which depict prophets and angels. The church is blessed with many famous frescoes, painted by the likes of Filippino Lippi, Brunelleschi and Masaccio. In the Main Chapel there is a huge and unusually well-preserved cycle of frescoes painted by Ghirlandaio, covering numerous episodes form the lives of St John the Baptist and Mary. The chapel also features frescoes by Giambologna. The walls of the Strozzi Chapel, located to the right of the Main Chapel, were painted by Flippino Lippi, and the picture that hangs over the altar, the ‘Apparition of St Thomas’, was created by Andrea Orcagna. A famous marble statue of the Madonna with Child, carved by Nino Pisano, stands in the Rucellai Chapel.
The Gondi Chapel, named in honour of another well-known family of Florentine bankers, was created by Giuliano da Sangay. It is here that the famous wooden sculpture ‘The Crucifixion’ hangs on the altar wall. This sculpture was carved by Filippo Brunelleschi, apparently as a response Donatello’s work on the same theme which Brunelleschi dismissed as ‘primitive’. The Strozzi di Mantova Chapel is located opposite the Rucellai Chapel, and contains a cycle of frescoes depicting the heavenly kingdom inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The altar is decorated with another painting by Andrea Orcagna, entitled ‘Christ the Liberator, the Virgin and the Saints’. The bell tower of the Basilica, built in the Romanesque style, was erected in the 14th century. Note the triple-paned windows, the hanging arches and the dome bedecked in gothic ornaments.