Architecture Around the World

Santa Maria Novella Church
Florence, Italy


C. 1458-1470


Leon Battista Alberti (LAY on ba TEES ta al BER tee)



Name origin

A Dominican church c. 1278 replaced a smaller 10th c. church; hence, the name "Novella"
In 1360 the building of the church and bell tower were finished by Jacopo Talenti.

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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Romanesque style


Early (Romanesque) scroll buttress

Tuscan style incrustation

Tympanum painting above main portal of St. Dominic

Corinthian entablature

Green and white marble Tuscan style incrustation in the frieze

Blind arcades


Quatrefoil design

Romanesque arches

South façade

South façade

Corbel table and Blind arcades

In designing this church, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) takes his cue from a pre-Gothic medieval design - that of San Miniato al Monte. Following his Romanesque model, he designs a small, pseudo-Classical, pediment-capped temple front for the upper part of the facade and supports it with a broad base of pilaster-enframed arcades that incorporate the six tombs and three doorways of the extant Gothic building.

In the organization of these elements, Alberti takes a long step beyond the Romanesque planners. The height of Santa Maria Novella (to the tip of the pediment) equals its width, so that the entire facade can be inscribed in a square.

The upper structure. in turn, can be encased in a square one-fourth the size of the main square; the cornice of the entablature that separates the two levels halves the major square, so that the lower portion of the building becomes a rectangle that is twice as wide as it is high; and the areas outlined by the columns on the lower level are squares with sides that are about one-third the width of the main unit.

Throughout the facade, Alberti defines areas and relates them to each other in terms of proportions that can be expressed in simple numerical ratios (1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 2:3, and so on).

In his treatise, Alberti uses considerable space to propound the necessity of such harmonic relationships for the design of beautiful buildings. Alberti shares this conviction with Brunelleschi, and it is basically this dependence on mathematics - a belief in the eternal and universal validity of numerical ratios as the source of beauty - that distinguishes the work of these two architects from that of their medieval predecessors. In this respect, Alberti and Brunelleschi are reviving the true spirit of the High Classical age of fifth-century Greece, as epitomized by the sculptor Polykleitos and the architect Iktinos, whose canons of proportions for the perfect statue and the perfect temple Alberti would have known secondhand through the architectural treatise of Vitruvius.

But it was not only a desire to emulate Vitruvius and the Classical masters that motivated Alberti to turn to mathematics in his quest for beauty. His contemporary, the Florentine Humanist Giannozzo Manetti, had argued that Christianity itself possessed the order and logic of mathematics by insisting in his 1452 treatise, "On the Dignify and Excellence of Man," that the religious truths of Christianity were as self-evident as the axioms of mathematics.

The facade of Santa Maria Novella is an ingenious solution to a difficult design problem. On one hand, it adequately expresses the organization of the structure to which it is attached; at the same time. it subjects preexisting and quintessentially medieval features like the large round window on the second level to a rigid geometrical order that instills a quality of Classical calm and reason.

This facade also introduces a feature of great historical consequence: the scrolls that simultaneously unite the broad lower and narrow upper level and screen the sloping roofs over the aisles With variations. such spirals will appear in literally hundreds of church facades throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

By using old-fashioned marble incrustations but making them quite flat, Alberti gave his Classical temple façade the appearance of a three-dimensional sculptured structure projected onto an incorporeal surface.


The inside is in the shape of an Egyptian cross in Romanesque-Gothic style. It is divided by pillars of various styles that support pointed arches and vaults.


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Photos and their arrangement © 2008 Chuck LaChiusa
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