The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the most important churches in Florence. It was originally a convent built between 1279 and 1357, with an added reconstruction of the upper layer in 1470. Historically, Dominican monks inhabited the monastery, preaching charity, humility, and Christian values.
The façade is the oldest of all churches in the city, and similar to the façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Duomo, adorned in green and white marble.
You may also want to read my posts A Guide To The Basilica Di Santa Croce, Florence and How To Get Florence Duomo Tickets.
Santa Maria Novella’s exterior profile is interesting due to the clear-cut geometric shapes: rectangles, triangles, and curves of arches and circles. Inside, you can admire awe-inspiring frescoes. For historic fiction aficionados, you may remember that it is mentioned in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. Read on for an extensive guide to this awe-inspiring church.
The History Of The Basilica Di Santa Maria Novella, Florence
As one of the mendicants’ orders that settled in Florence in the first half of 1200, the Dominicans first received a small church called Santa Maria Delle Vigne, which oriented eastward. A few decades later, they decided to build a bigger church using parts of the old church. Thus, the new Basilica, ‘Santa Maria Novella’ (meaning new) was born, orienting southward instead of eastward.
The church has been modified several times since its inception, especially the inside. What we see today was designed by two Dominican friars, Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi. The most important work done on its exterior was the marble decoration of the façade in the mid 15th century, by iconic Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, commissioned by Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai.
The lower part of the exterior, as well as the bell tower and sacristy, was designed by Fra’ Jacopo Talenti. The financier of the reconstruction was businessman Bernardo Ruccellai, who had his father’s name inscribed on the façade. Consecration occurred in 1420 by Pope Martino V.
What To See When Visiting The Basilica Di Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Alberti used classical Renaissance principles of architecture to create harmony with the existing parts of the exterior profile. The scenario of elements, ordered by mathematical and geometrical rules, was to be viewed as if it were a painting.
Four white-green pilasters (made with Prato marble, also known as “serpentino”), which give the appearance of a supporting column, as well as a round window, are crowned by a triangular pediment with a Dominican solar emblem. These classic architectural elements occur on both sides, embellished with S-curved volutes, which are spiral, scroll-like ornaments. These were tactically used to hide the sloping roof over the side naves. Talenti ingeniously added four Corinthian columns on the lower part.
The exterior work lasted 14 years, from 1456 and 1470.
The vast interior is based on a basilica plan, designed as a Latin cross. The Pulpit commissioned by the Rucellai family in 1443 was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, which had a particular historical significance as it was closely linked to Galilei’s indictment. The Sacristy is ornate, built-in 1380 as a chapel. It has been beautifully encased in walnut and ebony paneling – detailed cabinets and doors are painted with figures of saints by Camillo Perini.
Crucifix by Giotto and Brunelleschi
Brunelleschi’s Crucifix, found in the Gondi Chapel, is carved in geometric perfection. A wooden cross carved by Giotto di Bondone hangs in the middle of the central nave, so that visitors never forget Christ’s struggle. Beautifully painted and dating back to 1290, it stands at a striking height of 4.5 meters (almost 15 feet).
Trinity fresco by Masaccio
From the year 1428, it was the first work of art in the world in which the laws of perspective were correctly used. The painting hangs from the entrance on the left long side of the large church. A milestone in the history of art, the subject represented is the holy trinity: God (the Father), Christ (the Son) and the white dove representing the Holy Spirit. With depth and ingenuity, it almost looked like Masaccio created a new chapel.
The Great Cloister is named for its majestic size. The crests of wealthy Florentine families helped pay for the cloister’s sweep of 56 arches carved on pillars in the loggia. The Cloister of the Dead was originally a cemetery and is one of the oldest parts of the complex.
The Green Cloister built from 1330 to 1350 suffered in the floods of 1966 – several precious frescoes were destroyed. It takes its name from the frescoes originally painted in ‘green clay’ by many artists of the early 15th century. An extraordinary example of Italian gothic, Uccello was the painter responsible for the strong yet harmonious proportions.
The Spanish Cloister in the 16th century was the chapter house. It was given its name because of the meetings held by the Spanish followers of Eleonora da Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I.
All Chapels in the Santa Maria Novella complex are beautifully frescoed, strikingly featuring stunning works of art. To name a few, the Cappella Strozzi di Mantova holds magnificent frescoes by Filippino Lippi, depicting the life of Saint John the Evangelist. The Tornabuoni Chapel has frescoes by Ghirlandaio, portraying all the protagonists of renaissance Florence, including members of the Medici family.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella Florence opening hours
Opening hours vary slightly by season.
The church is always open from Monday to Thursday and Saturdays from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm (it opens at 9:00 am from October to March); on Fridays from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm; on Sunday from 1:00 pm to 5:30 pm (except from July to September when it opens at 12:00 pm).
The religious holidays to note are 1 and 6 January, 15 August, 1 November, 8 and 25 December, as well as whatever day Easter lands on. The last admission is 1 hour before closing. The Basilica remains always open for personal prayer and during religious functions.
Best time to visit
We visited in the early afternoon and we didn’t find the church to be crowded – even though it’s a popular place to visit in Florence (and it’s right by the main train station), it’s actually massive so there’s plenty of room not to feel overwhelmed.
In general, I recommend visiting early in the morning as soon as it opens; around lunch time when the largest groups are busy eating, or in the afternoon by last entry time. The church is actually very bid and it can take you up to two hours to explore it fully.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella tickets
A full-price ticket to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is €7.50. A reduced price ticket is available for visitors between 12 and 17 years of age and for visitors who are over 65 – it costs €5 for them to visit. Admission for children up to 11 years accompanied by an adult, for disabled travelers and their companion and for Florence residents. Admission is also included in the Firenzecard.
You can buy your tickets online on the official website of the church or directly at the door.
Should you get a guided tour?
My friend and I visited by ourselves but to be honest we wished we had a guide to take us around. The complex is actually much bigger than meets the eye, with lots to see, including a dedicated museum, and a guided tour can be useful for an extensive and detailed account of the featured works of art and history.
Here are some tours you may want to consider:
Santa Maria Novella Entry Ticket & Audioguide – the best option if you have a smaller budget, because you can go at your own pace and it’s actually quite cheap.
Santa Maria Novella Private Tour – significantly more expensive, but you’ll have a guide to yourself to ask any question that may come to mind. The tour lasts two full hours.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is first of all a place of worship so you need to be dressed modestly in order to visit. Bare legs and shoulders are not tolerated, so make sure to wear a skirt / dress that gets below your knees, or pants, and a shirt / t-shirt. Avoid shorts, miniskirts and tank tops. Men should wear pants and a shirt / t-shirt too.
Is photography allowed?
Yes, as long as you don’t use a flesh or a tripod.
Toilets are available for all visitors, including disabled ones, inside the museum. You’ll also find plenty of public toilets at the near by Stazione di Santa Maria Novella train station. For those, you’ll have to pay a small fee.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is mostly accessible to disabled visitors, who can access the church from the entrance in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. Unfortunately, the Tornabuoni Chapel, the Rucellai Chapel and the Strozzi di Mantova Chapel are not accessible.
How to get there
Santa Maria Novella Church is located directly across the road from Florence’s main railway station (also known as Santa Maria Novella). You can enter through the small open gate to the right of the Basilica. Shortly after entering, you will find a box office where you will have to line to scan e-tickets or purchase tickets in person.
If you are traveling to Florence, these other posts will be useful:
- How To Get From Rome To Florence
- The Best Things To Do In Florence
- The Most Beautiful Churches In Florence
- The Perfect 3 Days In Florence Itinerary
- How To Get Boboli Gardens Tickets
- How To Get Tickets To Pitti Palace
- How To Get Tickets To The Uffizi Gallery
- How To Get Galleria Dell’Accademia Tickets
- How To Get Palazzo Vecchio Tickets
- A Guide To Visiting Giotto’s Bell Tower
- How To Make The Most Of One Day In Florence
- How To Make The Most Of Florence At Night
- 13 Best Day Trips From Florence
- A Wonderful Florence To Pisa Day Trip
- A Perfect Day Trip From Rome To Florence
- The Perfect Day Trip From Florence To Cinque Terre