Basilica di Santa Maria Novella

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

This monumental complex, fronted by the green-and-white marble facade of the 13th- to 15th-century Basilica di Santa Maria Novella , secrets romantic church cloisters and a stunning frescoed chapel. The basilica itself is a treasure chest of artistic masterpieces, climaxing with a series of frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Allow at least a couple of hours to take it all in.

The lower section of the basilica's striped marbled facade is transitional from Romanesque to Gothic; the upper section and the main doorway (1456-70) were designed by Leon Battista Alberti. As you enter, look straight ahead to see Masaccio's superb fresco Trinity (1424-25), one of the first artworks to use the then newly discovered techniques of perspective and proportion. Close by, hanging in the central nave, is a luminous painted Crucifix by Giotto (c 1290).

The first chapel to the right of the altar, Cappella di Filippo Strozzi, features spirited late 15th-century frescoes by Filippino Lippi (son of Fra' Filippo Lippi) depicting the lives of St John the Evangelist and St Philip the Apostle.

Behind the main altar itself are the highlights of the interior – Domenico Ghirlandaio's series of frescoes in the Cappella Maggiore. Relating the lives of the Virgin Mary, these vibrant frescoes were painted between 1485 and 1490, and are notable for their depiction of Florentine life during the Renaissance. They feature portraits of Ghirlandaio's contemporaries and members of the Tornabuoni family, who commissioned them.

To the far left of the altar, up a short flight of stairs, is the Cappella Strozzi di Mantova, covered in wonderful 14th-century frescoes by Niccolò di Tommaso and Nardo di Cione. The fine altarpiece (1354-57) here was painted by the latter's brother Andrea, better known as Andrea Orcagna.

From the church, walk through a side door into the serenly beautiful Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister; 1332-62), part of the vast monastical complex occupied by Dominican friars who arrived in Florence in 1219 and settled in Santa Maria Novella two years later. The tranquil cloister takes its name from the green earth base used for the frescoes on three of the cloister's four walls. On its north side is the spectacular Cappellone degli Spagnoli (Spanish Chapel), originally the friars' chapter house and named such in 1566 when it was given to the Spanish colony in Florence. The tiny chapel is covered in extraordinary frescoes (c 1365-67) by Andrea di Bonaiuto. The vault features depictions of the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, and on the altar wall are scenes of the Via Dolorosa, Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo. On the right wall is a huge fresco of The Militant and Triumphant Church – look in the foreground for a portrait of Cimabue, Giotto, Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante. Other frescoes in the chapels depict the Triumph of Christian Doctrine, 14 figures symbolising the Arts and Sciences, and the Life of St Peter.

By the side of the chapel, a passage leads into the Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead), a cemetery existent well before the arrival of the Dominicans to Santa Maria Novella. The tombstones embedded in the walls and floor date to the 13th and 14th centuries.

On the west side of the Chiostro Verde, another passage leads to the 14th-century Cappella degli Ubriachi and a large refectory featuring ecclesiastical relics and a 1583 Last Supper by Alessandro Allori. Both are currently closed for renovation.

There are two entrances to the Santa Maria Novella complex: the main entrance to the basilica or through the tourist office opposite the train station on Via de' Partzani; Firenze Card holders are obliged to use the latter.