Santa Maria Novella is certainly not Florence’s largest or most well-know church. That honour goes to what’s commonly known as simply the Duomo, or more formally as Santa Maria del Fiore. (Santa Maria really got around, didn’t she?) However, because Santa Maria Novella was the first church I went to on my first visit to Florence since starting this blog, it was the one that first managed to trigger on this trip a thought that I often have when I explore old European churches.
Let me pause here for a moment, because that came off sounding pompous. I don’t want to make it sound as though I’m a world traveller with vast European experience. I’m not. I’d like to be, but I’m long past the sardine-packed flight, flee-bag hotel days of my more youthful traveler days. And, even way back then, it took only one such trip to learn that, despite not needing to travel in the laps of luxury or even the thighs, knees, ankles, elbows, necks or any other body parts of luxury, I do greatly value a certain level of creature comfort. Thus, my finances limit the amount of traveling I can do while still meeting and preferably exceeding my minimum flight, hotel and meal standards, workaday though they may be. If anyone wishes to fund my travels in the style in which I and I alone steadfastly believe I deserve, then, assuming I don’t become even lazier in my dotage than I am now, I’ll likely increase the number of posts I place here. How can you resist providing funding with a reward like that. Any takers?
The preceding paragraph is an unnecessary, ridiculously long, boring way of saying that I have no valid foundation for making sweeping generalizations about Europe, or any other part of the world for that matter. That having been said, here’s the thought that I alluded to in the first paragraphs: When I do visit a European city I tend to spend most of my time in the old part of town because, well, why else does one journey to Europe from a city as new and as dismissive of what history it does have as Toronto is? Wandering around those parts of old Europe that I have had the privilege of wandering around, I get the sense that, in centuries gone by, religion was an even bigger business than it is today.
Most old European cities have at least a couple, and often more than a couple, large, glorious, old churches. I’ve never understood that. Was Florence so prosperous when Santa Maria Novella was built in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, and was that prosperity so widely dispersed, that constructing a large, ornate, well-adorned cathedral primary as a place for people to worship, beseech and venerate an invisible alleged being who seems to treat people equally regardless of whether or not they worship, beseech and/or venerate Him or Her, seemed to the holy and holy-wannabes of the time like the best use of the necessary funds and resources?
But I digress. On the positive side and more to the point, all of those people having put all of that money and effort into building it back then resulted in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella being there for me to admire. This is a good thing because, at least, from my personal aesthetic perspective, it is imminently worthy of admiring. And, after all, it is all about me.
Lest you think this is just any church, allow me to point out that it has received the coveted “basilica” designation. I’m not very familiar with these sorts of things, but I think that’s roughly the papal equivalent of a five-star rating.
As one might expect of a basilica, the cathedral has handsome, high, vaulted ceilings. Many of the walls and rooms of Santa Maria Novella are adorned with beautiful artworks, including paintings and sculptures. Not surprisingly, the artworks all have religious themes. I know this is terribly irreverent of me, but just once I’d like to see an Elvis on Black Velvet permanently gracing the walls of an old European church. But, regrettably, I’ve never witnessed that. More’s the pity.
Chapels and Cloisters
There are a number of smaller chapels off the main sanctuary, each of which is unique. The “Spanish Chapel” is of particular note. Its walls and ceilings are covered in frescoes. True, there are frescoes scattered throughout the basilica, but unlike elsewhere in the church, they thoroughly dominate the Spanish Chapel.
Outside the church, but still considered part of the basilica grounds, are some charming, calming cloisters. This includes a “Cloister of the Dead.” Burial vaults are built into the walls and floors of this cloister, making it a high-density cemetery, although not one that receives any fresh dead, if you’ll pardon the morbid turn of phrase.
There is a museum in the church. When I was there, in addition to the religious artifacts that I assume are on permanent display, the museum housed some frescoes that had been pulled off the walls for restoration. This afforded me a closer view of them than the in situ frescoes.
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I’m going to introduce a new rule here for this blog. Actually, it’s a rule that I’ve, for the most part, followed in writing previous posts, although I don’t recall ever having stated it explicitly. Unless I specifically say otherwise, the place I describe in the post is definitely worth a visit. If it’s mind-blowingly wonderful, I might note that. And if I thought visiting was a total waste of my time and a mind-numbing, rather than mind-blowing experience, I’ll definitely declare that. However, anything between those two distant markers will likely not garner a comment as to whether or not I think you should visit. As to Santa Maria Novella, well, enough said.