ALBERTI'S FACADE FOR SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was a writer and architect in the 15th century who knew many of the major artists by name and who influenced many of them by his treatises on Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture (Della Pittura 1435, De Re Aedificatoria 1452, and De Statua 1462.) The introductory paragraph to his Italian Treatise on Painting dedicates the volume to Filippo Brunelleschi and lists four other artists: Donato (Donatello), Nencio (Lorenzo Ghiberti), Luca (Della Robbia), and Masaccio. He calls each of them either by first name or by nickname. This familiarity or intimacy implies to the reader that these men are his Florentine family since he was illegitimate and his own family had been exiled until they returned to Florence in 1428:
"Ma poi che io dal lungo essilio in quale siamo noi Alberti invecchiati, qui fui in questa nostra sopra l'altre ornatissima patria ridutto, compresi in molti ma prima in te, Filippo, e in quel nostro amicissimo Donato scultore e in quegli altri Nencio e Luca e Masaccio, essere a ogni lodata cosa ingegno da non posporli a qual si sia stato antiquo e famoso in queste arti"
"But then, since I have returned from that long exile in which we Alberti have long grown old, to a
homeland that is more decorated than others, I have understood in many but most of all in you, FILIPPO, and in that closest friend of ours, DONATO the sculptor and in those other friends, NENCIO and LUCA and MASACCIO, that every praiseworthy artistic thing has been superseded from what was understood to be ancient and famous in our arts."(trans. mine)
He understands and is able to convey in writing the innovations which have taken place in Florence in architecture, painting, and sculpture just in the years 1400-1435. Brunelleschi's Dome was nearly completed, Donatello was working on the Cantoria with Luca, Ghiberti was starting on the second set of Baptistery panels, and Masaccio had finished the Brancacci Chapel.
How important for him, then, to contribute to the excitement of this artistic revolution. In 1470 he designs a major Florentine church facade, two years before the end of his life. He creates the facade of Santa Maria Novella (1470.) It is rightly called the FIRST RENAISSANCE CHURCH FACADE in Western art history.
and the pediment in buildings like the Pantheon and the Temple of Fortuna Virilis:
The most important model for his facade is up on the hill above Florence in the 11th century Romanesque church facade of San Miniato al Monte (1060-62.)
How many elements are the same in both churches!
1) Both are built as though two temple fronts, one set on top and inside of the other:
San Miniato, 1060-62,yellow inside green Santa Maria Novella, 1470, blue inside purple
3) Both use rounded arches in the lower level as visual support for the upper level.
San Miniato Santa Maria Novella
5) Both have references to Christ in the decoration. In San Miniato a cross is inscribed in the inlay
and Christ appears in the central mosaic blessing Mary, his mother, and the local martyr, San Miniato:
These references make clear that these are not pagan temples of worship but Christian since Christ is known as the light of the world.
BUT THERE IS ONE MAJOR DIFFERENCE that sets Alberti's church apart from the Romanesque model and marks it as a RENAISSANCE building. Whereas the patron or patrons who paid for the facade of San Miniato remain anonymous, Alberti proudly announces his patron's name on the facade of this temple and ADVERTISES his BUSINESS! How is that possible on a Christian church facade?
The Latin inscription running along the architrave between pilasters and pediment reads as follows:
Latin on the facade: JOHANES ORICELLARIUS PAV F AN SAL MCCCCLXX
FULL LATIN: Johannes Oricellarius Paulus Filius Anno Salvator MCCCCLXX
TRANSLATION: GIOVANNI RUCELLAI SON Of PAOLO in the year of our LORD 1470
Santa Maria Novella was Giovanni Rucellai's parish church and he had hired Alberti in 1446 to
produce a facade for his own private palace in Florence around the corner and down the street:
On his palace facade he had inserted the symbol of the spinnaker sail, the sign that his shipping business was prosperous because his ships were fast.
The same symbol is placed on the Loggia next to the palace, also designed by Alberti. In the Loggia the spinnaker is alternated with rings with shoots of feathers, symbols of the Medici (Rucellai's son married Lorenzo the Magnificent's sister in 1461 and the Loggia was used for the celebration.)
The spinnaker sail with its ropes is repeated over and over again on the facade of Santa Maria Novella, to remind us of the greatness of the patron and to remind us how the facade was paid for:
And, as if that weren't enough self-glorification, the Medici rings with feathers are repeated as well
in the inner band of the central entrance archway in green and white inlay and in white bas-relief below:
has its precedence in the Latin inscription set out by Hadrian on the facade of the Pantheon in Rome (125 A.D.).
Alberti's Rucellai is not fooling anyone in his own name's inclusion in the Latin of his parish church.
He wants us to remember whose son he is, what year he paid for the church facade and what enabled him to afford to pay for it:
inlay decorations that form the smooth transition between the two temples: