Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella: piazza, church & art

written by Tiana Kai

Santa Maria Novella's facade

To properly tour Florence you must uncover history and art—in addition to lots and lots of food and wine—and in the churches there’s both and lots of it. I decided to take myself for a tour by spending an afternoon in Santa Maria Novella’s area. I hope to do the same for each area/piazza—there’s lots to cover, so wish me luck!

Piazza Santa Maria Novella

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella Piazza

SMN (Santa Maria Novella) is where I spend lots of time because it’s close to a few family businesses and the closest piazza to the train station. It’s easy to get to and a two minute walk to the Duomo or the Arno.

On a good day there’ll lots of people (tourist) sitting on the modern benches hanging out. There’s a guy who plays music in the late afternoons who’s the quintessential American folk singer. It’s nice to listen to him while you’re walking by or taking a break with some gelato and waiting for friends.

On a bad it’s speckled with gypsies and people asking to sign petitions. If you’re into cheap sunglasses and poor prints of Dalí then this piazza is for you. It’s still very safe and close to many hotels.

The newly installed grass and flowers brighten it up, so it looks more presentable and has been known to host large meditation circles—they Om and everything. This piazza is full of surprises!

Santa Maria Novella church & art

For just € 5 (free for Florence residents) you can tour Santa Maria Novella, which includes the Basilica, Spanish Chapel (my favorite!) and the many cloisters.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella 

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella Crucifix by Giotto

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella side chapel

It’s the oldest basilica in Florence and the easiest to find because it’s across from the train station. This Dominican church has works of Gothic and early Renaissance art like sculptures, paintings, frescoes and woodwork dating back from the late 12th century to 15th century.

The black and white marble beams and arches are what drew me in the most. It’s home (tombs) to important men like Antonio Strozzi and it’s lit up with intricate stained glass from the 14th and 15th centuries.

The most eye catching artwork is The Crucifix by Giotto which is hung over the alter. There are also side chapels within the basilica where other treasures are preserved like the Crucifix by Brunelleschi. The largest of the chapels is the Tornabuoni Chapel. All have their own personality and workmanship.

The Spanish Chapel

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella, The Spanish Chapel

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella, The Spanish Chapel frescoes

I was extremely moved the second I stepped foot into the Spanish Chapel. It was built in the mid-1300’s and initially called Guidalotti Chapel. It was later referred to as the Spanish Chapel in 1566 when Cosimo I assigned it to his wife Eleonora of Toledo for a place where fellow Spaniards could use it for religious purposes.

What I loved is that there were grids explaining the frescoes to help explain the continuous narrative of what’s depicted. The colors jump out as if they were painted in this century, a must see!

The Cloisters

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella's cloisters

Tour Florence—Santa Maria Novella's cloisters

‘Cloisters’ meaning enclosure for monks or nuns hold an endless amount of tombs. The tombs are all marble with beautiful etchings. These three cloisters deserve a pass since there’s some great artwork weaved between them.

SMN map & hours

Santa Maria Novella hours and map

Don’t forget to fill up at the best bars and restaurants in the area after your tour!

What’s your favorite church or piazza in Florence and where should I go next?

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Becky Padmore August 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Such a beautiful city, love the photos!

Tiana Kai August 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

So many churches so little time! 🙂

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas August 14, 2013 at 11:10 am

Definitely one of my favorite places in Florence!

Tiana Kai August 14, 2013 at 3:08 pm

The piazza is not as famous as the Piazza del Duomo, but you can sit here and listen to music… and that Spanish Chapel really took my breathe away! Shame I was sick when you were in town, you must come back! 😉

soccerpro1106 December 20, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Pretty much spent the last three hours of my sick day reading various posts on your blog. Great day to stumble upon it too! I’ll be in Florence next week and your blog has pointed me in a couple of great directions. Thank-you!

Tiana Kai December 26, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Hi there, so glad this kept you entertained. Reach out for any specific tips, I’m @tianakaimiami on Twitter.

Carnival in Viareggio March 18, 2014 at 3:54 pm

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