The Vaults of Santa Maria Novella and the Creation of Florentine Gothic
By Elizabeth B. Smith
Against Gravity: Building Practices in the Pre-Industrial World, eds. Robert Ousterhout, Dorian Borbonus, and Elisha Dumser (University of Pennsylvania, 2016)
Introduction: Links between constructional practice and design were not uncommon in medieval architecture. In 12th c. France the transition from Romanesque to Gothic went hand-in-hand with the development of the rib vault, a new form effective both for increased ease of construction and also for increased clarity in conception of the design. This connection is famously represented by the choir of Saint-Denis, whose architect took advantage of the linear character of the rib to re-imagine the relation between each bay of the choir and ambulatory, resulting in the open view so neatly described by Abbot Suger. Such a relation can also be found at the beginning of the Gothic era in Central Italy, where the nave of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1279-1355) provides a vivid example of the link between constructional practice and design.
Historians of Gothic architecture, among them Louis Grodecki, have noted that Santa Maria Novella is one of the most beautiful examples of Italian Gothic without attempting to specify just what it is that sets Santa Maria Novella apart. The significance of Santa Maria Novella was perhaps most clearly set forth by Jean Bony, in his classic book, French Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries. In the introduction, Bony explains that he has limited his book to France, because he sees Gothic architecture as consisting of two periods, the first of which, between c. 1130 and the late 13th century, took place almost entirely in France, while the second, from the late 13th through the 15th c., took place on a wide international front.
Singling out Santa Maria Novella as important in the development of Italian Gothic. Bony notes how it adopts Cistercian models available in Central Italy in the mid 13th c. and transforms them by opening up the interior space and thinning out the walls. For Bony, “The substance of walls and piers is so reduced in that large airy nave of Santa Maria Novella that they seem to have lost all weight and to serve simply to define and enclose space”.
‘The nave of Santa Maria Novella was equally admired in the 15th c. by the Dominican Giovanni Caroli, , who described the effect produced by the interior in the following way: “if you were standing in the first door of the church and you were looking at it, since it is vaulted, with one glance you would see all the vaults made with excellent art, and with another glance you would see clearly in another direction with no obstacle.” Caroli’s description, focusing on the wonderful vaults, goes on to explain that “they stand without tie rods or other such visible supports, but by their very selves.”