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Elizabeth B. Smith
Brief description of the nave
of Santa Maria Novella, Florence


English ÆItaliano


Acknowledged as one of the most beautiful interiors in Florence, the nave of SMN may come as somewhat of a surprise to the visitor after the unadorned severity of its exterior. The most striking overall impressions are of the openness of the space and the pervasive softness of the light, both due to the design of the nave as conceived and constructed by its 13th and 14th century builders.


Erecting one of the first basilicas in Florence to be entirely vaulted, the builders of SMN chose to cover both the nave and aisles with domical ribbed vaults. In so doing, they rejected the vault form most typical of French Gothic architecture, the even-level crown vault, in which the keystones of the transverse arches that span the nave are at the same height as the keystones of its high vaults, enabling the viewer to trace an invisible line from keystone to keystone straight down the length of the nave. Instead, the builders of SMN elected to construct a type of vaulting that had been used in Lombardy since the early 12th century, in which the keystones of the vaults rise higher than those of the transverse arches. These vaults, called domical ribbed vaults, make each bay seem to be covered by its own individual canopy.

Thus, the space of the central nave of SMN appears to billow up into the curved webs of its domical vaults. It also flows outward into the side-aisles through the high, wide arcades that rise on slender compound piers. The slender piers and high arcades of SMN are distinctive, quite different from the thick supports and low arcades of Lombard churches - Gothic as well as Romanesque - where the nave is covered by a series of domical ribbed vaults. Whereas the space in the Lombard buildings seems contained within the heavy piers and walls of the main nave, at SMN the space appears to flow freely in all directions between the nave and the aisles. This results in the visitor being able to view a rich panorama of the entire interior, as noted by a late 15th century observer, Johannes Caroli, who wrote that "if you were standing in the first door of the church and you were looking at it [the church], 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" (J. Caroli, Vite non nullorum fratrum beate Marie Novelle (1475-80),... in vita Beati Johannis Salernitani, ASMN I.A.4, f. 22v: «Nam si ad primam eius ecclesie portam consistas intusque illam spectes, cum testudinata sit, omnes illas testudines egregia arte confectas uno simul oculi ictu perspicies, una alterius aspectum nulla ratione impediente»).  

To achieve this, the builders of SMN made a daring synthesis, raising the heavy domical vaults of Lombardy over the light supports and open plan typical to the timber-roofed tradition of Tuscany, as seen for example at San Miniato al Monte in Florence. 

As a result of this synthesis, the nave of SMN conveys a sense of a single unified yet complex vaulted space within which light and air can freely circulate. The light in the nave of SMN contributes significantly to its beauty. Light enters the nave through a variety of windows - through oculi along the clerestory walls and through lancets along the side-aisles, and also through the large oculus of the façade and the triple lancets of the main chapel. The fact that the nave is aligned along a north-south axis rather than the much more usual east-west orientation also affects the quality of the light, especially that which comes through the oculi of the clerestory, casting a glow onto the surfaces of the high vaults. Thus, instead of sunlight coming primarily only from the two ends of the building, as it does in east-west oriented churches, at SMN sunlight streams in all morning through the oculi on one side of the nave and all afternoon on the other, so that the vaulting is perpetually lit with a subtly changing light.

The design of the nave of SMN was highly appreciated in its own day, serving as a structural model for the much larger and even more daring nave of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence, erected in the second half of the 14th century.


But the nave of the Duomo, while impressive because of its unprecedented size, was not as successful structurally as SMN. Caroli, our 15th century observer, praised the vaults of SMN because "they stand without tie rods or other such visible supports but by their very own selves" (Caroli, ib., ASMN I.A.4, f. 22v: «Neque vero cathenis aut aliís huiusmodi apparentibus firmamentis consistit sed in semetipsam illam artifices erigentes egregium ac firmissimum reddidere templum»). At Santa Maria del Fiore, on the other hand, it was necessary soon after construction to stabilize the nave with iron tie rods, still in place today. Nor is the nave of SMF as beautiful and luminous as SMN, in part because the light comes from much higher up and thus penetrates with more difficulty down to the floor of the nave, in part because it is not aligned on a north-south axis. Whatever the reasons, the lack of charm in the nave of the Duomo only serves to set in relief the particular beauty of the nave of SMN, and the skill and vision of its designers and builders.


Elizabeth B. Smith
Associate Professor of Art History
Pennsylvania State University

Grazie alla dott.ssa Smith, che ha scritto appositamente per noi questo bel testo, gennaio 2004

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