29th March 2008
We chose Santa Maria Novella, not because it’s a stones throw from the station, nor because of it’s ornate green and white marble façade but because it really is a marvel. So jam packed with Renaissance goodies that at two and a half euros for the entrance it’s got to be the best value for money in town.
Green and white marble facade
Despite the lure of an early Masaccio fresco and the tormented beauty of Brunelleschi’s crucifix, what really does it for me is the Tornabuoni chapel, frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The name Ghirlandaio means garland maker and was a nickname passed down by his father, a goldsmith who made gold garland-like necklaces for the wealthy women of Florence. From his father’s workshop Ghirlandaio was said to have begun his career making drawings of the passers-by.
His skill for portraiture is displayed at it’s best in these striking frescos commissioned by the banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni. Despite the subject matter being the lives of the Madonna and St John the Baptist there are no fewer than 21 portraits of members of the Tornabuoni family and their circle depicted here. This might explain why certain illustrious ladies of Florentine society are shown as if present at the births of both St John and the Virgin. These beauties include the ill-fated Ludovica Tornabuoni, the patron’s only daughter, who never saw her prominent portrait as she was to die in childbirth aged 15 before it was finished, making the scene even more poignant.
Ludovica Tornabuoni, 5th from the left, by Domenico Ghirlandaio
As a snapshot of 15th Century life in Florence, no frescos are more fascinating. There is a strange, almost Disney-like quality to them and the interior detail is compelling. Imagine the impact when these gaudy scenes were revealed to the god-fearing Florentine masses in all their technicolour glory. Here there are no imaginary celestial settings but the real, elaborate halls and bed chambers of contemporary Florence, peopled by the wives and daughters of the rich. In a world without glossy magazines, TV shows or shopping channels they were like a Florentine soap-opera, the first ever reality show and they caused a sensation. John Ruskin snippily said of them that “if you are nice person they are not nice enough” and “if you are a vulgar person, not vulgar enough”.
To me they are nice and vulgar!
As you leave you may notice a large carved, wooden pulpit, it was from here that the zealous Dominicans first denounced Galileos daring realisation that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round. And, in a dimly lit corner with no label or sign attached, is a small but exquisite water stoop carved by a young Michelangelo. All this for two and a half euros! What more could you ask for, (although marito remarked cynically that it used to be free).
The best thing I ate;
It’s a little early I know (the true season for Italian asparagus being the end of April to the end of June) but I just can’t wait. Slowly, gradually it is beginning to appear on the market stalls. I’ve been holding back knowing my greed for asparagus knows no bounds, not wanting to waste the first taste of the year on something lacking and inferior. But then, as luck would have it, I was invited to join some neighbours for supper and there it was, the first course. A large white platter, piled high with beautiful, glistening spears of silky green asparagus, briefly boiled and tender to the bite. The partner to this heavenly vision was a large bowl of lovely, fat, wobbly home-made mayonnaise. And so, I declare the asparagus season (in this house) has begun.
Where to get it;
Anywhere you can, before I do.