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Alberti, Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Alberti, Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1470. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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    In what ways were the Gothic style considered to be 'unordered', in comparison to the more classical styles of Greece and Rome?
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      The gothic is often seen as organic with an emphasis on asymmetry and the irregular while the classical is often seen as an expression of ideal structure, measure, and proportion. This is not necessarily true in many cases but these generalities reflect the historical reputations of each style.
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    Are some sculptures found in a Romanesque church, called Bibles in Stone or illuminated manuscripts?
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      "Bible of Stone" is a medieval cathedral - because the cathedral was built and decorated in such a way that it would teach biblical stories to the illiterate population through art. Illuminated manuscripts are medieval books - manuscript means handwritten and illuminated basically means illustrated.
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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in the piazza just in front of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. We're looking at a facade that was redesigned by Alberti, the great Renaissance architect. - [Dr. Harris] Santa Maria Novella is an important Gothic church here in Florence. - [Dr. Zucker] One of the two mendicant churches in the city. - [Dr. Harris] By that we mean churches founded by the begging orders, the orders of monks who begged for a living. The Dominicans and the Franciscans. Santa Maria Novella is a Dominican church. Now Alberti is coming here is the mid 15th century and his patron is Giovanni Rucellai for whom he also designed a palace just a few blocks away. Rucellai inherited the patronage rights to this church but he inherited it from a family that had already begun to design the facade. - [Dr. Zucker] Alberti had some serious problems here because he was a classicist. That is he wanted his architecture to conform to what he believed to be the ideals of classical beauty. Which were based on perfect geometry and rational order and proportion. - [Dr. Harris] Copying of the rules of architecture handed down from ancient Rome via the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. - [Dr. Zucker] The problem is that this was a Gothic church and Gothic is anything but orderly. - [Dr. Harris] So he took this Gothic church and on it put a classical facade that also recalls the Romanesque tradition of Italy. Specifically the Baptistery of Florence and also the church of San Miniato al Monte which is just outside the center of the city of Florence. - [Dr. Zucker] We can see that especially in the linear geometric patterns that we see. The alternating of the white marble and this green stone. So Alberti had an issue. Not only was he dealing with a Gothic church but there was a preexisting facade that was only partially complete. We're not sure how much of it was there but we think that a number of tombs had already been put in place of which six remain. - [Dr. Harris] As modern viewers we hardly recognize that those niches are in fact, tombs. But that's what they are. - [Dr Zucker] Just above them we see those Gothic arches which we also think predate Alberti. - [Dr. Harris] What Alberti does with this lower story is that he frames it. On each end he gives us a column accompanied by a pier. The column has a Corinthian capital and in the center he gives us a doorway modeled on the Pantheon. So what had been there before was a small doorway and Alberti gives us a magnificent entryway. - [Dr. Zucker] In fact it's easy to picture what that original doorway would have looked like because two earlier doorways still exist. - [Dr. Harris] He defines the edges of the building for us. He defines the center with pilasters with Corinthian capitals, a coffered vault over the entrance. We see these references to ancient Roman architecture. But we also see a references at the top to an ancient Greek temple front. - [Dr. Zucker] It is clearly a temple front. We have a pediment just like we would expect to see on the Parthenon in ancient Greece. We see squared attached columns, pilasters supporting it. That Greek temple front caused a problem for Alberti. If you look at the four pilasters that support the pediment above it those four pilasters are not aligned with pilasters below them as would be appropriate in a classical building. - [Dr. Harris] Of course Alberti was all about following the rules of classical architecture. - [Dr. Zucker] What he does is he wants to distract us. - [Dr Harris] He does that really well. He creates this attic zone and he fills it with this decorative pattern of squares. - [Dr. Zucker] With pattern circles within them. It creates a zone of isolation between the top and the bottom. - [Dr. Harris] There is a sense of rigor and geometric order here. Aside from that one deviation. In fact the whole facade fits into a square. - [Dr. Zucker] That square can be sub-divided into additional squares. If you look at the bottom zone of the church you see that you have two of those squares. Then above that a single centered square. - [Dr. Harris] He's got yet another problem to solve which is that he's got this very tall nave inside the church and then the shorter aisles on either side. So how to unify those two. He comes up with an ingenious solution and that is to use these S-shaped scrolls to unify the top and bottom stories. - [Dr. Zucker] Now he hadn't invented the idea of the scroll. This time he's borrowing it from the lantern of Brunelleschi's Dome which is just a couple of blocks away. - [Dr. Harris] Then he also puts a rosette inside that scroll and so it echos the round window in the center of the building and that roundel is also repeated above in the pediment where we see a child's face in the middle of a sunburst. Communicating the idea of the resurrection of the afterlife. - [Dr. Zucker] Least we forget who was paying for all of this. Just below that sun we see Giovanni Rucellai's name as patron. - [Dr. Harris] We also see his family insignia in the wind-blown sails that decorate the freeze. - [Dr. Zucker] Those sails are meant to references the idea that he hoped that through his faith he might sail to salvation. - [Dr. Harris] The Rucellai were a very wealthy family in Florence, but the Rucellai were not as wealthy and powerful as the Medici family. We see the Medici crest, the diamond with three feathers emerging from it right over the central doorway of the church. - [Dr. Zucker] So we can see expression of the Rucellai's loyalty to the Medici here. - [Dr. Harris] It's so easy to walk by this church and miss all of this. But the 15th century is alive here in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. (upbeat piano music)